A New Approach to Modesty 1/7: The Generation of Modesty Rhetoric

June 25, 2013    By: DavidF @ 11:55 am   Category: Ethics,Modesty

Why are so many bloggers talking about modesty recently?  Prepare to know.

As a young man writing about human nature David Hume analyzed several common virtues.  When he got to modesty and chastity he ran into a problem.  On the one hand, society needs healthy families, but on the other, men have a lot of reasons to avoid being good husbands and fathers.  What happens when a man finds out the child he thinks is his isn’t?  That’s a problem.  Hume saw that men won’t be good fathers if they don’t feel reasonably confident that their mouths-to-feed have a biological connection to them (leaving adoption aside).  Men need a guarantee.  So how do we rest their fears?  Hume’s solution is modesty.

Well, chastity really solves the issue.  If women stay virtuous, there won’t be any problems (since women always know who they gave birth to, unchaste men won’t cause them confusion).  But Hume was a practical man.  People have sex in private.  He knew that society can’t constrain lascivious acts done behind closed doors.  Hume advised that society should shame women into modesty so that they’ll be more chaste.  As modesty increases men will feel more assured that their wives stay faithful.  The men will then believe they sired the children the women produce, and the great wheel of social order will continue.  No joke.

Let’s not crucify Hume for such an uneven approach to modesty.  While blunt, Hume hardly broke new ground.  In fact, some readers might applaud Hume’s insight.   They shouldn’t.  Using modesty to curtail chastity issues creates other serious problems, which I will come back to later.  We can do better with both virtues by unhinging them and reimaging them.  In this series I’ll present how.

This discussion couldn’t be timelier.  Mormon modesty rhetoric has exploded in the last decade.[1]  In the 1990s only three General Conference speakers discussed modesty.  In the 2000s that number shot up to twenty-one.  The next highest decade after the 2000s was the 60s, with only eight speakers discussing modesty.  BYU devotionals show the same trend.  Nearly as many speakers discussed modesty in the last decade as the three previous decades combined (ten and eleven respectively).  There are also more articles in the church magazines now more than ever before, especially The Friend.  Almost every speaker focused on female modesty, and most of them linked it to sexual purity as Hume did.

Church leaders have connected female modesty to they way they dress for decades.  Brigham Young may have been the first to link the two.  Here is a selection of his that modern leaders sometimes quote:

It is displeasing to the Spirit of the Lord for persons to array themselves in any way whatever that is disgusting to the eye of the pure and the prudent…. If they were to see an angel, they would see a being beautifully but modestly dressed, white, comely and nice to look upon. (Young, 162)

Interestingly, though, here is the part of that talk they never quote:

The present custom of many is such that I would as soon see a squaw go through the streets with a very little on, as to see clothing piled up until it reaches, perhaps, the top of the hedge or fence its wearer is passing. (161)

Brigham goes on to complain about women wearing too much fabric.

Then another fashion is to wear their dresses short in front, walking through the streets, and a long train dragging in the dirt behind. How unbecoming! This is not modesty, gentility, or good taste.

For Brigham immodesty meant too much clothing.

Joseph F. Smith was the first speaker to discuss modesty as a way of dressing to protect against sexual immorality.

…never, I say, within the period of my life and experience have I seen such obscene, uncleanly, impure, and suggestive fashions of women’s dress as I see today. (October General Conference 1913)

He gave this sermon in 1913.  I scoured the internet for the most risqué dress from the 1910s.  I think I found it:

And here’s a scandalous swimming suit pic (caution, possibly NSFW):

Vintage Pin-up girl in women's swimsuite. Beach Fashion in 1900. Boho style.

(alas, not even the toes are uncovered)

Even with the fairly exposed chest from the dress, Joseph F. Smith’s position would come across as absurd today.  Even so, Smith set the tone for modesty rhetoric that’s lasted for a century.  (On a side note, Smith delivered this talk one year before the first commercial bra was invented.)  In the next post I’ll discuss current modesty rhetoric and why it’s causing inadvertent harm.

Why has modesty rhetoric increased so dramatically in the last decade?  Please speculate.

