You should dress modestly (and the standard changes every 100 miles)

Istanbul, Turkey Cover up!
Istanbul, Turkey
Cover up!

What is modest dress? What is indecent dress? It seems that depends entirely on local public opinion, and that opinion can change from one city to the next.

In the days before widely-available photos of naked people, the library copy of National Geographic opened automatically to pictures of native women going about bare-breasted. It opened there because middle school boys had opened to those pages so many times they had creased the magazine’s binding.

No doubt, those native women were dressed modestly for their own public. They all had on their proper necklaces and little grass skirts. But a woman so dressed in my New England village would be arrested for indecent exposure. So apparently laws are based on public opinion, too.

A recent article about women riding bikes in Afghanistan illustrates this. As they pedal down the rocky roads, men stop and stare, shout obscenities and even try to run the immoral skanks off the road although all their lady parts are quite concealed, unless, I suppose, you consider a face as a “lady part.”


In cosmopolitan Turkey recently Islamic zealots risked being tempted to sin by walking among females in bathing suits. They passed out fliers warning women to cover up, but seem to have had little success. Public opinion there says a bathing suit is decent at the beach.

When I lived in a Florida beach community, I noticed that bathing suits were decent pretty much all over town. Girls stood in line at convenience stores in bikinis and no one paid much attention. I asked some local girls what they would do if they were in their bra and panties and the UPS man rang their door bell. They said they would “put on some clothes” and answer the door.

I pointed out that their bikinis covered less than their underwear. They had never thought about that, but still-it would not be decent to answer the door in your underwear. But it would be O.K. in a bikini. How subtle, how slippery are the standards of modest dress!

One day I traveled from the beach community one hundred miles inland. I stopped at a grocery store in a small rural town and watched as some girls in two piece bathing suits got out of their car to go inside. “Watch this,” I told my daughter. “What?” She asked.

“Watch how freaked out people get by the girls in bathing suits.”

“Why should they freak out?” my beach-dwelling child wanted to know. “Because this is a whole different world,” I told her. Sure enough, the girls came out and heads were turning, people were staring and one man actually put his hands over his eyes.

So these rather subtle and arbitrary dress standards of what is modest, decent and ultimately moral will continue to be worked out through the mysterious process of public opinion formation. Not by some final word of God either-both the Quran and the New Testament simply say people should dress modestly and leaves us poor mortals to duke it out for ourselves.


There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?”

The mood will pass, sir.”

-P.G. Wodehouse



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