Even though headcoverings are the main focus of this blog, modest dress often comes up in discussions about headcoverings. This makes sense; in most religions and regions where women cover their heads, the primary reason is modesty. St. Paul appeals to a number of reasons for women to cover their hair in 1 Corinthians 11, but modesty is not one of them. (Modesty is a fine and valid reason for a Christian woman to cover her hair, but unless a given culture requires it for modesty’s sake, it is a matter of personal preference.)
Nevertheless, Christian women ought to dress modestly, even if there aren’t any once-for-all, detailed prescriptions in Scripture for how we should do this in practice. I have no authority to add to Scripture and tell anyone how she must dress, so I won’t presume to do so. Instead, I’m going to relay my personal standards for modest apparel, which I have reached after hearing from a number of men who struggle with lust and after looking into the dress codes of various religious groups (such as Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Roman Catholics). I don’t judge others by my personal standards; usually I don’t even notice when someone’s attire falls outside of them. This is simply what I myself am comfortable with, and I offer it as a springboard for others to think about and take from it what they want while leaving the rest.
Within my dress code, there is a spectrum ranging from the minimum I will allow for myself (reserved for the hottest days of summer and certain special circumstances), to what I will ordinarily strive for in the warmer months, to what I consider ideal.
Minimum requirements: Shirt is not form-fitting, sheer, or holey (e.g., unbacked lace or crochet, “cold shoulder” sleeves, latticed straps). Knees are covered when I’m sitting. No midriff or back is exposed even when I bend over. Neckline is no more than two finger-breadths beneath the pit of my throat. Sleeves cover at least the top half of my upper arm. (For example, when I’m going for a walk in the summer, I’ll often put on a regular T-shirt, which is plenty loose, has a high neckline, and has sleeves that cover most of my upper arm. But I would avoid wearing this to town.) These standards are based on the Vatican’s standards from the early 20th century.
I also put pants in this category; though I wear skirts almost all the time, I do wear pants sometimes when I’m doing a physical activity that would be tricky to do in a skirt or when I need that level of protection (e.g., from insects, spiders, and briars) on my legs and ankles. I’m usually not in public when these occasions arise, so it’s less of a problem for modesty. If I do wear pants in public, I also wear a top that hangs below my hips, such as a long sweater.
Preferred standards: Skirt hangs to at least mid-calf. Neckline comes to or covers my collarbone. Sleeves cover my elbows or are three-quarter-length. Open shoes, such as sandals, are fine.
These standards are based on Orthodox Jewish tznuit (modesty) standards. This is my basic warm-weather dress code.
Ideal standards: Skirt hangs to my ankles. Shirt has some sort of collar or I wear a neck scarf, and my collarbone is covered. Sleeves are long. Shoes are closed.
Where I live, this is practical only in the cooler months or in air conditioning. I try to make this my church dress code, though occasionally I will compromise a little in the direction of “preferred standards.” But even if, for instance, my skirt is a little shorter, I wear long socks or tights under the skirt so my skin isn’t bare.
So there you have it. These are my personal rules. I don’t think they are binding on every woman. I sometimes fudge on them myself. But I feel I can do that because I know why I have these rules; they’re rules I’ve created after much thought and experimentation, so I know when and how much I am comfortable bending them. While I don’t think every woman has to have the same rules, I do think it’s important to develop a set of rules for yourself and not just buy or wear anything that strikes your fancy.
I’d like to add a final word on swimsuits. I have been fortunate to find a swimsuit that actually meets my preferred standards (and no, it’s not a burkini, though I considered that option). While I won’t say that every Christian woman must be that scrupulous in selecting a swimsuit, I would encourage all Christian women to look for one that covers a good portion of her shoulders, doesn’t show any cleavage or midriff, and covers at least the top part of her thighs (either with a little skirt or shorts). I know these are hard to find in the stores, but there are plenty of places to look online, and the effort is worth it. Men who are fighting lustful thoughts will secretly thank you for it, and you’ll probably be more comfortable–and get less sunburn–too.