Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Modesty and manners

I don't always agree with Simcha Fisher--heck, I don't always agree with myself, so that's not saying much--but I really liked her recent post about that modesty kerfuffle at a Catholic high school in Illinois. Go and read it, if you haven't already.

If you spend little time on the Internet and missed the story, here it is: a Catholic high school helpfully put together an illustrated manual to guide female students into choosing an appropriate dress for the upcoming high school prom. Various secular Internet people then got hold of it and started throwing around words like "patriarchy" and "body-shaming" because apparently telling young women as clearly as possible that they cannot come to prom dressed like streetwalkers who are offering a half-price sale on their services is beyond the pale.

I've commented on various modesty debates before now, and I'm hardly a stickler for some set of arbitrary rules that insist on seeing overtly sexual motifs in perfectly ordinary women's clothing. That's not what this prom guide is doing, not at all. It is attempting to set some clear standards for the girls who plan to attend the school prom. After all, each girl is still free (if her parents approve) to dress like a porn star or red-carpet demimonde at any private family party or public gathering at a venue with no dress code, but at a Catholic high school's prom it is perfectly proper for the high school to prohibit certain extreme fashions that do not reflect well on the school's image. The truth is that these extreme fashions are nearly always to be found among the women's clothing choices; men are, by and large, more conservative in their dress for formal events.

There are important conversations to be had about modesty, about whether the concept is sometimes used to blame women for men's faults, about whether certain religious traditions outside of Catholicism use the idea of modesty as a weapon of control to keep women in their "place," so to speak. But it's also important not to freak out every time a dress code appears, or every time shorts are prohibited (for men or women) at at some nice restaurant or at the Vatican, or, in general, every time some rule of dressing makes its way into the public eye.

The truth is that the high school in question might not have needed a guide to modesty in an age where people still had good manners. By "people" I include (perhaps first and foremost) fashion designers, many of whom have rudely overlooked the reality that most women actually don't want to appear half-naked in public, that we don't find skin-tight clothing comfortable or (most of us) flattering, and that nothing is less conducive to a relaxed and fun evening than having to wonder every time you so much as lift an eyebrow whether so slight a motion is going to cause some body part or other to display itself to the curious or voyeuristic. The kinds of extreme fashions the Catholic school wishes to prohibit are usually aped after Hollywood couture, and the thing people forget about a Hollywood star who is somehow supposed to walk, run, fight bad guys etc. in less fabric than a one-month-old generally wears is that she usually has a whole wardrobe team making sure her film doesn't suddenly veer into nudity (unless it's that kind of film, of course).

Apart from fashion designers, a lot of ordinary people lack good manners concerning clothing these days because we live in an age that has no real standards of dress anymore. We can lament this all we want, but it's both unfortunate and true. Even such simple rules of etiquette as wearing black to a funeral don't apply anymore. The trend for at least fifty years has been toward an increasingly casual way of dressing.

That's not all bad. There's certainly some benefit in not having to have one set of clothing to wear at home and another to wear out in public--let alone a third to wear to church and a fourth to wear on special occasions and a fifth for sports and a sixth for..oh, well, you get the idea. Having certain basic pieces which you can dress up or down is a good thing (and it is especially good when these pieces are machine washable and easy to take care of).

But the negative is that it is sometimes harder to figure out what is or isn't appropriate to wear for various occasions, and prom is one of these occasions. The fashion designers don't help young women determine what to wear, and neither do the various teen magazines promoting the idea that the girl with the sexiest dress somehow wins. We talk about giving girls body-positive messages, but a competitive and feminist spirit that encourages more and more envelope-pushing clothing abbreviations ultimately benefits men more than women; specifically, it benefits the very men who are already likely to treat women like objects.

Unfortunately, a lot of people act as though there are only two possible outcomes: the hijab or the hooker-dress. The middle way of manners isn't even thought of, but it should be. After all, if a Catholic school is hosting a party then they, as good hosts, ought to give the expected guests some idea what to wear; it is terribly frustrating to be invited to a party and have no idea whatsoever what kind of party it is or what clothing is appropriate, such that half the guests show up in torn jeans and the other half in  three piece suits or silk dupioni sundresses with pearls. By letting the guests know what is expected the Catholic high school is making a sort of "first move" in the game of manners; now it is up to the guests to be well-mannered guests and dress accordingly. That this very ordinary display of manners inspires any kind of a freak-out, let alone an Internet one, is just a reminder that we live in a time when the concept of good manners is itself seen as some sort of intrusion on one's theoretical right to a radical individualism that feels oppressed any time it must put the good of others ahead of its own whims and desires.