Modesty is a Virtue Not a Dress Code

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Oh man, if you want to get a bunch of people heated up, start talking about what constitutes modest apparel and what doesn’t. Chances are people are going to disagree, some very strongly. Other will fall back to their own views and standards for themselves and let others be, while some will blast anyone who wears what they deem as immodest with slanderous names and labels.Fantastic article on modesty. Great definition on modesty - what it really means to be modest, wear modest clothes, and why this virtue matters or not anyway.It seems like today people cannot separate clothes and modesty. Clothing must either be modest or immodest. However, different people, churches, cultures, societies, schools, etc have their own different guidelines detailing what they deem “modest” and appropriate apparel. (Yoga pants anyone?)

But, using the term modest to describe clothing is a bit erroneous. Clothes are not necessarily modest or immodest on their own, and is often a matter of function as much as it is in coverage.

To simply say a shirt is modest because it has sleeves or doesn’t have a plunging V-neck, is not necessarily true for all who may wear that one same shirt. Two or more people can wear the same piece of clothing and have it fit them differently, being tighter or looser, longer or shorter. While it may appropriately cover one person (to one group’s standards), it may not another. Are we then blaming the clothing for being indecisive in its level of modesty?

When we argue over what is or is not a modest article of clothing, we completely miss what we are really arguing about – modesty.

Modesty is a virtue, a virtue not based upon clothing, but that clothing can help reflect.

What does it really mean to be modest and to dress modestly?

To actually be modest, it takes more than a certain sleeve or hem length, because modesty is a virtue not a dress code.

Modesty is about being free from vanity, egotism, boastfulness, pretensions, showy extravagance, and ostentation. Modesty is showing a moderate or humble estimate of one’s merits. But, it’s also respective of decencies of behavior, speech, and yes, dress. (source)

I grew up attending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and was taught about modest and immodest clothing frequently from my mother and church leaders. I stuck by our church’s council to wear only tops with sleeves and wear only shorts and skirts that came down to my knee, as well as to keep the neckline high. I was modestly dressed as much as possible at all times, including at school dances and at the pool where I sported my basic one-piece swimming suit. I have always dressed in accordance with the dress standards listed in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet issued by the LDS Church and embraced the often recited “Modest is the Hottest” at summer camps and youth dances.

But, as an adult I see the fallacy in the overemphasis of modesty being tied so closely with certain dress standards.

Fantastic article on modesty. Great definition on modesty - what it really means to be modest, wear modest clothes, and why this virtue matters or not anyway.Fashion and Modesty

A while ago I read this article from LDSLiving and a part of it really bugged me. The article was specifically talking about how to help youth see modesty differently, yet one of the five points was “Teach youth that it is not vain, worldly, or a sin to dress nicely — you can dress nicely, stylishly, and modestly.”

To back up her position, she quotes Elder Jeffrey R. Holland speaking about Sunday dress. His remark about attire were in regards to worshiping and partaking of the Sacrament and how we should come as respectfully as possible to do so. His point was modesty: being respective of the occasion at hand.

Wearing a bathing suit to a church service is of course grossly inappropriate (immodest), not because of the amount of skin necessarily being shown, but because of the situation it is being shown in, as it is drawing undue attention to yourself and shows that you did not care enough about where you were going to wear something more befitting of what you would be doing. Nowhere in his quote did he say anything about someone’s “best dress” or “Sunday dress” being stylish or handsome. In fact, he said our clothing and footwear “indeed should not be expensive.”

She again backs up her position by telling a story about a stylish, yet modest, woman who always dressed so beautifully not only on Sundays but on weekdays too, whom she greatly admired from her teen years. She could “recognize that she had respect for herself.”

While a story about a well-dressed woman is nice, as is respecting yourself, it is not necessary to dress beautifully or stylishly in order to respect yourself or the Lord. 

It is my (very) strong opinion that a discussion of stylish dress and modesty do not belong in the same conversation, especially when that conversation happens at church. We should not be preaching to our youth how to look attractive, or even “hot” when discussing the important virtue of modesty.

The commonly used phrase “modest is the hottest” is something we should stop teaching our youth as it an oxymoron.Fantastic article on modesty. Great definition on modesty - what it really means to be modest, wear modest clothes, and why this virtue matters or not anyway.

Last year a beauty contestant said:

I’m a firm believer in not just being modest, but you can also be absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, not just beautiful.

