Man and woman in swimsuits, ca. 1910; she is exiting a bathing machine
Recreation on a California beach in the first decade of the 20th century

Standards of modesty (also called demureness or reticence) are aspects of the culture of a country or people, at a given point in time, and is a measure against which an individual in society may be judged.[citation needed]

Modesty may be expressed in social interaction by communicating in a way exhibiting humility, shyness, or simplicity. The general elements of modesty include:

  • Downplaying one's accomplishments (see humility)
  • Behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency
  • Avoiding insincere self-abasement through false or sham modesty, which is a form of boasting.[citation needed]

A second expression of modesty, isolated from communication and human interface, focuses more on internal perception of superiority and may be expressed in the following ways:

  • through work ethic,
  • motivation for self improvement,
  • and tolerance of others.[citation needed]

Physical modesty dominates the social stage. Fashions and fads at times test the limits of community standards of modesty. People can be subjected to peer pressure, both to conform to community standards or to flout them. Community standards of modesty however may be driven by a sense of superiority, which contrasts some definitions of modesty.



At times of public or private emergency expectations of modesty are suspended, or modified to the extent of the emergency. For example, during suspected anthrax attacks in 1998 and 2001 in the United States, groups of people had to strip to their underwear in tents set up in parking lots and other public places for hosing down by fire departments.[1] On the other hand, even in an emergency situation, some people still insist on maintaining their standards of modesty.[2]

Also, there are occasions when standards of modesty are waived, as in the case of medical examinations.

Body modesty

1868 diagram from Harper's Bazaar, showing a mid-Victorian idea of how the hemlines of girls' skirts should descend towards the ankle as a girl ages

Standards of modesty usually discourage non-essential exposure of the body. This applies to the bare skin, hair and undergarments, and especially to intimate parts. The standards not only call for the covering of parts of the body, but also obscuring their shape, by wearing non form-fitting clothing. There are also standards covering the changing of clothes (such as on a beach), and the closing or locking of the door when changing or taking a shower.

Standards of modesty vary by culture, or generation and vary depending on who is exposed, which parts of the body are exposed, the duration of the exposure, the context, and other variables. The categories of persons who could see another's body could include:

  • a spouse or partner,
  • a friend or family member of the same sex,
  • strangers of the same sex,
  • people of the same social class.

The context would include matters such as whether it is in one's own home, at another family member's home, at a friend's home, at a semi-public place, at a beach, swimming pool (including whether such venues are considered clothes-optional), changing rooms or other public places. For instance, wearing a bathing suit at the beach would not be considered immodest, while it likely would be in a street or an office.

Excessive modesty is called prudishness. As a medical condition it is also called gymnophobia. Excessive immodesty is called exhibitionism.

Proponents of modesty often see it as a demonstration of respect for their bodies, for social norms, and for the feelings of themselves and others. Some people believe modesty may reduce sexual crimes[citation needed]. Some critics assert that modesty reflects a negative body image, and there may be a correlation between repressive body attitudes and undesirable outcomes such as sexual crimes, violence, and stress[citation needed].

Modesty in dress

Three Ukrainian men, wearing trunks and briefs, attract attention for immodesty relative to the local norm in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Most discussion of modesty involves clothing. Issues of modesty and decency have arisen especially during the 20th century as a result of the increased popularity in many countries of shorter dresses and swimsuits and the consequential exposure of more of the body. This has been more pronounced in the case of female fashions. Most people consider the clothes that they are wearing to be modest. Otherwise, they would not wear the clothes. What is considered "modest" in this context will depend on the context when the clothes will be worn and can vary between religions, cultures, generations, occasions, and the persons who are present. Those who intentionally wear clothes which they consider immodest may be manifesting exhibitionism or seeking to create an erotic impact.

Generally accepted Western norms

As a minimum, Western standards of decency expect both men and women to cover their genitalia, especially in public. In the case of woman, this usually extends to the exposure of breasts.

What is considered appropriate depends on context. For example, in single-sex public changing rooms some level of disrobing is expected.

