Culture, Clothing, and Modesty

This post is a long overdue response to Alice’s following comment:

I wondered how you would respond to the argument that standards of what are masculine and feminine change between cultures. For instance, in China, women traditionally wore pajama-type garments (pants) and men wore robes; also white is the color of mourning, and black for a wedding. Again, in the Middle East, both men and women traditionally wore robes, although of somewhat different style, perhaps.

So how would you answer someone who says, in the 1800s there was definitely a difference between men and women as far as pants, but now the public conception has changed, so the application of this law has changed? I’ve also heard it said that women’s pants are cut differently, etc, so they count as specifically feminine.

So does modest and feminine clothing according to our faith in Jesus have a particular form? How far should culture inform what Christians wear? These are tough questions for me to answer. I’ll try to give my stance on this issue as completely as I can.

Most western Christian women have settled this question in favor of wearing only dresses and skirts as distinctly feminine and modest. In the United States, a woman so clothed is easily recognized as a religious person within the confines of our culture.

A woman who wears a hijab (headscarf) and long cloak-like garment is distinguishable as a Muslim, possibly from different country. If she is from Afghanistan or India, she may wear a salwar kameez outfit consisting a long tunic and loose pants. She is still considered modest and feminine.

From my experiences of other cultures, I believe that dresses and skirts are not the only way to be modest and God-honoring. To impose this standard on a woman who lives in a culture where this is not a norm would be extraneous or burdensome. Most every culture has a code of what is considered “proper” for women to expose and not. The women in a bush tribe in New Guinea may only wear a grass “apron” around their waist, but without it, they would feel as naked as we would with it.

I think women should find the more conservative end of their cultural standard and dress that way. For us in the United States, dresses are the way. If you have no idea of a cultural standard, because there hasn’t been one for a long time, find one that covers you from neck to below the knees. Men are still wired the same to be visually stimulated from the female’s body, no matter the shifting standards. This would include the crotch area, which is why salwar kameezes cover down to the mid-thigh, as well as most other costumes I’ve seen women wear.
A woman visiting a different culture should also be sensitive to what their standards are. I know the Vatican issues paper hospital-like gowns to improperly dressed tourists!  How embarrassing to be so tagged as immodest in a religious setting.

Alice also expressed her concern over wearing scrubs pants for her profession. She can still try to choose feminine colors or patterns (if she’s allowed to choose) for her scrub tops. I know its hard to make those choices in one’s workplace, but God understands. She has a modest heart, which is the important thing. One can wear the”right” clothing and be lascivious in behavior.

As always, I’d love to know what you think!

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4 Responses to “Culture, Clothing, and Modesty”


  1. 1 Dr. Alice May 30, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    Thanks for the reply. As for the scrubs, I thought about fiddling with them somehow, but decided that since, in my job around surgical and trauma patients all the time (unlike perhaps nurses on more staid floors) the main purpose of scrubs is to get dirty and be washed by the hospital laundry, I’m not going to do anything distinctive. Another reason long white coats are great. 🙂

  2. 2 MInTheGap June 21, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    I think you did a good job here with a hard topic. I think that there are things that we can all agree needs to be covered for both men and ladies. And there needs to be a distinction

    The only difference I have with you may be whether it’s appropriate for women in other countries to only wear an apron, and that would be because I haven’t thought about it enough. Is the woman’s chest truly something that ought to be covered because it is sexual or have we made it that way.

    Good questions.

  3. 3 karen September 16, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    I have recently started wearing salwar kameez in addition to dresses/skirts. (kinda weird thing for a short, pale, baptist girl to wear I know – but they are pretty and colorful) My rules for them as far a modesty goes is that they are to look like a dress with leggings – the kameez (top) should go to the knees or nearby and the salwar (bottoms) should be kinda close fitting.
    I want someone who sees me from a distance to think I am wearing a dress and that I am a woman. A preacher once mentioned that our dress (Christian men and women) should be modest and distinct from each other and that is my rule of thumb now. I have denim knee-length shorts but I finally stopped wearing them after being convicted that while they weren’t short they were immodest because of the cut and because from a distance I wasn’t distinct.
    BTW-this is my own personal opinion, but it women’s pants are feminine – why does the bathroom show a woman wearing a skirt?

  4. 4 Barbara July 17, 2008 at 9:59 am

    I have been pondering this whole “modesty/no pants” thing for honest reasons, but logistics are kicking me “in the pants” here and I have been trying to figure out where the whole “no pants” thing came from – given that women are admonished (by Paul, not by Jesus) not to dress like a man; and yet, men didn’t wear pants in those days either. Seems to be more of a cultural thing (and Paul’s own preference, recognizing his distinctive pharasaical background) than anything else.

    I was having trouble with the idea when considering the fact that I’m my own “plumber/electrician/painter” and my teenaged daughter is the only one light enough to replace the shingles on my roof without falling through the weakened roofboards (I can’t afford professional repairs and there are no men to help)…and I considered the logistics of it even more so while out riding my bicycle today (exercise & a much more time-efficient mode of transportation than walking the 5 miles to town, and it burns no gas) and I thought about the reality of such a limitation when it comes to bicycling in July Georgia Heat/Humidity. It requires bared skin (so the sweaty clothes don’t stick to you) and frequent watering-down. Absolutely unimaginable to think of being covered in this heat with fabrics that could easily catch in gears and cause injury.

    Many sites just simply fail to realize the reality of the plight of women who simply don’t have their idea of the “ideal” life, one which they base on a single bible verse taken somewhat out of context from the passage surrounding it to start with. And so I thank you for a more understanding view of things like pants, because frankly many of those things I’ve seen that advertise to “draw the eye to the face rather than to the body” are so starkly “different” that it shoots itself in the foot: the eye is drawn to the obvious difference in the clothing and no one in the general public would ever see the face for staring at it. Our separation from the world is primarily from a regenerated heart/spirit anyway; the rest becomes a natural outpouring of that through the fruits of the Spirit. Just as I’ve seen many church groups of ladies hold onto hairstyles from the 1960s as somehow “holy”, I don’t see us picking and choosing a time period from history to dress as to be “holy”. If we approach it from a pure, regenerated (born again of God) heart rather than from a set of man-made rules (which Jesus Himself came to free us from to return us to the heart of the law rather than the letter of it), the way we dress will ultimately reflect who we are inside. I’m sorry if this rambles.


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