I feel like girls don’t feel that way. They think that it’s a step down if you’re modest. They don’t think you can be absolutely gorgeous, but I felt that way. I felt like, ‘You know what? This dress is amazing, and I feel gorgeous in it — and I’m modest.” (source)

While this contestant’s choice of swim and ball attire may have covered her skin more than any other contestant’s, the fact that she was even in a beauty pageant, begs the question of how is she modest at all when the very nature of what she was doing went against the true essence of modesty?

If you are on display for all eyes to see, to be judged for how you look, in order to prove you are better than another, how exactly can you claim you are modest?

Modesty is free from vanity. Modesty is free from egotism, boastfulness, and pretensions. Modesty is free from ostentation or showy extravagance!

A beauty pageant is none of those things.

The talk of attractiveness/sexiness/stylishness in a discussion of true modesty doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as the two qualities oppose each other. Modesty is a quality that should be preached and taught in churches, but not if the only reason we are doing so is to encourage teenagers (and adults) to cover themselves more.

Fantastic article on modesty. Great definition on modesty - what it really means to be modest, wear modest clothes, and why this virtue matters or not anyway.How do you know if you are dressing immodestly?

The fact is that many of us dress very immodestly today.  Many of us proudly strut our stuff because we know we look good. We seek attention from others, compliments on appearance, on our makeup, on our outfits, and even on how nice we smell.

Many of us behave immodestly today. We praise people for being bold, for being aggressive, assertive, and proud. Many of us talk about things publicly that shouldn’t be or use foul language around children or excessively in everyday speech. Many of us crave attention, recognition, and praise, and will even go to extreme measures in order to receive it. We try hard to stick out and to be different.

And none of those things are modest. Period.

In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array. – 1 Timothy 2:9

When you study the scriptures, you will find many cautions against flashy (immodest) apparel, many which you see still today:

  • broided hair, well-set hair
  • gold, silver, pearls
  • costly array; very costly apparel
  • changeable suits of apparel
  • mantles, wimples, and crisping pins
  • fine apparel, fine linens, fine silks, hoods, and veils
  • rings, earrings, and nose jewels
  • bonnets and headbands
  • ornaments of the legs
  • bracelets, mufflers, and chains

The problems associated with the wearing of fine, costly, fancy apparel is its propensity toward pride, high heads, stiff necks, selfishness, scornful and despising attitudes, and persecution against their brethren: the poor, the needy, and even those who believe (and live) differently. When people are carried away into their own fashionable pursuits and interests there are more envyings, strife, malice, inequalities, iniquities, and divisions.

Isaiah warned that:

Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretch forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet, the Lord will smite them with a scab on the crown of their heads, will take away their bravery, replace their sweet smell with stink, their well set hair with baldness, their beauty with burning, their girdle with a rent, and their stomacher with a girding of sackcloth. (Isaiah 3:16-24)

The discussion of fashion, style, beauty, hottness, attractiveness have no place within a Church of Christ because such things more often than not lead to pride, selfishness, and contempt toward others.  These are qualities unfit of a Christian trying to emulate the Lord.

Have the courage to dress in a way which will send a message that [your] standards are different. Our dress will reflect the way we intend to live, founded on principles of the gospel of our Lord and Savior.” – President Spencer W. Kimball

No, I’m not saying someone who dresses fashionably is not a true Christian. No, I’m not saying you have to wear a Burka in order to be modest, or that by doing so you’d be a better Christian.

What I am saying is you need to check your heart.

I would suggest that the true definition of dressing immodestly would be strongly rooted in the way you feel as you wear something. If what you wear makes you feel boastful, vain, egotistic, or sexy it is not modest. If what you wear makes you feel humble, decent, reserved, respectable, and appropriate, chances are it’s modest. And, I’m pretty sure most people will be able to handle this test on their own, and without a litany of hemline rules or shoulder strap measurements.

The Benefits of Modesty

Often it is by dressing modestly that our true personality is allowed to shine. It is when we present ourselves modest in dress, grooming, and behavior, that we can finally remove ourselves from ourselves. We free our self-worth from our appearance. We free ourselves from the idea that we are only valuable if someone finds us beautiful and desirable. We free our lives from the need to always put our best face forward at all time. In so doing, we can actually be humble, be modest.

When we respect ourselves enough to get over our society’s pressure to always look our best, we receive a greater sense of our true individual worth.  When we embrace modesty, we stop comparing our merits, accomplishments, character, clothing, finances, and homes to another. We become more humble, more loving, and less judgmental, while at the same time becoming more confident in who we really are.