In Western and some other societies, there are differences of opinion as to how much body exposure is acceptable in public.[3] In contemporary Western society, the extent to which a woman may expose cleavage depends on social and cultural context. Women's swimsuits and bikinis commonly reveal the tops and sides of the breasts. Displaying cleavage is considered permissible in many settings, and is even a sign of elegance and sophistication on many formal social occasions, but it may be considered inappropriate in settings such as workplaces, churches and schools. Showing the nipples or areolae is almost always considered toplessness or partial nudity.

In private homes, the standards of modesty apply selectively. For instance, nudity among close family members in the home can take place, especially in the bedroom and bathroom, and the wearing undergarments in the home is common. Elsewhere in the home, particularly when visitors are present, some simple casual clothing is expected like a bathrobe, which can be quickly donned when full clothing is not required, or if it is unavailable nearby, depending on convenience.

Gender differences

Men and women are subject to different standards of modesty in dress. While both men and women, in Western culture, are generally expected to keep their genitals covered at all times, women are also expected to keep their breasts covered. However, images of naked soldiers became somewhat acceptable for mainstream consumption during WWII, with publications such as Life magazine showing photographs of them bathing and advertisements depicting this in cartoon form[citation needed]. High-school age boys began to swim in the nude in many schools during this time as well, a practice that was abandoned in the 1970s[citation needed]. Additionally, the dictates of fashion and societal norms, some body parts are expected to be more covered by men than women, e.g. the midriff and the upper part of the back. Also, swimming pants are often larger for men than for women. Prior to the 1930s, men were generally prohibited from baring their chests in public, even at beaches[citation needed]. Organizations such as the Topfree Equal Rights Association advocate for gender equality in this regard. In 1992, New York State's highest court accepted 14th Amendment arguments and struck down the provision in New York's Exposure of the Person statute that made it illegal for women to bare their chests where men were permitted to do so.[4]

In many cultures men's and women's bare buttocks are not acceptable in public areas. However, while women's bare buttocks are considered sexually obscene, men's bare buttocks are merely considered rude.[citation needed]


Naturists or nudists reject contemporary Western standards of modesty which discourage personal, family, and social nudity, and seek to create a social environment where people feel comfortable in the company of nude people, and being seen in the nude, either just by other nudists, or also by the general public.[5][6]

Traditional indigenous modesty

Traditional indigenous cultures, such as some African and traditional Australian aboriginal cultures, are more relaxed on issues of clothing, though how much clothing is expected varies greatly, from nothing for some women, to everything except the glans penis for men of some tribes. In some African cultures, body painting is considered to be body "coverage", and is considered by many an "attire."

Religious traditions of modesty

Most world religions have sought to address the moral issues that arise from people's sexuality in society and in human interactions. Each major religion has developed moral codes covering issues of sexuality, morality, ethics etc. Besides other aspects of sexuality, these moral codes seek to regulate the situations which can give rise to sexual interest and to influence people's behaviour and practices which could arouse such interest, or which overstate a person's sexuality. These religious codes have always had a strong influence on peoples' attitudes to issues of modesty in dress, behavior, speech etc.

Islamic modesty

A headscarf

Modesty has been and continues to be considered important in Islamic society, but the interpretation of what dress constitutes modesty varies. One traditional opinion is that Muslim women are required to observe the hijab, covering everything but the hands and face, as a sign of modesty. Some Muslims are of the opinion that modesty is not restricted to dress but also depends on the intentions of the individual and that the Quran does not command the hijab or the like. In some Muslim societies, women wear the niqab, a veil that covers the whole face except the eyes, or the full burqa, a full-body covering garment that occasionally does cover the eyes. Wearing these garments is common in some countries with a majority Muslim population.

A taqiyah cap

Though in Islam these expressions of modesty are interpreted as mandatory, most countries do not enforce it by law. However, they are enforced in a handful of countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran.

Likewise, men are required to cover everything from 'navel to knee'; with some men choosing to extend this to the traditional Islamic head covering taqiyah (cap), the male counterpart to hijab which closely resembles the Jewish yarmulke or kippah but is slightly larger in size. The taqiyah cap may vary in shape, size or color just as the hijab does, with many regional differences according to tradition and personal taste.

