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Style Statements: When External Judgements Conflict with Personal Choices

by Ashley on December 7, 2010

A girl friend of mine recently wrote about the judgment she felt based on how she was dressed.  She’s not the first friend of mine who, dressed in a similar manner, felt judged based on what she’s wearing from the conservative sector.

What’s surprising though, is that these aren’t girls with vibrant, candy colored hair.  They aren’t covered in tattoos or piercings.  They aren’t wearing torn fishnets and lingerie on a daily basis ala Taylor Momsen.

They’re young women with long hair who wear it pulled up in a bun, braid, or chignon.  They wear light, natural make-up, or none at all.  They wear long, ankle-length skirts (or maxi-skirts if you want to get all fashionista).  They’re modest women, each with varying political and social views, contrasting upbringings and attitudes.  Yet both of them feel the same when they’re in public– judgment from others because of the way they’re dressed.

The quickest judgment is a projection of religious beliefs on the women– that they’re Mormon, Baptist, Pentecostal.

And to be honest, I’m not quite sure what to say about that.

Growing up in the South, it’s easy to project particular religious (and thus social/cultural) beliefs on to a person: clothes can become like a uniform that signifies beliefs without saying a word.  For men an earring in a particular lobe used to indicate homosexuality decades ago; a scarf in a particular pattern and tied a certain way can indicate political affiliations. Society changes with earrings; scarves and national icons get culturally appropriated.

But what about when the modesty and conservatism for a religious faction get confused with the wardrobe of just a modest young woman?

What do you say to this woman?

What about when this woman is your friend? What do you say to her discomfort for being judged, for people assuming things about her religion or lifestyle?

I’m sorry, but that’s what you get for dressing that way?

I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t be modest?

I’m sorry people are quick-to-judge assholes?

Just act like you’re more stylish than them and know what’s up!

supermodel frida, zara maxi skirt
What makes the modest girl in the ankle length skirt and bun any different than the fashionista in the maxi skirt and ponytail?

Why is it that styling it (or not styling it) a particular way moves it from religious cult to cutting edge of fashion?

Or did Chloe Sevigny make Mormon fashion fashionable?

To be honest, I don’t know.

I don’t know how I feel about it, I don’t know how to change it, and I certainly don’t know how to respond… but maybe you do?  Have you experienced this yourself?  Have you been with girlfriends when this happens? What’s your thoughts and reactions towards it?


Rad December 14, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Great post. I came here from Franca’s blog. I didn’t get a chance to read all the posts, but I did really like the question. I think people should dress as they want to, but most will probably make their choices based on how others react to their choices. For example, I got looks whenever I wore a longer skirt while living in an orthodox Jewish community, (not weird looks, but folks walking behind me would turn and look at me when they passed me to see if they could recognize me). My friend still lives in that neighborhood and went to a pizza place in a short, backless dress (and she’s got big tattoos) and this caused a stir and even got mentioned in the NY Times. ( Later, we went there and she promised she would cover her back, to make others feel comfortable.
I would tell your friends to keep dressing as they do, and to laugh and redirect any questions about their style. It’s best not to engage with someone who asks overly personal questions,because this person will just think it’s OK.

Ashe Mischief December 27, 2010 at 8:07 pm

That’s so weird for your friend, though I suppose completely understandable when the majority-minority group aren’t used to it. And how sensationist for it to end up in the NY Times! I think it’s really decent of her to have enough respect for the community to cover herself up…. so many people would kind of give them the bird and go on being individuals… but there’s a lot to be said about having respect for that which makes others uncomfortable…

jennine December 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm

ooh, everyone gets judged by the way they dress. even men. the first thing you learn about menswear is that you can tell how well dressed a guy is based on his shoes. ever notice a guy in a suit and crappy black sneakers? he probably works at hertz rentacar.

but the reality is, that when people feel they are being judged, most of it is just perception. it’s either the other person’s issues and insecurities, or it’s our own issues. since we can only handle our own insecurities, i’d just go and say to heck with it…do what you want! i there’s a lot to be said about dressing conservatively. i personally would like to see more of it.

