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A modest proposal

Posted by Robin Abrahams  August 19, 2013 10:19 AM

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During my most recent chat, I mentioned a friend of mine who was accosted in the subway by a woman who informed her, "Jesus wouldn't approve of that neckline." We batted around possible retorts, such as "Neither would the Taliban," "Yes, but Mary Magdalene thought it was fabulous," and my personal favorite, "Well, Jesus didn't wear underpants so there." Several people pointed out that Jesus wasn't into that kind of style-snarking, which led me to write:

I'm trying to remember a single time Jesus came down on a person for how they dressed or groomed, and I don't believe he ever did. For how they acted, yes, but not for clothes. Except maybe if people were dressing up fancy to show off how much money they had. That's an aspect of "modesty" that is almost never discussed. Modesty arguments are almost always about sexiness, but as Anonymouse said,"Yeah, I'm not too up on the Bible but I never heard that Jesus had opinions on cleavage..."

Biblical writings about modesty are as much if not more about not showing off your wealth with your clothes.

Modesty in the 21st century has become the field on which highly symbolic battles about religion, and sexuality, and colonialism, and feminism are fought. Is France right to ban the hijab? Is Facebook right to ban pictures of nursing mothers? Who is more oppressed: she in the bikini or she in the burqa? A Google image search for "modest clothing" makes it sadly yet hilariously clear what "modesty" is about nowadays: covering women's bodies in as much fabric as possible, preferably with a small floral print.

But although it's the holy-book-thumpers that are enforcing these dress codes, the Biblical version of modesty is about more than keeping your women in gunny sacks. It's about dressing in a way that allows society to function as smoothly as possible. It's about clothing etiquette. The Torah reflects some of the earliest efforts to set down rules for how to live successfully in groups--something humans must do, but find extraordinarily difficult to do. There are not many direct commandments about clothing or grooming, but the topic makes its way into many Biblical narratives, so you can pick up a definite point of view. Looking at it from that angle, here's my own, not-approved-by-any-religious-authority-whatsoever version of a Biblical dress code: 

1. Don't dress like something you're not. This raises modern hackles at first, because one of the few clear-cut clothing commandments is that women shouldn't dress like men. There are also long, detailed descriptions of priestly garments that are mandatory for priests and obviously forbidden for anyone else. All very Bronze Age! 

But if the particulars are no longer on-point, the principle is. Clothing often reflects social roles, and it's inappropriate to dress for a role that isn't yours. At a wedding, don't be more glamorous than the bride. If you're the teacher, don't dress like your students. If you're the keynote speaker, don't blend into the wallpaper. 

2. Dressing up shows respect. According to the Bible, the first thing people did after becoming morally conscious was to put some clothes on, already, and the impulse, if not always the fig leaves, stuck. Esther dressed up before pleading her people's case to the king. Jews wear our nicest clothes on Rosh Hashanah to show our respect for God. (Which for me this year will be this Boden dress. Cute? Cute!)

3. But don't dress to incite envy. Envy, much more than lust, is the emotion that modesty codes are designed to control. A community can't function if its members are constantly competing for status, measuring themselves against each other. So you don't dress in a way that looks like you're competing for status, in ostentatious clothes that are better than anyone else can afford. You know, like Joseph with that amazing technicolor dreamcoat that got him sold into slavery. Look what happens to people who dress too fancy!



When I first converted to Judaism, I toyed around with the idea of adopting tznius (gesundheit), the official modesty rules, and wearing a headscarf and all of that, which I eventually decided is a pretentious and stunt-like thing for a person to do on her own. I dress like the actual Jews I worship with, not like Anatevka Woman #3, and people actually talk to me at services now, go figure. 

Modesty is about keeping other people in mind when you dress, just that. Just that simple, just that difficult. 

(My sweet new holiday threads.)

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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