[1] For counting purposes, I only included talks that (a) made a substantive reference to modesty (e.g. if only mentioned as part of a list of virtues I didn’t count it), and (b) treated modesty as a doctrinal topic (e.g. if the speaker said something like, “he had a false modesty” I didn’t count it).


  1. Maybe the BY quotes are a bit out of context. It seems his complaint about some women wearing too much clothing was not “immodesty” — he was simply saying it wasn’t a modely of modesty. Meaning, their efforts to overly clothe were possibly ostentacious, akin to saying if a man wears a suit he, by definition, must be modest. I’m not an expert at period wear, but I think he was referring to the putting on of too many clothes as a show of wealth. Hence the reference to the Indian Squaw. As for why there’s such a debate now, I don’t perceive that there is. It’s on the bloggernacle and making feminist sites/blogs, but the rest of us don’t give a hoot. I’ve never had a conversation about modesty beyond the occasional reference to today’s styles. It’s mentioned in the SOY but it’s only a sentence or two out of the whole pamphlet. It’s like tattoos, facial hair, and a host of other things to discuss when people have nothing else to discuss.

    Comment by S — June 25, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

  2. S,

    I think you’re right about Brigham. The first quote about dressing like angels comes up every once in a while in official sources. That’s why the rest of the quote is ironic. If you use Brigham to support modern notions of modesty, you have to ignore that he actually has something different in mind. Modern modesty rhetoric really begins decades later.

    Comment by DavidF — June 25, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

  3. I wonder if there is a correlation between the rise of the internet and the rise of modesty talk in the church. Seems to me that there has probably been a major increase of direct and indirect warnings (primarily to men) about the perils of pornography in the last 20 years as well.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 25, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

  4. Perhaps there is the thought that we cannot hold up a picture of a scantily clad woman and say “This is not okay, please cover yourselves appropriately.” Because the picture itself is not something appropriate to look at. Instead we much nit-pick and exhaust each other with our over-attention to the sleeve length and neckline being .5cm from where it ‘should’ be. Good grief.

    Comment by Tay — June 25, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  5. This is frankly a little bizarre. LDS women are more modest today than anytime in my memory. What’s next — burkhas?

    Comment by Tom — June 26, 2013 @ 5:29 am

  6. I wonder if the increase in modesty rhetoric, both today and in 1913 is a means of maintaining control in a world that is rapidly changing, or at least trying to feel in control. For example, Joseph F. Smith lived through the Manifesto (both from Wilford Woodruff and then Lorenzo Snow’s reiteration), the Smoot Hearings, and the abandonment of Utah’s more communal economies in favor of the capitalistic model. World War I was on the horizon. And the fashions of the “roaring twenties,” I assume, didn’t suddenly emerge from the sea foam but were already making their presence known in such outfits as shown in the OP. Change as far as the eye can see. And today we have shifting viewpoints regarding marriage equality, the economic changes related to globalization and technological innovation, ubiquitous devices that place mountains of information (including uncorrelated aspects of scriptural and LDS Church history) in the palm of one’s hand, and a demographic landscape, in the US at least, that is encouraging a shift in political thinking. If we can’t exert much control over all that, then perhaps we can control how people dress, particularly the women.

    Comment by Andrew — June 26, 2013 @ 8:14 am

  7. “It is displeasing to the Spirit of the Lord for persons to array themselves in any way whatever that is disgusting to the eye of the pure and the prudent…. If they were to see an angel, they would see a being beautifully but modestly dressed, white, comely and nice to look upon.”

    Well, this is what Joseph Smith saw when Moroni appeared to him – “His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.”

    Comment by DB — June 26, 2013 @ 10:07 am

  8. The biggest problems with the LDS modesty dress code is; 1) the strong repressive focus on sex and 2) holding the female responsible for male thoughts and actions and 3) one standard fits all.

    Sexuality is sexualizing but so is sexual repression. Scantily clad and sensually dressed typically showcases a female body in a sexual way and is obviously sexualizing. But so is sexual repression in the form of excessively covering the female in fear of male sexual thoughts and actions.