Ashe Mischief December 27, 2010 at 8:02 pm

I agree — it’d be nice to see more conservative dressing….. and there’s definitely a sense of projecting your own insecurities on to others, thinking they’re projecting them on to you? It’s so weird how our minds work!

Fajr | Stylish Thought December 8, 2010 at 3:33 pm

I most certainly know the feeling, growing up Muslim, covering and dressing differently and more modest than other girls was always a struggle for me. I think its so strange that it’s now cool to dress brashly and that modesty is associated with Mormonism and cult like activity. Initially, I would say that it’s a knee-jerk reaction to judge women who dress modestly because of all the things we see in the media, similar to how people judge Muslim women who wear hijabs and cover their faces. However, it doesn’t make it right and I think dressing modestly in a world that celebrates sex should be applauded.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Fajr, given your background, I’m so glad you commented! Actually, one of these girlfriends like to wear hijabs, just because she enjoys the extra protection from the sun during the summer…. but it’s so strange how that elicits fewer responses than just the skirt and bun do! I wish the media and people could just let go of it all!

Hipployta December 8, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Hmm….I don’t get that reaction at all when I’m wearing my Gunne Sax maxis…it’s either people think I’m in a play or fashion fabulous and I’ve been wearing them since 2001.

One old picture from 2006 on a roof:

One random video in another dress in 2008:

Retro Chick December 8, 2010 at 6:29 am

Oooh, how interesting. Definitely food for thought.

I think, like Franca said, you can’t escape the fact that the clothes you wear are cultural signifiers and people WILL make assumptions based on what you look like.

I think what really matters is what they do with those assumptions. We all make them because it makes dealing with the world easier, but if you use those assumptions to make judgements about people that you’re not willing to have corrected, or to assume they’re not someone you want to associate with or you won’t get on, then that’s not good!

People will assume that someone who dresses in a certain way shares a lot of the values they associate with that look or group, so I guess if you DON’T you have to be aware that you might have to spend a lot of time explaining yourself.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Well, I will say– having friends go through it makes me less likely to judge a gal in a long skirt and bun! Makes me want to make less assumptions….

The Clothes Horse December 8, 2010 at 12:33 am

I’d say I know the feeling. People in college would always ask me if I had a religious stance against pants & then were shocked to learn I was a feminist.
Also, when I first started reading and it said “these women don’t have bright hair or tattoos” (to paraphrase); I thought “obviously!” It’s just those type of women kinda know they’re going to marginalized & basically say “f*** it, think what you like about me; my outward appearance isn’t my whole person.” It’s honestly the kind of attitude women who dress modestly for fashion/personal preference should develop…you can’t change what people think when they look at you, but you can change their minds once you have a dialogue with them.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:51 pm

“It’s just those type of women kinda know they’re going to marginalized & basically say “f*** it, think what you like about me; my outward appearance isn’t my whole person.” It’s honestly the kind of attitude women who dress modestly for fashion/personal preference should develop…you can’t change what people think when they look at you, but you can change their minds once you have a dialogue with them.”

Yes! That is so well said, Rebecca.

Lindsay December 7, 2010 at 9:00 pm

This was one of the best posts I’ve read this year, Ashe. Well done.

I hope to [whatever] that the difference between the fashionista in the maxi dress and the modest girl is NOT the label, the retail store, or the price… But I have a feeling that if a fashionable girl decides that an Alexander Wang sweater and long skirt look good, she’d rock it over thrift store finds which she’d deem dowdy.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Thank you, L!

