Wear too much clothing and you’re matronly or a prude. Wear too little and you’re a whore. But what happens when you prefer to be more covered up? If you’re like me, a modest dresser, you find that you’re constantly going against the mainstream. I’m a Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, and my conservative dress is regulated in several countries — banned in some and encouraged in others.
To many, my choice of covering up is a sign of oppression and working against the liberations women have achieved. I disagree. My choice to dress modestly is an equally liberating expression of ownership of my own body. Thankfully, I live in the U.S. I don’t face any state-mandated guidelines on my dress, but I still must build my outfits from the options available to me. The message I receive is clear: Wear less.
Women’s clothing used to be cumbersome and heavy. The modern bikini was a scandal when it was introduced by French engineer Louis Réard on July 5, 1946. When he unveiled his outfit, he described it as “smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit.” Indeed, it was so small that models refused to wear it. Eventually, he had to settle on nude dancer Micheline Bernardini to model his new swimsuit.
At that time, women’s clothing had been steadily pairing down from the heavy garments of the past. The acceptance of the bikini marked a clear shift to “skin is in” and “less is more.” In fact, women’s liberation has often been tied to their freedom to wear less. Since we are still operating in a patriarchal world that maintains traditional notions of dress, today’s women are in a constant balancing act of how much to wear.
The pressures on women to get the appropriate amount of coverage right is aptly illustrated by a photography project by Rosea Lake titled Judgments.
Current trends make shopping for modest clothing a needle in a haystack search. I’ve spent hours going through racks or scrolling through pages of mini, sheer, backless and strapless garments, looking for a maxi dress with sleeves. In fact, the struggle lead me to start a company that offers stylish modest clothing: Mode-sty.
This expectation is being challenged by Allison Josephs, blogger at Jew in the City. She, like me, is a modest dresser, and she has come out with a video illustrating how much more skin women are encouraged to show compared to men. She’s dubbed this discrepancy “The Skin Gap.”
However you choose to dress, it is nearly impossible to ignore that the current expectation is that women show some skin in nearly every setting. The question is, what do we want to do about it?