Clothing and Culture


September 24, 2013 by lucieromarin

One day, when I should have been working, I typed ‘Hutterite’ into Amazon to see what would happen. I found – amongst other things – what looked like a self-published detective series featuring Hutterites. The first novel was entitled, ‘Blood on Her Bonnet,’ and I thought, Oi! Hutterites don’t wear bonnets! They wear polka-dotted scarves! Then I thought, Lucy, you know way too much about head-coverings.

Clothing is a fascinating topic, especially as it relates to culture. The trouble is that the subject gets hijacked at both ends: at one end, there’s the fashion industry telling us to change our entire wardrobes every season, so we can have sweat-shop labour and landfill; at the other end, there are feminists and misogynists making judgmental remarks about other people’s minds or morals based upon their choices of dress, causing fights where there should be conversations.

The topic is also muddied by the internet. See, anyone with a few fingers and a laptop can publish his opinions online, and this enables subcultures to emerge where once there were only a handful of unconnected eccentrics about whom nobody cared. Three women in ankle-length denim skirts is shrug-worthy, and excites nobody. Three websites praising the wearing of ankle-length denim skirts is a subculture, and excites equal amounts of ire and praise, and sometimes books about about gender issues.

One reader noted that Protestants do tend to fill the denim-jumper stereotype more often than Catholics do. They’ve also such a proliferation of dress-related books, sites, blogs, and home-businesses that it makes the occasional Catholic sermon and/or flame war about modesty look positively slack. Even during the flurry of activism that was the nineteen-nineties, in the City of Activism that was Sydney, the occasional attempt among Catholic women to form some kind of group or movement related to dress invariably came to nothing. Why?

I think it’s because there was so much else to care about. It’s easy to attribute some of the extreme Protestant opinions about dress to misogyny alone, but I don’t think that’s correct. Where there’s no Sacred Liturgy to sustain or restore; no universal Church to rebuild in the wake of modernism; no hierarchy left except that in the home (and so, no bishops to fight with/complain about); no convents or monasteries to visit and refill; no ash on your forehead, no crucifix around your neck…what’s left to engage with, but clothing?

Intra-cultural issues are just as interesting as their inter-cultural counterparts, and they always remind me that the most subtle-yet-important nuances of dress-culture are invisible to those for whom clothing has never signified community. People look at hijabi and niqabi Muslimahs alike, exclaiming, “Ack! Muslims!” – never guessing that a rift exists between the two, and that the niqabi might look down on her hijabi sisters almost as much as she looks down on the infidel. Catholics have their own equivalent: the collared-and-cassocked priest makes a loud, clear statement to his collared-and-black-suited counterpart, while, to the outside, all that can be seen is that both are conservative enough to wear the clerical collar, and the outsider, missing the rest of the story, says only, “Ack! Priests!”

Am I the only person who thinks this kind of thing is fun? It’s like bird-watching. It’s like reading code – which is why it pays not to judge people too quickly, or you’ll miss all the interesting things their clothes have to tell you.

The practice of a dress-code can be fun, too, and it will never be comprehensible to those who think that any kind of mandated dress must be oppressive. It certainly can be oppressive – anyone who has ever suffered scruples can testify to this – but to say that it must always be so is like saying that a sonnet must be an oppressive kind of poem because it has rules.

This is true even of people who belong to what I wouldn’t hesitate to call cults. I grew up near a community of Plymouth Brethren, so I thought I had them very neatly categorised, no further thoughts about them necessary. A few months ago, though, I got the shock of my life; I was visiting a very cool Japanese stationery store and turned around to see an EB mother and her two daughters there…and the girls were funky. (I don’t mean American ‘funky’ – I mean Australian ‘funky’ which means something like ‘cool’, but more edgy.) They were following the rules – long straight skirt…long hair…headcovering (one of them had gone for the headband-and-flower look, which seems to have entered the EB repertoire in the past decade)…but some combination of colour, style, and attitude…well, all I can say is that they were funky Plymouth Brethren, and I never in a million years thought I’d see such a thing.

