Saturday, November 11, 2006

No Excellencies for the Daughters of Abraham?

I mentioned in a previous post that I'm currently reading through Ben-Hur. So far, the chapter that has left the greatest impression on me was the one in which Judah visits a Greek grove called the Grove of Daphne. Judah, like most of the visitors to the city, chooses to visit the grove and mix with the idolatry surrounding it, although he is still a Jew by conviction. He is particularly struck by the grove's beauty and serenity, and he ponders the charm that draws thousands of people to the grove each year, giving themselves in service to the grove and its mysterious charm:

If the Grove were so good for them, why should it not be good for him? He was a Jew; could it be that the excellencies were for all the world but children of Abraham?

Those two sentences struck me quite forceably as I was reading through the chapter, and I think these words have some applications in the area of modesty and beauty. I've had a few requests from commenters in recent months, asking me to do a post on female apparel. I'm finally honoring that request, though, in typical Susan-fashion, I'm taking a slightly different look at the issue than is probably expected :).

In my opinion, there are many, many excellent treatise in the blogosphere on the subject of Christian, female modesty. I see no reason to add my superfluous general comments to the mix, but I will say that women have the responsibility to build up their brothers in Christ, not tear them down by walking around in various stages of undress. For my musings on complementary dress, see my post last fall. But when female apparel is analyzed and wittled down to a list of "do's and don't's," then we've lost the real issue. It shouldn't be a matter of measuring our hemlines or making hard-and-fast rules such as "skirts are the only legitimate apparel for women." The real issue is the heart. How does this manifest itself? In different ways for different women. How was that for ambiguous :)?

But now for the purpose of this post. Oftentimes Christian women look around them, see the flashy, attractive fashions that the world has to offer, glance back at what many in the Christian community have deemed "acceptable" clothing, and they ponder, like Judah Ben-Hur, are excellencies for all the world but Abraham's daughters? We Christian women are presented with a false dichotomy: attractive, seductive clothing or frumpy, modest clothing. It seems we have to choose between beauty or conviction.

Or do we?

Believe me, as a former homeschooled girl who fit many of the stereotypes ;), I've tried about every form of modest apparel out there: long baggy shorts, culottes, super-loose t-shirts, relaxed-fit jeans, sweatshirts, layered shirts for opaqueness, long billowy skirts, jean jumpers. You name it, I've probably tried it. Except the flour sack look; I never did do that :).

I've discovered along the way that one does not have to be frumpy to be modest. When it comes to female dress, most conservative Christians stress modesty so much (a good thing, mind you!) that they overlook the lovely references to female beauty throughout the Bible. God delights in beauty! Loveliness is included among purity and truth in Philippians 4. Look at the beautiful details given to the Old Testament temple, and look at the inspiring descriptions of Old Testament women as they are adorned for their husbands. Dressing in a shapeless piece of sack clothing may keep my brothers in Christ from lusting after me, but at the same time I would be missing out on the opportunity to show others that excellencies are not for all the world but Abraham's children. Take a few amusing anecdotes:

During one of my phases (believe me, I've had many!) in apparel, I mostly wore shapeless denim skirts everyday, topped with a loose t-shirt. These skirts were primarily of either the straight (one-legged trouser) variety, or the extremely loose and baggy variety, and the shirts were not exactly gracefully-feminine, though they were modest! That was also the semester I wore my hair in a bun to classes for the first two months straight. Quite frankly, I looked like I was part of a cult. And I was asked that, in so many words, by one of my classmates :). I didn't exactly make a great advertisement for the delights of feminine modesty and decorum that semester!

Or, take another example. I wear headcoverings in worship on Sundays. When I first had this conviction, I had one suitable straw hat to wear, which served me well in the spring and summer, nicely accessorized by coordinating cotton-print bands. But come winter, and straw hats were not seasonable items :(, so I opted for the cotton-scarf-tied-on-the-head look. Especially if coupled with my granny boots, this was not attractive with most (not all) outfits. I looked like I belonged in The Beverly Hillbillies. Trust me.

I've now opted to shed the shapeless or extra-baggy skirts. And I make sure that I wear scarves for coverings only when carefully paired with complementary outfits. And the differences are amazing. I don't get weird you-belong-in-a-cult looks anymore. My reasonably-sized knit tops or tailored blouses and my long, flowing skirts get looks, yes, but not the same sympathetic looks I got before ;-). I get compliments and looks of respect. Men open doors for me. Women in my church tell me how beautiful my wool hats and coordinating silk scarves are.