    Modest dress is not a single standard world wide, it varies culturally.

    Comment by Howard — June 26, 2013 @ 10:39 am

  9. Howard,

    The point of LDS modesty standards is to act as a hedge to help Mormons keep the law of chastity. So by definition it is designed to repress sex (outside of prescribed marriage).

    Comment by Geoff J — June 26, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  10. I think if it were done more covertly and more by example than code it could have a similar outcome without the negative overhead.

    Comment by Howard — June 26, 2013 @ 11:20 am

  11. Could be. I think the opposite could be true as well. Meaning, I think youth could and should be told more frankly and explicitly that the modesty standard are in place because God doesn’t want us to have sex before we are married and dressing and acting modestly helps people reach that goal.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 26, 2013 @ 11:26 am

  12. I like that straight forward approach!

    Comment by Howard — June 26, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  13. Geoff J,

    Having read at least a couple dozen talks and articles on modesty, I can say that you’ve summarized the main argument for modesty that comes up over and over again. Here and there you can find the argument that Howard takes issue with (i.e. modesty is to keep men’s thoughts pure), but it gets blown out of proportion on the internet. In other words, I think most of the rhetoric is quite innocent.

    Still, there are problems with using modesty to regulate chastity, even when it is good intentioned. I hope I can articulate that in the next couple of posts.

    Comment by DavidF — June 26, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  14. Yeah David, modesty definitely doesn’t regulate chastity. I don’t think regulation is really the goal though, I think the goal is to use modesty to bolster and assist in efforts to keep the saints chaste.

    And I agree that the top leaders are probably better at avoiding the more offensive folk teachings regarding modesty than your average ward member would be.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 26, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  15. I think most of the rhetoric is quite innocent. I agree it’s innocently offered but the affect on many young women is quite harmful and that is the LDS feminist point.

    Comment by Howard — June 26, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

  16. In light of the latest SCt rulings, my guess is you won’t hear much about modesty for a while. It’s just not sexy enough (pun well intended.)

    Comment by S — June 26, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  17. S — I’d be surprised if there were any noticeable messaging change. That news seems largely unrelated.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 26, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  18. For what it’s worth, I think Andrew (#6) has a really interesting hypothesis. The church is struggling to maintain influence in the culture wars, but modesty is a related area where leaders can continue to see a positive response to their messages. That’s why we see so much on the topic. Maybe that’s assuming too much, but it “feels” very plausible.

    Comment by DavidF — June 26, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

  19. Thanks DavidF. I should clarify, particularly to show that I don’t want to assume too much, that I don’t find my hypothesis to be the only possible reason for why modesty rhetoric has increased. It’s just one possible part of probably multiple factors, including the use of modesty to prevent chastity issues. I do find interesting your mention in the OP that the second highest decade for modesty talks was the 60s, a decade as far as I’m aware not popularly known for its cultural stability. But I still wonder what else may be causing the modesty rhetoric to dramatically increase in the past decade. I look forward to your future installments.

    Comment by Andrew — June 27, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  20. I’m sure that the meaning of modesty has been corrupted. Modesty is a quality or state of moderation.
    Telling 5 year old girls that they shouldn’t wear sundresses, shorts or tank tops because it’s immodest, is surely asking for trouble. To teach a child that they are responsible for the thoughts of others can only lead to confusion and self loathing. I can’t even imagine the boys being taught anything even close to those same sentiments.
    So, well intended or not, the unconscious lesson learned is that their very own innocent physical body is shameful and must be covered. The boys on the other hand? We wonder how other cultures can justify women in all sorts of regalia while men wear blue jeans and button-ups. Although, perhaps not as extreme are we not teaching the same lessons? David, good luck rethinking this issue and I praise your attempt to do so. It’s a tricky subject.

    Comment by m — June 27, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

  21. As far as I know the church itself doesn’t tell 5 year old girls that they shouldn’t wear sundresses, shorts or tank tops.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some overzealous members have said such things.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 27, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

  22. GeoffJ-There was an article in the June 2011 issue of The Children’s Friend magazine entitled “Hannah’s New Dress” which tells the story of 4 year old Hannah who decides to wear a t-shirt under her sleeveless sundress in order to be modest. When it was initially published the story caused quite an uproar in some parts of the bloggernacle, and is still doing so. So while I agree some overzealous members have said such things, they have had the encouragement of the Church in one of its official publications.