Jewish modesty

Three styles of hair covering common among married Orthodox women. From right to left: snood, fall, and hat.

Modesty in Judaism, called Tzniut, is important beyond aspects of clothing. It extends to behaviour in public and in private, and depends on the context.

In Judaism, women wear skirts to their knees and to cover their elbows, with blouses covering the collarbone and sleeves coming to or covering elbows.[7] See-through materials may not be used and clothes are expected not to be tight-fitting, provocative, loud in color, or display texts.[8] These rules are relaxed to allow for color and text in less strict communities. Some communities apply these standards to girls as young as three. Non-orthodox Jewish women tend to adopt the fashions of the non-Jewish society in which they live.

It is the custom for an observant married Jewish woman to cover her hair in public, and sometimes at home. The hair covering may be a scarf, hat, snood called a Tichel , or a wig called a Sheitel

Standards of modesty also apply to men. While some men will wear shorts and short-sleeve shirts, many right wing Orthodox men will not. Additionally, men are required to cover the crown of their head (although not out of modesty, but as respect for God) and they traditionally do so with kippot and, in some cases, a hat.[7]

Christian modesty

Catholic Church

A placard informs tourists about the minimum dress standards required to enter St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican

Catholics are expected to dress modestly.[9] The wearing of a headcovering was for the first time mandated as a universal rule for the Latin Rite by the Code of Canon Law of 1917.[10] which code was abrogated by the advent of the present (1983) Code of Canon Law,.[11] Apart from that, there have never been any "official" guidelines issued by the Catholic Church. But, from time to time the Church hierarchy, and even some popes, have given opinions on various matters; although these "guidelines" are not binding on Catholics, many tradition-minded Catholics find them persuasive.[12] Pope Pius XII stated that women should cover their upper arms and shoulders, that their skirts should cover at least as far as the knee, and the neckline should not reveal anything.[13] Another example is Giuseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa, who stated that trousers were unacceptable dress for women.[14] Many tradition-minded Catholics have attempted to further expand on this latter standard.[15]

Some Catholics have attempted to form cohesive theories of modesty. Sometimes this is from a sociological perspective,[13] while at other times it takes a more systematic, Thomistic approach, combined with the writings of the Church Fathers.[16] Approaches arguing primarily from traditional practices and traditional authorities, such as the saints, can also be found.[17]

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued official statements on modest dress for its members. Clothing which can stimulate sexual desires, such as "short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach"[18] are discouraged, this is part of the Law of Chastity. Men and women are also encouraged to avoid extremes in clothing or hairstyles. Rules on modesty also include women being asked to wear no more than one pair of earrings.[19]

The Church also requires students of Brigham Young University, its private university, to sign an agreement to live according to these standards of modesty before being considered for admission. Such standards must also be accepted by tenants of BYU housing regardless of the tenants' enrollment status with BYU [20]

Other Churches

Many other Trinitarian Christians also consider modesty extremely important,[21] though considerable differences of opinion exist about its requirements and purposes.[22] Amish groups and some Mennonite groups are known for their adherence to modest fashion styles. Evangelical Christians and Holiness Christians also have strict guidelines on modesty.

Cross Cultural and Non-Religious Modesty

Some individuals adopt modesty standards of other groups or standards of previous generations.[23] An example includes the Noahides who follow Jewish laws but are not themselves Jewish.

Modesty in the arts

Cupidon (French for Cupid), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1875; the tip of the right wing covers the boy's genitals.

In works of art, the supposed modesty of the depicted character is often compatible with the intended modesty of the artwork. For example, the character wears clothes or a fig leaf, or the character is at a distance from other people and/or there are only people at his backside (with the artwork showing the scene from their point of view), and/or, in the case of a movie, he or she is nude only briefly.