Now, please, please don't read this post and think I'm trying to pat myself on the back. Notice I spent 2-3 paragraphs laughing over my frumpy past, and only 1 trying to explain ways I hope I've improved. That balance was intentional. I'm merely trying to explain ways I have sought to change, and my success is not for me to judge. And I'm still learning :).

Beauty is an important tool we are given in the fight against the world. Don't miss it! If we've managed to keep our flesh hidden from the eyes of our brothers, good! But if in the process we've presented a very unattractive picture of godly apparel, then I think we've failed to display God's glory, beauty, and majesty.

Does this mean that as Christian women we should dress in ball gowns on a daily basis? No. Should we never wear denim? No. I still have denim skirts, I still have scarves to tie in my hair, and I still have knit tops (though they are now of an appropriate size. . . ). I still have granny boots, though I continue to find myself preferring slip-on dress shoes. I like to wear semi-nice clothing on a regular basis, but I don't think this is a requirement! It's easy to make dressing nice into a struggle with vanity and pride. Believe me! Perhaps your own application of this post is to wear clothes that are in style, yet still modest. We don't all have to wear the classic feminine style :). Dress in a way that is modest and that shows that you are female. And dress in a way that will not evoke pity, but rather respect. You fill in the details :).

A note of caution: remember that the most important type of beauty comes from within, as the women of the past adorned themselves. As is such with all of God's good gifts, it is easy to take beauty and misuse it, and set it on a pedestal where it should not be. And it is easy to take the world's definition of beauty and apply it to ourselves. Any outward beauty should be a reflection of our inner beauty, as we are becoming more and more like Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

My goal in dressing used to be to portray the "homeschool" look, whether that manifest itself in the form of a denim jumper, Ked shoes, long baggy shorts, or a billowy top. Now, though, I try to look in the mirror and ponder if my apparel is giving modesty a good name. Am I portraying conviction as something that makes people dull, boring, and frumpy, or are people learning by my example that excellencies are also for the daughters of Abraham? I pray the latter. Beauty and modesty are not mutually exclusive.


John Dekker said...

Good post, Susan.

I get compliments and looks of respect. Men open doors for me.

And yet there's something horribly wrong when men only open doots for women who are dressed a certain way.

Claire said...

Very well done, Susan! You have an endearing, supported, and yet gracefully humble approach to this topic. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. And I think the key word here is "balance" you adi, not being obsessed with our clothing or looks, but at the same time striving to reflect the beauty of our Creator as He meant us to. Striving to shine as lights for him -- even without having to say a word!

Your Sister in Christ,

Claire said...

Oops! That funny non-word was supposed to be "said". I hit "publish" a little too fast, apparently!

Jessica said...

Great post, Susan! Beauty/un-frumpiness in modesty is something that I've recently been thinking about too... With reading this post and the one you wrote last fall, it's funny how much your "frumpy past" mirrors mine! I think I started wearing skirts almost exclusively at around the same age you did and it was almost entirely due to things that I had read on LAF and it was after a summer of working at a job every day in pants. In the beginning there was the baggy skirts and shirts...a look that THANKFULLY I discarded after awhile and am now also at the "reasonably-sized knit tops or tailored blouses and long, flowing skirts" phase and I think I might stay here for awhile! *smiles* Anyway...not to turn this into a comment entirely about me, but I just thought it was interesting how our "frumpy pasts" were so similar!
Have a glorious day and enjoy the "looks" you get! *smiles*

Anna Naomi said...

Wonderful post, Susan! It was presented in a delightful, encouraging way. I too went through most of what you have said. I wanted to be modest, so my clothes became baggier and baggier, until I felt like a big frump, with long, loose shirts, and baggy pants. Switching to skirts and dresses last January has been such a good experience. Now I can go out with confidence, and feel like a beautiful daughter of God. Thanks for sharing this post!

Susan said...

I completely agree with you, John, that there is something wrong when men conditionally open doors. Notice I called them men, not "gentlemen." ;) Part of the problem in our society, though, is that chivalry is not a very accepted thing, and many men have been chided for opening doors for women since this "degrades" them. So perhaps seeing a woman who looks like a woman reminds them and encourages them to utilize their door-opening abilities. I'm not sure, but I'm trying to give them the benefit of the doubt :).

Thank you for the encouragement, Claire. I love your reference to shining as lights! What a beautiful application :).