Hmmmm. I see that I’ve written over seven hundred words, and have said precisely nothing, other than that clothing is interesting and that different cultures do things differently, which everyone knew already. So I’ll end by saying that the next post will be far more organised, and will be about clothing and virtue, and why anyone bothers making clothing a virtue-issue at all. It will be full of Thomism and definitions and things, so that should make up for this directionless series of thoughts about garb-spotting!

7 thoughts on “Clothing and Culture

  1. Amanda says:

    Hmm. Did you see the blogpost by that US evangelical woman who was ticking off teenaged girls for posting pictures of themselves in their pyjamas (which she and her husband had been looking at when they were going through their sons’ facebook pages), lavishly illustrated with pictures of her sons flexing their muscles in nothing but swimming trunks? She didn’t really get why people thought she had double standards, but she obligingly changed the pictures and re-posted the post, otherwise unchanged. It’s sad when women are encouraged to invest so much in a bunch of incoherent and trivial ideas – about dress, sexuality, Other Women, family, male=’visual’, lustful/female=apparently without desire, and saddest of all, I suppose: the idea that you can and should control your children’s ideas, beliefs, experiences, desires by shutting out the world around them, rather than teaching them good principles and to respect and empathise with other people.

    The whole ‘modesty’ thing is really just women not expecting men to respect them for themselves, or expecting men to take any kind of responsibilty for their own thoughts. It is both a submission to mythologies about male sexuality that are designed to legitimise male desires, and a way of showing contempt for men: men might hold all the public power in the world, but if they get a glimpse of MY legs, they will crumble! They are lustful! They are weak! They must be protected from ME! It’s a perverted kind of vanity: telling yourself that you embody Temptation unless you cover yourself. But it’s a poor compensation for being excluded from any important public roles. And, sadly, what most women who go on about modesty are really thinking is: men need to be protected from those horrible Other Women by whom they might be distracted – so it’s the old competition between women too. It also means a woman spends far too much time thinking about what men might or might not be thinking when they look at her, rather than, say, about what interesting or useful things she might do that day. Me: I think everyone can manage quite nicely whatever I wear (which they probably won’t notice anyway) and I’m not going either to encourage them to think that they can’t. I also have far too much respect for the men around me to try to control what they see and how they think about it. I’m sure it doesn’t work anyway: as we learn, there’s nothing so sexually provocative as a woman in hijab: suddenly a wisp of her hair becomes too much for a man to cope with and he just has to harrass/rape/arrest her. No, the fact is that the only thing that stops a man from having out of control sexual thoughts, or even from raping women, is the way he learns to think about women and his own privilege in relation to them. The cult of modesty prevents men from learning that, while massively reinforcing their sense of privilege (all women must compromise their personal freedom so that I am comfortable in the world), and consequently, is dangerous.

    I don’t suppose you’ll like any of this, but it’s important. There are a lot of good discussions on the subject by former US evangelicals – once again, I recommend this blog: And this post is particularly useful along the lines I’ve mentioned:

    • lucieromarin says:

      Well. I guess it’s leetle bit sweeping to say that the ‘whole’ thing is ‘really just’ – which implies that it’s impossible for women or men to have any thoughts or experiences beyond those discussed in particular internet circles. Still – you’re right about the double-standard, and it’s a pretty awful to see any virtue reduced to ‘sex-and-power’ instead of being about God! Re double-standards, I loved this piece from Seraphic:

      • Amanda says:

        That post of Seraphic’s is absolutely brilliant. Thanks for sharing it.

        Sweeping, undoubtedly – but isn’t it the case that what constitutes ‘modesty’ is so subjective (see for example these photos – sorry I can’t find better quality – have lost page where I originally saw them, but you get the point: that it more or less has to be relational; has to be about negotiating the external gaze provided by a specific social/religious/cultural group? Tell me if I’m missing something here, though – I’m interested.