    Comment by Andrew — June 28, 2013 @ 7:00 am

  23. “Sister Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the Primary general presidency, said parents cannot start teaching modesty too early. She said most children have cemented their views of the world by age 5. ‘The time to teach children is when they are young.'”

    From Modesty Reflects Discipleship, Commitment, Leaders Say

    Comment by DavidF — June 28, 2013 @ 8:31 am

  24. Andrew — Thanks for the link. That is indeed an odd and irritating vignette from The Friend. The weird thing is that in the story it seems to be the 4 year old that is the zealot and the mother and grandmother aren’t. The mom is just the enabler. Anyhow, if that is the only concrete evidence that the church is aggressively preaching against sundresses for little kids it is flimsy. Go to any ward in the southwest when it warms up and you’ll see that suggestion is not heeded by most of us.

    DavidF — I have no problem with the general concept of teaching modesty early. The problems arise when it comes to drawing the specific lines and then trying to force those lines on others. (Same problems happen with Sabbath observance).

    Comment by Geoff J — June 28, 2013 @ 9:18 am

  25. Geoff J,

    It’s more than general council. Here is a modesty checklist from the May 2010 Friend:

    • My shoulders are covered.
    • My shirt covers my stomach.
    • My shorts or skirt go to my knees.
    • My shirt is not low-cut.
    • My clothes are not tight.
    • I don’t look sloppy.
    • My hair is combed.
    • My clothes are not saggy, torn, or holey to fit in with a style.
    • Labels or words on my clothes are respectful, not rude or offensive.

    Some of that seems like fairly good instruction that any mother would appreciate as she’s trying to get her daughter ready in the morning. Other points clearly have adult concepts of modesty in mind.

    The article explains that the primary song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” can be a great way to check if the outfit that a child is wearing is modest. “If you can still be modest with all that movement, you’re ready to go!”

    Comment by DavidF — June 28, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  26. Thanks DavidF. Interesting that the plan for some seems to be to start the habits really young so it will be easier when puberty hits and beyond. But like I said, I see loads of sundresses every Sunday and no one bats an eye so at least here in my area the saints seem to be voting with their behavior on those shoulder suggestions at least.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 28, 2013 @ 10:55 am

  27. GeoffJ – While not specifically about sundresses (this time it’s about spaghetti strap shirts), additional evidence of a “theme” can be found in the May 2013 Friend story entitled “The Orange Shirt.” There was also an instance of altering a photo in order to add cap sleeves to a Primary aged girl’s dress (brought to my attention by this blog post). I agree this isn’t an overwhelming amount of evidence, but I don’t think anyone is claiming that how Primary aged girls are attired is the only thing the Church is talking about. Nevertheless, this typed of modesty rhetoric is talked about, and as the OP argues, with greater regularity.

    I like what you said about how a problem arises when it comes to drawing specific lines. For this reason, you won’t hear me condemn anyone in the wards located in the southwest (or any other clime) for not heeding the sundress suggestion. That said, specific lines are indeed being drawn in these articles. You can’t get any more specific than naming types of clothing, in this case sundresses and spaghetti strap shirts.

    Comment by Andrew — June 28, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  28. Geoff J,

    I think the intentions are innocent and I can see the value in teaching young women about respecting and being attune to their bodies before puberty starts complicating things. But I also think this sends some unintended messages, which I’ll try to articulate next time. I also worry about a zealous family moving to a hotter climate like yours, but worrying more about their 5 year old’s spiritual safety via modesty more than her misery in the heat. Some people will be like that anyway, but it worries me that they can find their justification from an official church publication. The focus on children’s modesty shows that modesty rhetoric has not only increased dramatically, but it has also become more intense at the far ranges of its scope, ie among children.