Truly embracing the virtue of modesty, allows us to more fully experience the influence of the Holy Spirit, as we are better able to control and train away the desires of the “natural man” to be physically minded. With modesty we stop seeking the praise of men more than God, as our hearts and minds have been humbled.Fantastic article on modesty. Great definition on modesty - what it really means to be modest, wear modest clothes, and why this virtue matters or not anyway.That’s why it’s bizarre that so many (self-)righteous individuals feel the need to judge another’s clothing choices, comparing their own “modest” clothing choices against someone else’s. Comparing is not what modesty is all about. Comparing is still emphasizing you and the clothes you wear and how you present yourself. Drawing attention to yourself is not modest.

We may not always appreciate the clothing choices of people around us, as they may be inappropriate for the situation, show too much of themselves, or are just not tasteful; however, we need to remember that these people are still more than the clothes they wear, the haircut they have, or the amount of makeup they apply.

Everyone deserves respect and love. Everyone deserves to be treated like a human being, and not a tool for their personal satisfaction. Everyone is trying to find their way to happiness, fulfillment, and acceptance. Degrading another for their choices in appearance is not Christ-like. Criticizing another brother or sister (in Christ) because their skirt was just a little too short, is not going to help you get to heaven any faster, especially if your remark keeps the receiver from coming back to Church.

If you are truly modest, you are able to see past your own clothes, and of another, because you understand that clothing doesn’t define who we are. God still loves us all, no matter what we are wearing, or if we are modest or not.

But like all virtues, it is not actually desired by all. Some people don’t really care to be modest, and many today mock it as something worth pursuing.

Being modest is a life-long pursuit, and not a matter of shopping from “modest” clothing chains all the time. Modesty, like all virtues, is challenging to achieve perfectly. I do believe modesty is still an important characteristic for people to strive to achieve in their lifetimes, as anti-first-World society as that may seem. I believe this because I understand that people are more than clothes or appearances. The more I embrace my own personal modesty, the more I see through the outside to the inside of a person. It’s often very hard to do when our society is so rooted in appearance, commercialism, first impressions, and snap judgments. But, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I know I need to overcome those societal norms.

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  1. Becca says

    Thank you. I almost cried reading this post. I am LDS too; and I personally feel that so many of the messages I received as a youth – which are not doctrine, but cultural, and so you may not have received the same messages – about being modest “so boys don’t have impure thoughts” were so damaging. I internalised the message that boys and men can’t control themselves and that if something happens to me, it’s my fault – and clearly that’s just plain wrong.. Now I live in Australia and the Utah Mormon cultural rules of modesty simply don’t apply here; people show a lot more skin, and it’s not considered sexual. I’ve also had the experience of living in Egypt, where Utah Mormon cultural rules of modesty are sort of the bare minimum standard. Modesty when it comes to rules – length of skirt, how much cleavage you’re showing, etc. – are purely cultural. But *true* modesty – that is something we need to emphasise. And it is *so much harder*. (I was going to all-caps that but I didn’t want you to think I’m yelling at you.)

    BTW, I’ve spent many years studying Egyptian feminism. What you said about modesty freeing us from ourselves – from worrying about how we look, etc. – is oddly in line with what a lot of Egyptian feminists say about wearing the veil: That wearing the veil frees them up to do more important things than worrying about how they look; that it allows them to participate more freely in society without worrying about what other people are thinking; etc. So, you could make an argument that true modesty, as you describe and define it here, is actually very universal!

    • says

      Thanks for your comment Becca!! I was taught in a way that women should dress modestly to help boys from having impure thoughts, which is part of the reason we should dress modestly, but was also taught that we are all ultimately responsible for our own actions. Thankfully, I was never taught, or don’t really remember being taught, that if you dress immodestly “you are asking for it.” That kind of thinking is very damaging. Boys need to learn to control their thoughts, but women shouldn’t make it harder for them to do so if they really love their brethren. I mean if you wear a sheer dress without a bra, what do you think a man will look at and think about?

      And I think that’s super interesting about Egyptian feminism. I do think that culture, especially popular culture, tends to see modesty as limiting, as restrictive, as the opposite of freeing. But, I think they are wrong. And I do think the understanding of modesty, the virtue, is universal.

  2. melissa dykstra says

    Men are just as tempted to stare at a woman’s naked legs and butt cheeks peaking out of their swim suit at the beach as they would be if the same “but it’s a one piece so it’s modest” swimsuit were wore at church. I’m not LDS, so I don’t know what is and is not taught in LDS circles. I do know what is not taught, but SHOULD be taught in Christian circles. Women dress however they want without regards to our brothers in Christ. Our brothers in Christ live in an almost impossible world to guard their eyes. While I don’t go and point my finger and chew out my Christian friends who think that swimsuits are ok to wear, I wish desperately that the church would man up and speak up about modesty. The truth is most women have no idea how what they wear affects men. And a lot of the time those that do just enjoy the attention (but many times claim that they are just dressing for themselves to be comfortable).