In other cases the depicted character is less modest, or the situation he or she is in requires less modesty, than intended for the artwork. For example, the character is in a private situation, while the artwork is for public display, or the character (for example in a movie) is in a sex-segregated changing room, while the audience is mixed (or in a room where minors are not allowed, while they are in the audience), or the film plot involves inappropriate behavior of a character, while the film avoids being inappropriate itself. Although modesty rules for art tend to be less strict than for real life, depiction of nudity is sometimes reduced in these cases, in the interest of modesty, by the use of:

  • a piece of cloth (or something else) seemingly by chance covering the genitals
  • with regard to nudity in film, filming a supposedly nude person from the waist up (or from the shoulders up, for women)
  • in a movie, maneuvering (turning, having objects in front) and film editing in such a way that no genitals are seen
  • showing nudity from a distance, and/or from the backside only, although other characters are nearby and/or would also see frontal nudity
  • in a movie, showing nudity for a shorter time than the character is supposed to be nude (this effect can be reduced by a viewer having control over the playback, such as at home, as opposed to in a movie theater, by pausing it)

In cartoons, even in cases where the genital area is not covered with clothing, genitals are often simply not drawn. In the film Barnyard, showing anthropomorphized cattle of both sexes walking on two legs, instead of either showing genitals of male cattle or not showing them, the concept of a "male cow" was used, with an udder. In Underdog a partly animated anthropomorphized dog is shown with penis when a real dog is filmed, and without penis in the animated parts.

Paintings are sometimes changed because of changed modesty standards, and later sometimes changed back, see e.g. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

See also


  1. ^ We'd rather die than take our clothes off, disaster planners say, By Dru Sefton, Newhouse News Service, Nation & World: Saturday, May 25, 2002
  2. ^ We'd rather die than take our clothes off, disaster planners say, By Dru Sefton, Newhouse News Service, Nation & World: Saturday, May 25, 2002
  3. ^ Salmansohn, Karen. "The Power of Cleavage". The Huffington Post, October 29, 2007.
  4. ^ Santorelli & Schloss v. State of New York
  5. ^ See 2002-2003 World Naturist Handbook, pub International Naturist Federation INF-FNI, Sint Hubertusstraat, B-2600 Berchem(Antwerpen) ISBN 9055838330 The Agde definition. The INF is made up of representative of the Naturist Organizations in 32 countries, with 7 more having correspondent status. The current edition is * Naturisme, The INF World Handbook (2006) [1] ISBN 90-5062-080-9
  6. ^ INF web page
  7. ^ a b "Modesty: Not Only A Woman's Burden", Patheos
  8. ^ The Laws of Jewish Modesty
  9. ^ See, e.g., The Catechism of the Catholic Church Para. 2521-2524.
  10. ^ "1917 Codex Iuris Canonici". Canon 1262, Section 2. 
  11. ^ "Canon 6 §1 of the Code of Canon Law". 
  12. ^ See all the following citations, which all expound at least partly upon such guidelines.
  13. ^ a b Modesty and beauty - the lost connection by Regina Schmiedicke
  14. ^ Notification Concerning Men's Dress Worn by Women by Giuseppe Cardinal Siri (1960)
  15. ^ See G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World, Part III, Chap. V, for an early attempt (1910); see also In Praise of the Skirt, for a more contemporary one (2006)
  16. ^ The Modesty Handbook (describing the nature of modesty from a Catholic perspective, based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers).
  17. ^ See, e.g., Those Who Serve God Should Not Follow the Fashions by Robert T. Hart (2004).
  18. ^ Mormon modesty guidelines
  19. ^ Id.
  20. ^ The Brigham Young University Honor Code, which includes "Dress and Grooming Standards," agreement to which is required for application.
  21. ^ See, e.g., Modesty: The Undressing of Our Youth, by Lenora Hammond.
  22. ^ The Modesty Survey: An anonymous discussion among Christians concerning various aspects of modesty.
  23. ^ Canadian Undercover

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  • modesty — ► NOUN ▪ the quality or state of being modest …   English terms dictionary

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  • modesty — noun ADJECTIVE ▪ characteristic, natural (esp. BrE), typical ▪ She accepted their congratulations with typical modesty. ▪ false ▪ feminine …   Collocations dictionary

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