In orthodox circles there is lot of concern (though perhaps more in the USA than here) about modesty. My attention was drawn to the subject today by this parody of conservative Christian concerns about female modesty. I recommend you read it. It is very amusing. The implication is that conservative Christian male critiques of female modesty are irrational projections onto women of their own suppressed guilt concerning their impurity and lust. Surely there is a great deal of truth to this. However, one must accept that men have a different psychology of bodily attraction to women independently of their personal moral responsibility. This male psychology is certainly an occasion of sin but it is a reality.

I suspect that standards of modesty are essentially relative. On a Polynesian island climate dictates that people wear very few, if any, clothes. Because this is obviously rational and necessary this is not a moral problem for the inhabitants.  In temperate or colder regions a much heftier weight of clothing is required. Conventions and assumptions and a body-language of clothing develop from this physical necessity. Consequently when a (male) inhabitant of a temperate zone visits a tropical island it has historically been a problem. It is said that when Franco’s Spain sought revenues from tourism and its beaches became populated by scantily clad foreign females, Spanish young men (used to a society of comparatively austere modesty) suffered real psychological difficulties. My great grandfather found the sight of ladies’ ankles (not seen in his youth) very difficult.

In this light it must be recognised that it is possible and not uncommon for a woman to reduce the total area of her body covered by clothing to significantly below the social norm so as to arouse male interest. This is not to say there are objective standards of modest clothing but rather the subjective standards may be used to achieve this effect. Perhaps it is even legitimate to a limited degree in certain formalised ‘courtship’ contexts like balls. The manipulation of the immoral sort assumes the concupiscence of the men in question but it is a reality. That the male concupiscence in question can be and is awakened without any such manipulation does not abolish the possibility and reality of manipulation.

The question arises of whether, as a consequence of the sexualisation of western culture, the form of manipulation mentioned above has become normalised and that consequently standards of modesty in clothing are in perpetual decline. Because modesty is relative, the effect of this would be that clothing considered immodest a generation earlier will become modest (because of the decline in general morals) without any immodesty necessarily implied on the part of those wearing them.

It is hard to see any appreciable decline in the modesty of clothing in Britain between the ‘seventies and the present day, despite the undoubted general decline in public morals. I suspect that this is because the transformation was so radical between the ‘fifties and the ‘seventies that we crashed into the objective factor of climate. Wear less than a certain amount in Britain and the manipulation becomes patent because you must be freezing. Conversely, one suspects the stuffiness of Victorian modesty was a reaction to a similar decline in the eighteenth century and to the ensuing political upheavals on the continent.

Perhaps this is one reason why the concern about modesty among conservative Christians is so much greater in the USA than in the UK. The USA is a vast country with every imaginable climate and yet it is one country and so it has to some extent one culture. Thus the subjective cultural factor is more in tension with the objective climatic consideration than in a smaller state. The other reason of course is that there are a lot more conservative Christians in the USA than in Britain.

What should one do then? Men should practice custody of the eyes and get over themselves. On the other hand, given that there are no objective standards of modest clothing and that men will succumb to lust whatever women do, women who are not intending to manipulate male concupiscence have already done enough and ought not to be subjected to transferred scruples by men. The only person in a position to warn an adult woman that she may (in some particular culture) cause a reasonable chap some difficulties by her outfit is another woman (or perhaps a foolhardy husband) when invited to do so by the woman in question.