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The Modesty Question I’m DYING to Ask


Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for modesty. Really, I am.

I’m tired of watching TV newscasters sitting on those camera-level couches, constantly tugging at their skirts, because there’s no safe way to sit while delivering the day’s headlines. I was among the few in favor of our homeschool co-op’s efforts to come up with some clothing guidelines to minimize the distractions of low cut clingy tops coming in on our teen girls. I even cringe at some of the stuff that occasionally makes its way into church, and not just on the teens. So, I understand why the discussion is valid.

So what’s my big question?

Why THAT era?

When it comes to choosing what standards of dress are modest, why that era of dress? By “that era” I mean, the dress style that is typically offered, which seems to come from about the nineteen-forties or fifties — sort of a June-Cleaver-all-day-long look. And along with this era of choice comes a frequent admonition for women to wear only skirts or dresses. No pants.

Let’s unwrap the layers in this topic, because in truth, there are actually two separate issues wrapped up in the pants question — one is about gender appropriate dressing, the other is about modesty.

First, Gender-Appropriate Dress

Defenders of the dresses-only-for-women group quickly turn to Deuteronomy 22:5, which says women shouldn’t dress like men. Well, okay, that makes sense to me. And I’m a big supporter of Scripture, so, let’s run with that a bit.

When those words were written (and here comes the problem with this) NO men were wearing pants. Both genders of that day wore long tunics with various belts and robes. In fact, the only people in that time of history wearing pants that I can find are women in China.

So if we’re going to have a literal application from the biblical model on this one, then men and women both should be wearing long dresses. There was an expectation at that time that men and women should NOT dress like each other, but since pants weren’t part of the equation, this clearly meant they had to focus on clothing other than pants to make their gender-appropriate statement. I’m guessing it was head coverings, shawls, color selections. Don’t know. But I do know it wasn’t about pants.

Pants, during this time, were not a male indicator Later, there was a time when pants were a male indicator (when horseback riding entered mainstream military practice.) But I would argue that we might be in yet another time, when pants are again no longer a gender marker. Think about it. It’s not about pants. If I find someone wearing jeans, but they’ve coupled it with a pink lacy shirt, the oh-so-popular superfluous decorative scarf wrapping many times around the neck, a tiny black beret, and a small patent leather clutch, we all know we’re talking girly-girl here. And any guy in the above outfit would be seen as a cross-dresser. I don’t care HOW manly the jeans he wore. The jeans aren’t the issue. They are no longer the gender markers of our time.

Second, What this says about Modesty

We then must accept that no one is using the Bible-model as the current day measuring stick. Even the June Cleaver folks have clearly set aside the standard offered in days of Deuteronomy. And that’s when the truth emerges bold and clear: modesty choices must be judged by discerning the standards of the day and staying within those parameters.

This truth can put even June Cleaver on shaky ground. Think about it. That nineteen-forties mid-calf skirt, if judged by the standard of a mere 200 years prior, would have rendered the wearer scandalous, possibly even a prostitute, in the eyes of the culture. Ankles showing? See-through flesh toned hosiery? Are you kidding? She’d have been ushered off the street by the police for lewd behavior. Even today, those dress standards have to be judged carefully. If I were a missionary to a conservative Muslim village where ankles and loose hair would cause a stir and hamper my ability to minister, then Millie’s lovely long-sleeved teal blouse and mid-calf length skirt would be wholly inappropriate.

I think the June Cleaver approach gets a lot of things right. But here’s where I part ways: When trying to determine gender appropriate and modest dress, pants are okay (at least some of them. The ones that are basically a pair of tights trying to be pants . . . not so much.)

In terms of practicality in the issues of modesty, many a woman who didn’t know how to sit properly would have benefitted from the ease of wear and lack of worry that wearing pants would have afforded. I’ve watched a mom in a skirts-only family try awkwardly to take her toddler down the slide in the park in a manner that wasn’t embarrassing. It is simply fact: pants can sometimes be MORE modest, depending on the activity.

I’m not saying that the Bible doesn’t give us some hard and clear rules. It does. The need to be decent and modest does not change. But the standards by how we determine what is now decent and modest apparently does.

In the end, THAT is exactly my point. We all agree — even the June Cleavers — that we aren’t tied to the standards of the time in which those scriptures were first written. If June believed that, she’d have on an ankle length tunic and a long head scarf, while her husband wore the equivalent of a long nightshirt.

This leaves us in an uncomfortable place, a place that is less black-and-white.

It would be so much simpler, as some have tried, to just choose an era and write down the rules. But even that doesn’t guarantee modesty in all settings. In the end, I’m open to the thoughts of those in the no-pants camp because these choices we make require something that’s tough to do — dialogue, honestly evaluating current dress practices, personal reflection on our motives in choosing what we wear, thinking, listening for God’s direction, and examining our own heart. And that is always harder to do.

Carol Barnier is a homeschooler of 17 years, author of four books, mother to three children, and wife to one husband. She’s a popular humorist frequently on Focus on the Family’s Weekend Magazine radio program. Her objective is to have the wit of Erma Bombeck crossed with the depth of C.S. Lewis, but admits that on most days, she only achieves a solid Lucy Ricardo with a bit of Bob the Tomato.Go to and find out why her business cards read: Delightful Speaker, Entertaining Author, Adequate Wife, Pitiful Housekeeper.

  • Kelly Dubé

    This is so good. I definitely struggle with the modesty “rules” as you have outlined here. And some would say I’m hypocritical. After all, I don’t want my daughters wearing leggings(the tights that are being touted as pants), but I wear/allow shirts that “expose” the collar bone(oh my). The hot summer days have me wearing spaghetti strapped tank tops, yet I’d rather not have bikinis strutting around my backyard pool. I’ve even been known to provide dark colored t-shirts to those who might not have considered their fashionable bikinis to be offensive to others. Then to be accused of being judgmental is conflicting as I try to consider the boundaries of others. It is most certainly a hot topic. And as you reminded us, the no-pants rule seems absurd in other scenarios, like sports. This basketball season found me reaching to understand why a family required their daughters’ uniform shorts be transformed into skirts! It just didn’t compute. So, I am sincerely hoping for this discussion to bring these convictions to light. And in the end, they are just that – personal convictions. And thank you also for reminding us that all of these external rules cannot hide from God, the condition of our hearts.

    May 31, 2017 at 9:30 am Reply
    • Ann Hibbard

      Kelly, I love your comments because I can identify with every bit of this!

      May 31, 2017 at 9:34 am Reply

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