Audi December 7, 2010 at 4:30 pm

What a thought-provoking topic, Ashe. I don’t think the long skirt-religion association even holds up outside the south and perhaps Pennsylvania Hamish country; I certainly don’t consider it out here in California because religion in general is just not a major part of life here (at least 40% of the population is non-religious or atheist). But I also think that there tends to be a difference in the approach to dressing between someone who consciously chooses a covered-up, stylish look, versus someone who dresses to hide herself. It can be a fairly subtle difference to be sure, but perhaps the feedback your friends are getting is from well-meaning people who assume that if these ladies only had a little more confidence, they would be dressing the way they really want, and not concealing themselves under shapeless and unflattering (in the opinions of the commenters, obvs) clothes.

I would concur with Franca in saying that most days I dress in a way that doesn’t show a lot of bare skin, but no one is ever going to characterize my style as “modest” (and I’d be insulted if they did!). To me, modest is not just about covering up; it also conveys an approach to dressing that is intentionally plain and ornamented. And in my experience that kind of dress is often the result of someone not wanting to draw attention to herself, which may indicate a lack of self confidence. It sucks if your friend’s chosen style is really and truly what she feels is the most flattering and what makes her feel fabulous, but for many people that isn’t the case, and perhaps the feedback she’s getting is because her detractors feel that she isn’t really expressing herself with her style.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Is it possible that California may be the one outside the norm? Because I’ve lived all over, pretty split (with the exception of the west coast) and have noticed it from D.C. to the South, to the Mid-West, to super liberal college towns…. maybe California’s just too liberal for the rest of the US?

There’s certainly no way I’d categorize you or Franca as modest dressers, even though neither of you are belly baring!

Oddly, one of the friends is a belly-dancer… someone not typically afraid of ornamentation OR showing off her body! She’s plus sized, and when she’s not performing, she likes to dress more casually and comfortably…it’s such a weird, weird thing!

Dorothy December 7, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Great post, I was definitely curious when I started reading because of the Big Love screen capture. Wack people judging modest girls is the same as judging women with tattoos, short skirts, and dyed hair. People with a limited understanding of the world are going to project their tiny-minded beliefs on others no matter what, so a girl’s gotta brush her shoulders up, straighten her maxi skirt, and be on her way. It’s tough to hear it, but anyone can develop a tough skin if she keeps wearing what she wants to wear and is feeling good about how she looks, regardless of what the haters say.

Fashion Limbo December 7, 2010 at 11:54 am

while I cant completely relate to these cases, I have been judged by the way i dressed…always. I grew up in the south of Spain but heavily influenced by my British heritage and yearly trips to London, my style was very much “different” to the rest. Not more risky, or shorter, or brighter… simply different. 10 years later and Spain is becoming fashion crazy and while not as bold as the Brit fashionistas, things have changed. What worked for me is looking at this narrow minded idiots who would yell at me and seeing them as one of the many bores in life that I continue to ignore. Small minds are not worth anyone’s time, I’m sorry.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Well it’s kind of funny.. because I’m sure the people often judging my girl friends are assuming that my friends are the small minded ones (because the others are thinking that they’re from narrow-minded, super conservative religious groups). It’s like this weird cycle of thinking you’re super liberal and large minded, but being small minded for judging someone!

Emily, Ruby Slipper Traveller December 7, 2010 at 11:47 am

I kind of have to agree with Franca, it’s strange to me from a European (or even Canadian) perspective. I dress modestly myself in the sense that I’m not into flashing a lot of skin–usually– but I think if you’re taking it to the max, or the maxi, heh, you do have to expect people to draw certain conclusions. Especially if you’re living in an area where people dressing that way certainly do have particular beliefs.

I think modesty is almost a strange fetish in the US…

Incidentally, here in the UK people wearing long skirts are generally muslim, and there’s a lot of girls with head coverings of one type or another. It is religious, but I’m not sure how much people judge them over it, except for people who are just generally bigoted. I see these girls interacting perfectly normally with everyone else.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:46 pm

“I think modesty is almost a strange fetish in the US…” You may be right on that… it could be why there are all sorts of sexy nun costumes and such at Halloween….