      • lucieromarin says:

        I’m sure most people would agree that there’s a subjective element to all dress, (another reason why Catholics don’t have uniform dress any more than we have a uniform liturgy) and it certainly is relational. All clothing is. What’s missing from the sweeping statement is the acknowledgement of the multiplicity of ideas, experiences, and interpretations that inform the choice of modesty beyond its subjective and relational aspects. In your defence, though, it can be pretty difficult to encounter that multiplicity for the unfortunate reason that a lot of modesty-apologetic itself reduces the virtue to the issue of male lust – see Seraphic again:

        I can’t do justice to your question in a combox; it will have to become a post (in due course!). But if you don’t mind listening to me go on and on about it, you could try this (I DIDN’T choose the title OR write the blurb):

  2. Amanda says:

    I look forwards to the eventual post on modesty beyond subjective and relational aspects! I imagine it would be of use to many more people than just me, because you’re right: mainstream discourse on the subject is very focused on the subjective.

    I did get the impression from your talk that one reason for dressing ‘modestly’ was to bring inner and outer states into alignment, partly for advertising purposes – although it seems worth pointing out that this strategy works both ways. There are people who would probably be more attracted to a religion if its followers didn’t look any different from other people, didn’t look ‘weird’ 😉 – and this is certainly the recruitment principle followed by many evangelical groups. But returning to your deeper point about inner and outer person (which is interesting and makes a lot of sense) I suppose I still feel that decisions about what constitutes a ‘modest’ appearance are subjective, and in many senses reactive. Does not your sense of what *is* modest still draw on the definitions of modesty offered by those groups preoccupied with the male gaze? So you almost get *more* drawn into the more superficial/sexist aspects because it has become so important to you to express your inner sense of self through dress. Does that make any sense?

    At its most basic, I see women obsessing about how they look, and fussing over what effect their clothes will have on men, or on colleagues, or friends, or the world around them; feeling constrained – either to cover up or to uncover to extremes; feeling judged; being hugely encouraged to judge each other… while men, masters of the universe, have a very simple relationship with clothes, and are catered for by a clothing industry that doesn’t expect grown men to change what they wear from year to year according to ‘fashion’, provides them with clothes that fit well and look smart, shoes that both look good and they can walk in, and basically doesn’t demand much time or attention from them. And even when, despite all this, they look a mess, no one really cares all that much. We have exactly the opposite situation. And we’re so self-conscious and desperate to please. This is the marker of a second-class citizen at best. And from *this* perspective I really don’t see any important differences between ‘modesty’ or lack of modesty if it is something that occupies your time and thoughts. How can you really tell what’s socialisation and what God cares about? I guess my question to the religious person is: aren’t there far better things to do with your time and energy, even within the paradigms you’ve set up beyond the male gaze issue?

    • lucieromarin says:

      Yes, I agree with most of this (I do think that the fashion industry, though, is trying to change the male relationship with clothing.) You’ll have to let me answer your last question with both a ‘no’ and a ‘yes.’ No – if you mean that the more important things are a reason for tossing aside the less important things. Yes – if you mean that this particular good habit is not meant to be the be-all and the end-all. For me, modesty is meant to be something like courtesy; just a daily part of life like being punctual, saying “Excuse me,’ when I step around someone, and so on. But I think that God wants more of me than my commitment to the basic courtesies! A religious sister wears her habit every day, and it’s important that she does, but she doesn’t spend the rest of her day just sitting around thinking and talking about the habit – she spends her day in prayer, in the soup kitchen, in the study, in the homeless shelter and so on.

      • Amanda says:

        The religious habit is an interesting example: it provides modesty without the need for individuals to apply their minds to the problem. If all women who wanted to look ‘modest’ just wore some identical secular version of the habit, I suppose all the conversations would end. Which may say something about the more complex motivations of ‘modesty’ aspirants.

        Some more quick questions
        1) In your talk, you used examples of allegedly immodest women against which to define true modesty – so an element of judging others by your own standards remains. Doesn’t this lead to ‘unchristian’ thoughts quite often? Isn’t that always the risk of making such a strong link between inner state and dress? People feel that they can ‘see’ what kind of a person someone is, morally, without getting to know them.

        2) following from this, isn’t there a class aspect to the whole thing? You have to be pretty middle class, or imitating middle class standards, to adopt the sort of clothing aesthetic that seems to express Catholic ideals of modesty. If you were part of a very poor working class community, especially in a rough area, you might be running serious physical risks by dressing in a fashion that would certainly be perceived as ‘posh’.

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