Jessica, I loved hearing about our parallel pasts. And since this posts was largely about me, you are free to make your comment largely about you! LAF was also a strong influence for me, and the ironic thing is, they of all women do not encourage the beautiful or modest dichotomy. Jenny Chancey is an inspiring example of beautiful, modest dress :).

Anna, "my clothes became baggier and baggier" sounds like me! I finally realized that rather than continue to hate pants and struggle to find ones that were not hip-huggers, I could wear skirts and be way more happy and not be as frumpy. Of course skirts can also be frumpy ;), as I learned.

Adrian C. Keister said...

This is great stuff. Very nice balance, I think, between modesty and beauty. And having both is most definitely possible, even if it is difficult. I imagine being able to sew makes life much easier for you in that regard! I can see that if you had to rely on worldly fashions, you'd probably find it much harder.

In Christ.

Angie said...

What a good post, Susan. I've worn skirts practically all my life (since I was about 4), and I sometimes fall into the "frumpy" trap, because it seems so much easier. I used to wear hideous, baggy culottes all the time, but a few years ago, I started making myself circle skirts, and I love how feminine and pretty they are. Your blog always has good stuff on it. Keep up the good work!

Ashley said...

What an excellent post, Susan! I have a friend who always says that God made our bodies beautiful and when we try to hide it with potato sacks then it is covering up the beauty God created. That can definitely be taken too far, of course, but being able to wear clothes that show the beauty of the feminine figure without causing our brothers to stumble should be our goal. I give you two thumbs up and another two for helping me move on Saturday. :-)

zan said...

I laughed really hard reading about your past styles. That reminds me so much of myself. Ugh, I hate looking at pictures of me in my early teens. No wonder I had no friends. : )I remember the headcovering dilema. What is a headcover? Does a hat count? Should it be a veil? What color? Hmmm, maybe a black veil or white? Should it look like a bonnet? Ahh! I am so glad that part of my life is over and we don't live in that area anymore. So embarrassing.

Actually, I went to the opposite extreme in my late teens. AFter I had my first baby I threw away quite a few clothes because they just seemed too immodest for me. I have never been a flashy dresser, but I do think I had gone too far to the opposite extreme. It isn't that I got too fat for them, I was the same size. I just think that becoming a mom kicked in some more common sense into me. lol.

I don't know about the knuckle-draggers in Georgia, but all the men I have come into contact with here, in New England, open doors for me. I only wear skirts on Sunday, too. We may be more liberal up here, but the guys still have manners. : )

Susan said...

Sewing certainly does help matters, Adrian, you are right :). And I find that altering gently-used clothing is equally as handy as being able to make new clothing.

Angie, I love the look of circle skirts! I don't have any, but I do have a few trumpet skirts, which are also very prety and graceful looking. And thank you for the encouragement on my blog :).

Thank you for the four thumbs-up, Ashley. That's better than a Siskel and Ebert endorsement! ;) I hope you're getting settled nicely!

I'm so glad I provided laughter for you, Zan :). We have quite an assortment of men down here. Being in the South, we do have a number of "good 'ole boys," but it's certainly not universal.

Becky Miller said...

This is a fabulous post. If only I had the mental energy to leave a good comment (it was a fussy baby day today,which also means a "mom gets nothing done but holding and feeding a baby" day).

Can you recommend a good pattern for trumpet skirts? I love the look of those.

Susan said...

The trumpet skirt pattern I use, Becky, is an out-of-print one, but I've seen similar ones in the major pattern catalogs (Simplicity, Butterick, McCall). The nicest-looking trumpet skirts are the ones with a 7" invisible zipper on the side, rather than an elastic waist, which is what my pattern is. But that's a matter of preference. I'd suggest a 6-gored pattern, because I love the way a middle panel looks on front and back, and 8-gored just means two extra pieces to cut :-P.

Note of importance (you may already know this, but this took me a while to realize): waistband and non-waistband zipper waist openings are categorized in "skirt/pants" in the catalogs. You have to look under "sportswear" to find elastic skirts, if you're interested in an elastic waistband pattern. Go figure. I'm practically the only person I know who actually participates in sports in a skirt ;). Hehe.

*ends by singing Brahm's Lullaby to Katherine* :)

zan said...

I was talking about your post to my husband last night One thing that came up is how to talk about clothing without offending people. If I still wore jumpers (homeschool look) I would be pretty upset after reading your post. There seems to be a movement in the homeschool community to stop dressing frumpy and start dressing pretty. How do you tell a woman (especially) that her clothing is ugly? I just wonder if any jumper people came across this post or other ones similar. Looking back, I think I would've been pretty hurt.

