My grandma used to tell me a story about the Brigham Young University Testing Center in Provo, Utah. Nobody knows if it truly happened or if it’s just an urban legend. Why modesty is still important or why modesty still matters.
All women were expected to wear knee-length or longer skirts to school every day, regardless of the weather, when she was a coed in the 1940s. According to the narrative, a young woman traveling to the Testing Center during a frigid December finals week decided to battle the blizzard outside in long, warm pants rather than the obligatory skirt.
When she arrived, the gatekeeper of her exam at the counter of the testing center noted that she was wearing pants and told her he could not give her the exam because she was in violation of the honor code. She would need to go home, change into a skirt and return “properly dressed” before she could take her test.
The woman was upset, but she was also clever. She made her way into a testing center bathroom, shimmied out of her long pants which she packed into her bookbag, and buttoned up her long, calf-length coat. A few minutes later, she returned to the counter of the testing center, now seemingly appropriately dressed. Looking smug and pleased with himself for having enforced the rules, the young man handed the lady her test. She then took her examination in her blouse, long coat— and underwear.
I think we can all agree that this incident—real or not—demonstrates where the intention for modesty was looking beyond the mark. Still, the principle of modesty applies today and it represents much more than the length of a woman’s skirt.
How You Dress Affects How You Behave
The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet says, “Your dress and grooming influence the way you and others act.”
Have you ever seen teenagers dressed for the prom? Young ladies wearing long formal gowns and young men wearing tuxedoes? These same kids may have been spending time together wearing leggings and basketball shorts the night before, but there is a noticeable difference in how they behave dressed in their formal attire.
Still not convinced? How do you feel when you haven’t changed out of your pajamas versus when you’re dressed and ready for the day? The way we feel is impacted by how we dress and the way we behave is impacted by how we feel.
Modesty is Situational
While the principle of modesty is a true principle in all circumstances, “modesty” can mean different things in different circumstances.
A swimsuit covering the chest and stomach appears modest at the swimming pool. But a modest swimsuit would be entirely immodest to wear to high school.
A modest cheerleading uniform would likely be an immodest choice for a dress at church. Even a modest prom dress might not be appropriate for church just as a modest tuxedo is not appropriate in the temple. Grooms enter the temple wearing their dress shirts and pants or their suits and may change into their tuxedoes following the ceremony.
Why is this?
Because modesty doesn’t just mean covering your body. It also includes dressing, appearing, and behaving in such a way that isn’t self-aggrandizing or self-indulgent. A tuxedo in the temple draws attention away from the sacred ceremonies taking place and points it directly toward the man wearing it. Similarly, even “modest” wedding dresses are often requested to be worn after—not during—the ceremony. The focus of all patrons and guests should be on the covenants, not on the coverings; the deeds, not the dress.
What is Modesty?
Sister Silvia H. Allred, a former first counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency taught, “Modesty encompasses dress, language, thought, and personal conduct.” She goes on to relate it to humility. “The idea of being humble in how we dress is further reflected in Doctrine and Covenants 42:40: ‘Thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain.’ Does this mean that we cannot dress stylishly? No, we should dress appropriately for the occasion, but we should not consume ourselves with brand names or with always having the latest fashion” (emphasis added).
Modesty is More than Covering Skin
Modesty has more to do with our intentions than it does with our wardrobe. For instance, in Gospel Topics, it is suggested that women who wish to wear earrings “wear only one pair of modest earrings.” It is not suggesting here that women wear earrings that provide some sort of body coverage. Instead, consider how modesty is used when speaking of a “modest home,” or a “modest lifestyle.” “Modest earrings” would include any that would complement my appearance without drawing undue attention to myself.
When I dress and live modestly, I seek to make myself less visible, and the Lord’s countenance within me more visible. Am I here to share His message or am I trying to become the message myself?
A modest home meets my family’s needs without putting on an ostentatious show for my friends, family, and neighbors.
Do I wear this dress simply because I like it? Or do I like the attention I get from wearing it?
Am I buying this car because I like it? It meets my needs? Or does it gratify my pride when others envy it?
The apostle Robert D. Hales said, “To be modest is to be humble, and being humble invites the Spirit to be with us.” He continued, “When we dress for attention, we are not inviting the Spirit to be with us.”
So yes, being modest includes how we dress. But only because how we dress can express the intentions of our heart to either draw people to us or to draw people to Him.
“Modesty is often talked of in terms of dress and appearance, but modesty encompasses much more than the outward appearance,” said Sister Elaine S. Dalton, former Young Women General President. “It is a condition of the heart. It is an outward manifestation of inner knowledge and commitment. It is an expression that we understand our identity as daughters [and sons] of God.”
Modesty Applies to All of Us
Was the young lady wearing pants to the Testing Center attention-seeking? Was she trying to gratify her pride? Was she trying to make finals week about her? Certainly not. She dressed appropriately for the occasion—a cruel Provo blizzard. That is until she took her pants off to appear more modest. True modesty must include intention, not just rules.
Whether we are speaking of modesty in terms of how we dress, how we behave, how we draw attention to ourselves, or how we present ourselves to the world, the need for modesty is applicable to everyone, male or female, old or young. We shouldn’t relegate modesty to only mean wearing sleeves and having a covered midriff. Modesty has to do with pride/humility and temperance. That applies to all of us.
Since Modesty is Rooted in Intention, We Have No Room to Judge
We cannot know another person’s heart or intention, so we must be careful not to condemn others for their choices in dress or appearance. Of course, we must judge for ourselves our own intentions and seek to be humble and modest in our own behaviors, but we must save judgment of others for the Lord.
If all we know of modesty is necklines and hemlines, we are entirely missing the higher principle in it—that how we dress and groom ourselves, how we behave, how we draw attention to ourselves from others is all a reflection of our love for the Savior and our desire to point others right passed ourselves toward Him.