Veils of Modesty: How ’bout a little cool-down?

I’ve seen a lot of bodies lately. As temperatures rise in NYC and I’ve even begun to throw my own sense of modesty to the wind, more and more body parts have been out on display. While the parade of flesh that is summer in this city may be alluring to some, the reason for more exposure is most basically a desire to stay cool rather than the desire to seduce.

But in this effort to beat the heat, it really does seem as if all standards of decency have evaporated – much like the sweat on our backs. And as I’ve been observing this phenomenon these last few days I’ve also been thinking about places where women aren’t able to wear a tank top or sundress when it’s hot. Even as I write in a small apartment with no AC, I’m feeling all the more poignantly the irony that cultural modesty standards are often the most severe in places with the hottest climates. So why do they do it? Why do they wear layers and layers of clothes to abide by certain clothing guidelines – what purpose does it really serve?

While veils and other forms of modesty garments often find their origin in various religious dictates, there’s something to be gained from thinking for a moment about what it means for clothing to conceal – even to the point of invisibility – rather than revealing everything.

It’s easy for a liberated American women like myself to immediately dismiss veils and the like as oppressive and outdated, but isn’t there some valid purpose they serve?

I think at the most basic level, veils are an attempt to preserve the distinction between the public and private realms, and that might not be such a bad idea.

Putting it all out there all the time (whether it’s in the way we dress or the fact that we’re chatting on the telephone on the bus) means we really don’t have boundaries between what is private and sacred and what is for public consumption. My question is then – what are the consequences of this kind of barrier breakdown for a society at large?

Veils are so appealing in certain cultures because it’s assumed that self-control in dress implies self-control in other areas of one’s life (specifically in the sexual department). It’s precisely this self-control that makes a woman appear worthy of marriage. As Andrea Rugh writes in her great book Reveal and Conceal: Dress in Contemporary Egypt: “Modesty garments are symbolic in the sense that they mark people’s intentions concerning moral issues.”

There’s so much talk of how much clothing reveals about the self – what if we revealed more of our self (or our self-control rather) through revealing less?

In another sense, modesty garments are actually class equalizers – they are uniforms which can disguise a woman’s poverty. So rather than posing women as sartorial competitors, flaunting clothing and bodily endowment in an effort to woo men, women have to be more creative and subtly provocative. Is modesty then more a sign of a culture’s sophistication rather than primitivism?

(Please note that I’m in no way trying to make light or appear dismissive of the serious abuse that certain culture enact towards women – unfortunately the veiled woman often is the subject of much oppression and violence; yet, I do believe over-correcting to the opposite extreme of full disclosure doesn’t necessarily solve the larger problem of women being treated as objects – clearly, this is a much larger topic, far beyond the purview of my present thoughts…)

Modesty garments ultimately make apparent the struggle that every woman must encounter in any game of flirtation – how much does one reveal and how much does one conceal? The fine line between revealing just enough to keep one wanting more and spilling it all is difficult to discern. And the metaphor certainly extends beyond the purely physical…

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  • Danine Cozzens June 24, 2010 12.07 pm

    In the US there is a small “modest clothing” movement. Search on that term, and you will find not only Christian and Muslim and Orthodox religious traditions, but women who choose not to dress like they are in a rock video. Good column, would be interested in more findings.

  • MaryD June 24, 2010 02.15 pm

    I think there’s a bit of practicality that isn’t commonly recognized–not just modesty–at play in covering garments. Most places where covering is important are also places that while often hot, are also dry. In those locations, covering is not only modest, but practical. A thin wool garment can protect the skin from wind and sun damage, allow for greater evaporative cooling than cotton and reflect sunlight off the body. The end result is that the covered woman is often more comfortable.

    I don’t agree that the garments are class equalizers. My experience in the Middle East is that there are subtle clues and hints about class and wealth in veils and robes that are obvious to people familiar with local dress practices.

    There also is no correllation between veils and abuse–statistics just don’t bear that out.

  • Lourdes June 24, 2010 08.28 pm

    There’s a lot to think about here. You might be interested in a UK study that arrived at a magic percentage of what is attractive to reveal.

    After living in various hot climates, I find “naked” isn’t always the coolest alternative. Linen has always been my fiber of choice, with it’s ability to gain and lose moisture, it feels cool against the skin. Couple that with a nice loose style and you have instant cooling.

    When I lived in NY without AC in the top floor of a walk up, we found the fire escape most attractive, I feel for you.

  • janlorraine June 25, 2010 06.57 am

    Interestingly, my mother-in-law once told me that, when she was a student at the American University of Beirut in the late forties, many Moslem women at the school voluntarily adopted the veil because of its allure. And some people might remember that many hats worn by women in this country and abroad up until the sixties or so also had veils of one sort or another. Now we wear sunglasses, no?

  • Mellissa June 26, 2010 06.02 pm

    There was a book on veiling that came out a couple years ago put together by Jennifer Heath titled: “The Veil: Women Writer’s on it’s History, Lore, and Politics”, which is a really interesting collection of essays on the history of veiling. It makes interesting arguments for and against the practice from a variety of perspectives. One thing that I have always found particularly thought provoking, is the semiotic potency of the burqa as a garment… Historically the practice of requiring it– and conversely at other times forbidding it to be worn by women, can be equally as controlling and harmful, yet almost always echoes the power of one authority verse another over the female religious population that wears the burqa or the hajib.

  • Lisa June 29, 2010 04.58 pm

    Very interesting rumination on a enormous and fascinating topic. I have only one thing to add: while many of your readers have perhaps already seen this recent NY Times article (which perhaps even inspired your post), for those who haven’t it provides great insight on the challenges, personalities, and goals of American women who have decided (to their own parent’s surprise), to take up the veil.

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  • Kristina July 02, 2010 07.45 pm

    Very interesting and thought-provoking. I am now thinking about the public/private distinction, how clothing might be related to its breakdown, and what is to be gained for women in terms of protecting privacy and valuing modesty…..Unfortunately, it seems that so much violence against women is rooted in extreme reactions to female sexuality. Would women be placating this potential reaction by covering up more?

    Thanks for posting.


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