    Comment by DavidF — June 28, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  29. I should add that I think that you could justify children’s sundresses from official sources as well. I don’t have time to look up quotes, but several leaders have explained that there’s a time and a place for different outfits. So swimsuits, for example, can be modest even if they expose a woman’s thighs and shoulders. So children’s sundresses aren’t necessarily immodest, even by official standards, but leaders do stress the rules far more than the allowances, and that can be a problem for hyper-obedient members. I think we can do better than that.

    Comment by DavidF — June 28, 2013 @ 11:30 am

  30. Ugh. I haven’t been hanging around the bloggernacle much in the last year so missed some of this. Cynthia’s BCC post on sleeved being photoshopped in is pretty shocking. There are some real numbskulls making some of these decisions.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 28, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  31. “As far as I know the church itself doesn’t tell 5 year old girls that they shouldn’t wear sundresses, shorts or tank tops.”

    This is just laughably wrong. But I see that others have provided the needed correction.

    I’m not sure where you live, but here in my ward in San Diego county, sleeveless dresses on very young girls is not unheard of, but does raise eyebrows. Precisely because everybody is reading the same Friend articles that have been cited here and taking their cues from that. I’ve seen numerous “incidents” of censure of sleeves on young girls in my ward. Though many quiet dissenters remain on this issue, there is ample evidence that the center of gravity in the church culture is following the very clear and repeated official teachings that modesty (a) includes girls basically from birth and (b) is specifically very concerned with sleeves. This represents a dramatic and relatively rapid change, maybe the past 5-10 years or so. Modesty quotes are to be found since the beginning, but tots and obsession on sleeves for unendowed sisters are the major points of noticeable shift.

    I’d also like to raise some concern that we have what seems to be a bunch of men in this thread and very little female voice. 30 comments, 25 of which come from clearly male names, 5 are initials (ambiguous), mine is the first recognizably female name.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 1, 2013 @ 8:53 am

  32. We also have empirical evidence from Ziff:


    Here one piece of evidence that leggings are another area (in addition to young girls and sleeves) where there has been shift towards MORE stringent standards over time:

    To quote myself in the post: “So, in twenty years, something that was so unquestionably acceptable that it could be used as an EFY book cover photo [a girl using leggings under otherwise too-short shorts] is now prohibited at EFY, and considered immodest or questionably modest by 79% of LDS Living readers.”

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 1, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  33. (Oh my bad you linked Ziff in the post. I don’t know why you should be thinking that we don’t tell 5 year olds to be modest then–they are the target demographic for the Friend.)

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 1, 2013 @ 9:02 am

  34. Cynthia: I’d also like to raise some concern that we have what seems to be a bunch of men in this thread

    Well I’m glad you can help even the odds. We tend to skew male here at NCT in our comments but that is not by design. Just the way it is.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 1, 2013 @ 10:48 am

  35. Cynthia,

    I wasn’t the one who linked to the Ziff post so it was useful information to me. I haven’t hung around the bloggernacle much in the last year or two so there are lots of discussions I missed. I have three daughters ranging in age from 9-16 so I am mostly going by my experience in a conservative area here in Arizona. While tank tops are clearly discouraged with the older girls, my daughters and lots of the other girls in the ward go sleeveless all the time. Maybe it is just due to our 100+ degree weather.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 1, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  36. For what it’s worth, we went to BYU today with our 3 daughters (3,6,9) in sun dresses with their swim suits on underneath, and only sexist behaviour I observed as we went to the BYU bookstore, the Library, the HFAC, and the MOA was a higher propensity of men to hold doors for us than most other places, but maybe it wasn’t sexist as they also held the door for me. No one came up and told me my kids were the devil, no dirty looks, even when my kids were screaming in the middle of the bookstore, etc. etc. Just a ton of really nice people. It was also EFY, so there were about a million teenagers there. While there were not a ton of young girls on campus there were a good number (I am guessing due to people coming in town for the fireworks show/concert last night) and I’d guesstimate maybe 5 out of 15 had on sundresses.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 5, 2013 @ 11:03 pm

  37. Also, I got “Fire on the Horizon”, Blake’s new book. Excited to read it.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 5, 2013 @ 11:05 pm