What the what?
Monday's post on what men think of vintage style garnered so many interesting comments! I was especially pleased to see the conversation take a turn toward sexism and expectations of modesty. I won't quote anyone in particular (so as not to put any one person on the spot), but some were disturbed by the idea of men treating women more respectfully if we're more covered up. Because, after all, what's the flip side of that? Men feeling they have permission to disrespect - or even outright assault - a woman if she's not dressed modestly. It's a common problem in many cultures to believe that a woman is "asking for it" if she's wearing something provocative, is it not?
Let me start by saying that I didn't mean to imply that I commend men on the street for being more respectful towards me if I'm dressed in a vintage style. I really don't think it's such a great thing for cat callers to be slightly more polite to me; I would prefer if men did not cat call to begin with. Also, though I suppose I tend to dress fairly modestly by some New York standards, it's not because I feel that to do so makes me more worthy of respect from men. It's just a personal style choice - and I don't believe it makes me morally superior in any way.
That out of the way, I've been wanting to write about the troublesome notion of modest fashion for some time now, but I admit I've shied away from it. The idea of modest dress is inextricably linked to religion and culture, and the last thing I want to do is offend anyone based on their beliefs in that area. Additionally, standards of modesty vary greatly from culture to culture - for some it means being covered from head to foot. For others, it's covering the upper arms and cleavage. It's impossible to dilute the idea of modest dress into a simple set of rules.
But it must be said that the expectation of female modesty in many cultures is an inherently sexist one. The idea is often that men must be saved from their own thoughts of temptation and it's a woman's responsibility to dress modestly to prevent men from having these thoughts. (There's an interesting survey on what modest dress means to young Christian men here if you want to take a look. I'll warn you that I couldn't look long as I found some of the basic ideas so disturbing.)
There's not much that enrages my cold femi-nazi heart like this idea of protecting men from temptation by dressing modestly. Why?
- Standards of modesty for women put the onus on women themselves to prevent unwelcome advances and sexual assault. See, men just can't control themselves! If ever an idea were insulting to both genders, it's this one. Why don't we try everyone being responsible for their actions?
- These double standards create hurtful divisions among women. For example, many feel it's okay to "slut-shame" a woman who shows more skin than she does. How often do we call each other sluts, skanks, whores, or worse?
- At worst, it's a form of rape apology. The belief that women are sending sexual invitations by the way they dress is a prevalent one, sadly.
So, to bring this back to dressing vintage: yes, vintage styles can be more modest than current fashion. No, that doesn't give any of us the right to demean other women for choosing to show more skin. And, above all, we deserve respectful treatment from men no matter how we're dressed.