Laura Connell December 7, 2010 at 11:04 am

Interesting post. I have become intrigued by modesty in dress recently. A La Modeste is a fashion blog which focuses on the topic and I think she got me into it (Rachel). I am moving toward it myself, being more covered up and flaunting less skin. Especially since I’ve heard about all these body image issues young women are suffering with, I feel a kind of responsibility to draw attention away from my body and encourage myself to value other attributes, to not be so body-conscious in the things I wear. It’s nice to be valued for what you have inside and wearing modest clothing makes others more apt to do that.

It’s important for your friends to know that there will always be people who judge us whether it’s based on our clothing or anything else. Our job is to rise above the criticism or assumptions and have the courage to be true to ourselves. Also to spend time with those who support you in your choices will help you find strength.

FarmGirl Fashionista December 7, 2010 at 10:27 am

I live in a largely Amish and Mennonite area…so long skirts and buns are quite the norm…it does signify their religious beliefs out here. With that said…that makes me the outcast with my big hair and bold clothing. I feel judged quite frequently for my outward appearance from the opposite perspective. Do I let it bother me? Some days…but I’ve tried to blend in and if you’re not true to yourself…that’s an even worse feeling.

Grit and Glamour December 7, 2010 at 10:25 am

Whenever I’ve been judged on my exterior I am reminded of my ultimate opinion when it comes to me and my clothing choices: I don’t give a flying fig what anyone thinks. Perhaps you just need to remind your girlfriends that no matter what they wear, someone will always dislike it. So the best thing is to remember that the only opinion that really matters is their own.

If people want to make stupid and erroneous assumptions about someone’s religious affiliation—or anything else—based on appearance, they’re the schmucks, not your homies.

♥ V
twitter: @gritandglamour

Franca December 7, 2010 at 9:11 am

Great post, and a difficult question. Clearly clothes are cultural signifiers and how we dress is part of the overall package of things that tell others what we’re about – but only part. Noone should be drawing conclusions from just one aspect of a persons personality, their clothes. But we cannot *stop* people drawing these conclusions completely either, and presumably neither would we want to, because we can use these coded messages in a positive way too.

I also wanted to draw attention to the fact that the specific long skirt = religious cult thing you focus on seems to be a North America specific issue. If I (in the UK, from Germany/Luxembourg) see a person in a long skirt and her hair in a bun I think nothing other than ‘oh, she’s wearing a long skirt and has her hair in a bun’. This kind of dress just doesn’t *mean* anything culturally, because generally religious people tend to not express their faith through clothes so much in Europe. Also, I actually have no idea what Baptist and Pentecostal mean, and only a vague idea of what mormon means.

Kind of tangientially related to all of this is the prevalence of the term modest. In the US, this seems to have a very accepted meaning of not showing skin, that it does not here. I actually dress pretty modestly, but would never describe myself as a modest dresser, and am actually highly uncomfortable with some of the reasoning behind the idea of modesty (I talk about it a bit here

I do apologise for length and rambliness!

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Franca, I’m glad you posted the non-US perceptions, as they honestly didn’t cross my mind when writing this! Though it’d make sense…. I’m pretty sure Mormonism was founding in the US and I’m not sure about Baptists or Pentecostals, but maybe they’re US subsects too.

It’s funny how the word modesty is so limited culturally too- yet, some women like yourself (or Audi below) who technically DO dress more modestly aren’t, find it slightly discomforting and offensive… so interesting!

Ellie Di December 7, 2010 at 8:15 am

My answer to this is much like my answer to other situations in which people are being judge-y for little to no reason: haters gonna hate. People in any situation will project their own opinions and snap judgments onto everyone else, it’s just a shame that it’s coming out against ladies who prefer maxis and having their hair out of their face. Modesty is seen almost as aberrant these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s silly or “bad” in any way. It’s more than worth the effort to hold your head high, let them assume away, and love your own style. Their jerkiness (or ignorance) doesn’t have to get to you.

Ashe Mischief December 9, 2010 at 2:42 pm

“Modesty is seen almost as aberrant these days” — I think maybe that’s something that makes me so sad and bothered by it!

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