    Women have in inborn need for attention. I get it. I’m a women and I totally thrive on male attention. Always have. But just like with sex, God designed a holy way for us to get that attention from only our husbands in a holy and righteous way.

    Is it so hard to put a pair of basketball shorts over your swimsuit? Nope, it’s pretty easy. And it is one way you can help your brothers in Christ not be tempted. Why the resistance? I suspect that part of it is that we don’t want to be the odd ball out. I totally get that. Nobody wants to be different. But here’s the thing: God calls us to be different! Like, specifically! Yes, you may have to fend off comments about how you won’t let your daughter wear a regular swimsuit without something covering her rear and thighs. But if you just say that you feel that you are trying to do your best to honor God in all aspects of your life, including your dress, who can argue?

    Basically I just wanted to encourage the ladies reading this article to embrace the concept of living in the world without succumbing to living like the world (like thinking that it is ok to show your but cheeks and thighs just because it is socially acceptable in certain circumstances. I can assure you that God does not give a rip about social acceptability when it comes to following Him!). Be a lite that shines out, be different, and embrace the joy that comes with serving the Lord!

  3. Patricia says

    I. Agreed with your overall theme of modesty being a matter of attitude in addition to the clothing choices although not with some of the smaller points. I disagree that “Modest is hotest” should not be used to teach the youth and think you read too much into it. It’s catchy and memorable and certainly my daughter has taken it to mean that no modesty is more attractive. A modest attitude is also more attractive. The other point we seem to see differently is about teaching how to dress fashionably yet modestly. My friend served a mission in Italy, and her mission papers explained that Italians judged people by their clothes, so it was important to dress in up-to-date styles not outdated clothing. Clothing is part of image and can repel people, or it can set an example of modesty which absolutely includes how you conduct yourself. additionally, youth need to learn how to dress modestly with the clothes available in stores currently. There is plenty of teaching about modest conduct and attitude at church. The message is clearly taught in the youth and adult curriculums, but it’s up to individuals to be receptive to the message.

    • says

      I understand what you are saying about the “modest is the hottest” phrase. I often understood it as modesty is attractive, in such that, when you are humble, meek, modest, in action and dress that people are drawn to you. The word “hot” implies sexual attractiveness. That is not inherently modest.

      I think dressing appropriately is modest (as I said). I believe in Sunday best and dressing for the occasion at hand. But being super fashionable isn’t important to God or your salvation.

  4. Momof5 says

    My mother taught me that the clothes I wore should help me prepare to go to the temple. And so I wore clothes (mostly) that covered my body so that after I went to the temple and made more sacred covenants, I wouldn’t have to get an entire new wardrobe. Modesty is huge and something that both ancient scripture and modern-day prophets have pled with us to practice – both inwardly and outwardly. It does make a difference! Also, as the mother of 5 sons, its impact on young men is major.

    • says

      I think your mom is a smart woman. 🙂 If we are modest in dress, because we have that desire to respect ourselves, God, and others, it will certainly help us to be ready to make covenants in the temple.

  5. says

    Katelyn, THANK YOU!!
    I’m not LDS, but a protestant Christian, Assembly of God.
    When I was young, we heard “clothesline” preaching ALL the time! But hardly any more.
    We need to return to biblical standards, not cultural, in the church, The Bride of Christ as a whole.
    I agree with nearly every word you wrote!
    I wear capris, and T-shirts, almost exclusively.
    When my bra straps don’t show, my breasts are completely covered, and not skin tight T-shirts. my bottom and thighs are all covered, to me that’s modest. Any other kind of shirt or blouse, that buttons is never modest on me, due to my large bosom. And dresses that cling are not modest in my opinion. some people might condemn me for not wearing dresses to church, but I have to answer to God for myself, not them.
    I LOVE your emphasis on modesty as a virtue, not a numbered list of rules!
    If we truly love God, and have respect for ourselves, and others, we WANT to be covered, and respectful!!
    Someone can be totally all covered up, and still have a lustful attitude. Are they modest?? NOPE!

    • says

      Thanks so much for your comment Melinda!! I am glad it spoke to you too. I think you are right in that what is modest on you, and for you, may not be to others. So you not wearing a dress because most of what you’d find would draw to much attention to certain aspects of your figure is totally okay!

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