About men opening doors, my husband doesn't think dresses have as much to do with it as beauty. Women look the prettiest in dresses. If someone is dressed nice they stand out more, are prettier and than catch men's attention. Therefore, they have more of a chance of having a door opened for them. I have seen shows on TV that show blonds or prettier women are treated differently than not so pretty ones.

Like John Decker said, there is something wrong with men who only open doors for women who are dressed a certain way.

Now, I absolutely hate standing out in a crowd.I get terribly embarrassed when people look at me. When I worked in the hospital I would always wear the standard "scrubs" uniform. I decided to buy a dress uniform that was really cute. The day I wore it I got tons of compliments from women and men alike. I was noticed and it made me very uncomfortable. I wasn't immodest at all. It was a nurses uniform. You can't get that immodest with a nurses uniform. I think Christian women should not be drawing attention to themselves to a certain degree. It is hard to find a balance. Even women who dress very plainly draw attention to themselves from the world. I think I dress the way I do so I blend in . I don't want people looking at me when I am at the store. My sister is very attractive and dresses well and is always getting asked out or flirted with when she goes to the store (married 8 yrs with three kids, a girl could only be so lucky ; )). She dresses modestly, too. Again, it is hard to find the balance between looking nice, but not drawing attention to yourself.

Susan said...

You know, Zan, I think you have an excellent comment here :). Really. You make a lot of points, and with good balance.

I was reading yesterday (can't remember the site) about two bloggers that met in person, and how much they noticed that face-to-face mannerisms changed the "tone" of conversation. I don't think anyone would be offended by my comments if I instead told it to them in person, but on a screen, I could see how my downplay of jumpers, etc. could offend some. I read an article that had some similar points on YLCF a while back, and it didn't offend me even though I currently dressed semi-frumpy, but then, I'm not as easily offended as most people.

Hmm. Smilie faces only help the tone so much :), and nothing can substitute a softened expression, unconfrontational tone, or a twinkle in the eye. Those things are missed over the computer! Which is why person-to-person interaction is always best.

I actually like jumpers, by the way. I was negatively referring to the voluminous, non-flattering kind :). I just don't wear jumpers in general anymore, really, even though I do like them. I was laughing at my fixation on things like jumpers. I actually think culottes can look really nice, also. And I still like wearing scarves in my hair. I was laughing at the exclusivity and mismatched pairing more than anything else. I hope that clarifies to anyone :).

It makes me uncomfortable when I'm overly-noticed also. A smile is encouraging, a 65-year-old man who is elated when you stop at his sample table in the grocery store is not. "You're in here all the time, and you're finally stopping by to see me!" Accompanied by creepy smile. Ew. I had never even noticed his existence. Seriously. :-P

Once again, my point was contrast, not just that I get admiring looks. I don't feel like I have a lot of attention directed towards me, just occasional as most other women, a little more so because I'm not dressed in sweatpants maybe? I was more contrasting the differences in looks, rather than the quantity as compared to others :). I used to get weird "she's-part-of-a-cult" looks, but now when I get looks they're more of respect. And respect is what I'm after, not infatuation or lust. As far as I'm concerned, I'd really prefer if only one man ever had those sorts of romantic feelings for me.

zan said...

I know you weren't saying that all jumpers are ugly, but the ones that look like sacs. I totally support your argument for dressing better and for respect. It is very hard to tell someone they are dressing ugly or innappropriate. It is harder when you are telling a girl, too.

I think there is a healthy balance between modesty and beauty. Women are always stressing out about what to wear and Christians are probably having a harder time at it now, since the sac jumper is out. ; )With all the talk about modesty and beauty it is hard to know what is appropriate.

I guess if women dress the way they should than the ball is in the men's court not to lust. Right? Women can only do so much.

Also, women should be careful who they smile at as it can be misinterpreted, big time!I have had uncomfortable experiences from being nice to the wrong people. I read one blog that said Christian women should always be going around with a huge smile on their face to reflect the joy of their salvation. Blanket statements like this show a great ignorance of the world.

Once again, finding that balance is hard.

Women really have got it hard! ; )It would be so nice if the only man to ever have romantic feelings towards you is the "one."

Oh, and a "sign" that you have found the "right one" is when you are complimented by him on your looks and you don't get a sinking feeling in your stomach. lol.just fyi. I will never forget that day.: )

Susan said...

