Instead of answering the question “What is modest fashion,” it would be better to ask what the purpose of modest fashion is.
The Problem with Defining “Modest Fashion”
The reason for this is because it’s all but impossible to define what modest fashion should be. There are too many subjective factors. For example, if we try to define “modest fashion” by how sexy I look, then we have to take into account my weight, age, and body type. My body type means I can’t wear crop tops without seeming too sexy, but what if I’m over-weight? Is anyone attracted to me if I’m over-weight? If not, then is it okay to wear a crop top because it’s not causing anyone to lust after me? What if I’m old? Can I wear a bikini as an old woman because (supposedly) no one lusts after old women?
Another factor to consider is culture. What’s considered modest in one culture is still immodest in another culture. For example, if you look at modest fashion in American Christian circles, it’s defined by the 50s hourglass silhouette and covering up the chest. We can still show off our feminine figure with a belt or cinched waist. There’s not a lot of “to do” about sleeves, but we must cover our legs and chest. But if you look at “modest fashion” in other cultures, there are some who say everything should be covered, including arms, wrists, hair, and necks. Whether you should accentuate your waist or feminine figure, is also hotly debated.
What is the Purpose of Modest Fashion?
No matter where you land in the debate of what is acceptable or not acceptable, if you’re a woman of God then your goal is to dress in a way that glorifies Him. A person who is modest knows that she is not the be-all-and-end-all of the world and that knowledge affects everything. “There is a God, and I’m not Him,” should be the motto of our modesty.
If that is true, then modest fashion should be an outward sign of our submission to the Lord. God “dressed” the lilies of the field (Matt 6:28-30). He designed the beautiful coats and skins we see on the animals of the world. Yet He allowed us to make choices about our clothing like He allowed us the choice to love and worship Him.
Modest Fashion Can Highlight Our Behavior
Part of the reason I’m so fascinated with modest fashion is because of the time I spent in Istanbul. During my first year there, I worked as a teacher at a religious Muslim school. I adored my students, as well as my co-workers, but one of the things that bothered me was the way everyone treated “modest fashion.” To be honest, the way I dressed then wasn’t much different from how I dress now. It wasn’t what I was wearing that bothered me, but the why. I had to dress conservatively to meet other people’s standards, or else. Or else what? Who knows, but I didn’t want to find out.
While I’ve already talked about the dangers of dressing out of fear, I also recognize that I didn’t have much of a choice at the time. This was the culture I was living in (a culture that wasn’t as strict outside of the school, by the way). So I decided to take my limitations and understand the heart of God when it came to fashion. The more I prayed and studied, the more I was at peace with the new “uniform of modesty.”
See, I realized that I was one of the few practicing Christians with whom my students had any meaningful interactions. I wanted to give them an idea of what living as a Christian looked like. I didn’t want to convert them, but to give them a more nuanced understanding. Like Paul said in 1 Timothy 2:9-10, I let my actions as a Christian be my adornment, not my clothing and accessories (although I didn’t forego those entirely; I’m no saint). If my personal fashion choices were going to distract them from the love of Christ through me, then why would I not police my clothing?
Modest Fashion Doesn’t Always Mean Blending In
While dressing like everyone else glorified God in that situation, that doesn’t apply to all situations.
Throughout the Bible, God uses clothing to award distinction and honor on His people. He instructed the Levitical priests to dress in particular ways as a symbol of God’s grace and mercy. Joseph was given a beautiful coat as a sign of honor and grace at the beginning of his story. By the end, he’d earned the honor to wear even greater things. In both of these examples, clothing is given to the wearer as a symbol of God’s glory and grace.
While I do not always treat clothing this way (although I should), I remember a time at church when God used my fashion choices for His glory. That Sunday morning, I felt inspired to dress in a way that was pretty unconventional for the area I lived in. It involved weird layers, fun prints, and my favorite accessory, the scarf. I felt beautiful, creative, and free, and I walked into church feeling fantastic.
As I walked in, I noticed that I’d caught the attention of a teenage girl in the pew behind me. I could tell by her fashion and make-up that she was going through an experimental phase in her life. She was trying to work out her identity, and her clothing reflected that.
I knew that because I was once a young teenager myself doing the same thing. I remembered seeing women in the church who dressed in ways that were both beautiful and unconventional. Seeing these kinds of women in the church, of all places, had given me hope then. I remembered thinking that if God could accept these women, in all of their brilliant weirdness, then He could accept me. Now God was telling me to dress that way because He wanted me to be that woman for someone else.
I realized then that modest fashion is not about rules you should follow. It’s more about reflecting the character of God, in all of His kaleidoscopic glory.
What Does Modest Fashion Look Like For You?
I hope you understand by now that modest fashion is as complicated and fascinating as the God that created it. He is, after all, using us to explore what modest fashion means. With that said, what does modest fashion look like in your life? Do you wear scarves? Long sleeves, short sleeves? Prints, or solids? Does it mean dressing plainly, or do you dress more flashy? Has it changed over time, like it has for me? Let me know in the comments below!