You are so right that discussing appearance is a touchy subject with women :). Which is why I usually avoid individual discussions on the problems of other people's wardrobes :). Unless I know the person really well. *strikes up "Sisters" song* :) Hehe. She can match colors now, so we don't have discussions as often. *grins*

. . . And I have a few close friends that I berate for wearing those awful Christian shirts with cheesy sayings. Those bother me because they are so irreverent. I should write a post on Christian t-shirts, but then it would end up coming across as harsh and mean and self-righteousness, so I think I won't. But really, God is not a billboard advertisement! *steps down from soapbox* And I love my Christian friends who wear those irreverent shirts, even if the shirts make me shudder. . .

There are many types of smiles, and unfortunately some people can't seem to differentiate between an "I'm happy" smile and a "You interest me" smile. Hehe.

Oh, and thanks for the tip. I'll remember that ;).

Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Zan.

You wrote, "I guess if women dress the way they should than the ball is in the men's court not to lust. Right? Women can only do so much."

I'd say that may be true. On the other hand, if an attractive woman walks by me wearing virtually nothing, it is still my responsibility not to sin. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that if a man lusts, that is his fault, not hers. Period. He shouldn't do it, and that's that. Therefore, no woman should ever feel guilty if a man lusts after her.

On the other hand, if a woman dresses immodestly, and a man lusts after her, I still claim she should not feel guilty about the lust. No, instead she should feel guilty about providing the temptation to lust. (I believe that providing a temptation to sin is itself a sin, and I think the Bible says that almost in as many words.) The two things, lust vs. temptation to lust, are very different things. The former is definitely beyond her control, since men can still lust after women wearing brown paper bags. The latter is under her control, and is something she can do something about, albeit with perhaps a bit more difficulty in today's world than in ages past.

I write this so that women can feel a load off their backs. Do not feel guilty about someone else's sin, even if you provided the temptation for it! Instead, worry about your own sins. And then throw yourself at the foot of the cross.

All this may be inherently obvious to all of you, but I thought I'd point it out. I also thought it might perhaps be helpful coming from a man. :-)]

In Christ.

Ashley said...

I appreciate that comment, Adrian. When I was in college we had a lot of modesty discussions (especially around spring time!). I remember feeling frustrated because a lot of guilt was put on us as women for causing men to lust. I started to resent men for the visual mind that God gave them. Through much prayer and many conversations with the man I am now married to, I realized the same thing that you said. That made me much more wanting to dress appropriately rather than doing it out of guilt.

zan said...

I agree with Adrian 100%. I remember a good Reformed Baptist preacher saying that men's sin is lusting, but a women's is the desire to be lusted after.

Being married has been a help in understanding men (they really aren't as complex as they seem ; )). My husband said that men can lust after a woman no matter what she is wearing. I am sure the Muslims lust after their women who are dressed form head to toe.

Susan said...

Thank you, Adrian, for that. Lusting and temptation to lust are two important distinctions, and I appreciate your clarification that women are responsible for their own sins, not the sins of men. I think that is why so many females get so upset about the whole modesty issue, actually. They think they are being called on for someone else's sins. I'd never really thought about it quite like that, though, so thank you.

I've heard that saying (by the reformed baptist preacher) as well, Zan. I've also heard it stated as women like to be noticed, and men like to notice.

Ben Garrison said...

I've discovered along the way that one does not have to be frumpy to be modest.

One thing that I wonder about is why it seems like the Bible doesn't really address this subject in a direct way. It's really interesting to me that a subject that seems so much on our minds is bypassed so obviously. The few places where Paul is talking about related things and has a perfect opportunity to talk about them, he seems to simply bypass them. "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, but" -- OK, sweet, tell us how to dress!! "from the inward beauty of a quiet spirit." PAUL, WHAT GIVES?

The only thing that this tells me is that if our focus is on our dress (whether we're focused on how nice we look in a tight low-cut shirt, or focused on how modest we look in our flour sack, or focused on how pretty and stately we look in our victorian-era dress) that it's missing the point.

Not that I think that you're really focusing on anything too much necessarily - posts don't have to always be all-encompassing of a subject. :-) But it is the thought that goes through my head every time the subject comes up.

Susan said...

Well, the reason Paul doesn't tell us exactly how to dress is because Christianity isn't about micromanagement; it's about a heart change. We get procedure for almost nothing in the New Testament; instead we get principles. Which was part of the point of this post :). Drawing a detailed picture of what a Christian woman should look like is rather an amusing task, because Paul (or any other Biblical author) doesn't give us that much detail :).

agodlyhomemaker said...

i loved your post. i can relate to some of your clothing "struggles" ~smile~