Since the pants powwow continues, I have decided to throw up my hands (in a very feminine way, of course) and just consider this an unofficial Endless Modesty Debate Week on And Sometimes Tea. Unless something really interesting happens in the news, and I decide to write about that instead. I have the attention span of a fruit fly. But you know this--you read this blog.
Now, by using the term "Endless Modesty Debate," I don't mean to imply that modesty isn't an important virtue (it is), that there aren't important things pertaining to modesty to discuss (there are), or that the role of modesty in the Christian life isn't sometimes overlooked (it is). I'm really just poking a little lighthearted fun at the people out there who think that a rather ordinary, non-smokin'-hot, non-provocative garment women have been wearing for about eighty years now is not modest for them, simply because men wore that garment mostly exclusively for the 140 years prior to that point. In the history of fashion, there were lots of garments worn originally by men which were eventually adapted for use by women--being thoroughly feminized along the way, so that the ability to tell which garments were for men and which for women was retained. This "pants" business is a familiar chapter in a very old story.
But why do so many people really seem to freak out over this? Someone suggested to me that part of the problem might be tied to the fact that there are so many "walking wounded" out there--men and women who were abused sexually as young children, a crime that is far more common than most of us would like to believe. Someone who is an abuse survivor might, on the one hand, be drawn to arguments about garments that somehow protect one's gender identity and virtue--or, on the other hand, an abuse survivor might think that one type of garment would be more of a protection against abuse than another. It's a sobering thought, and one to keep in mind when comment threads overheat and grow to dizzying lengths.
Other reasons may be less serious to consider. For instance, yesterday I mentioned the idea that some men would like to return to a Golden Age of manhood, when men were real men who smoked, drank, gambled, rode horses, and suchlike, and women stayed away from all male pursuits with that flattering demure demeanor that said, louder than words, "Oh, I'm just a little woman! I don't have an idea in my head--except to tell you how wonderful you men are."
Obviously that's a caricature, but in the interest of fairness, I should mention the female flip-side to that romantic notion: the idea held by some women that the modern world is a drab and unpleasant place, compared to the world of the Golden Age of womanhood, when women dressed well, flirted chastely, married triumphantly and were cherished and spoiled from that day forward. This idea, garnered from romantic old books (but not romance novels, which are smut disguised as fiction), leaves a certain type of woman sighing for the days when her most strenuous task for the day would be to order the evening's meal from her domestic staff, shop for some ribbon with which to trim a new hat, and set to work, with elegant handwriting, on the invitations for the party she would host in a few weeks. After all, isn't that what real, feminine women do? And isn't that the sort of thing we lost, when we gave up those luscious feminine clothes?
Of course, the immediate objection is that the cook who had to make the meal, and the maid who ran to the market in a fruitless quest for some ingredient or other crucial to its success, and the shop assistant who quietly measured and cut the desired length of ribbon, were all women, too. The smiling gentlemen who bowed when they saw our wealthy socialite probably passed these other women on the street without really noticing them. Their lives weren't luxury and feminine delight, and if they were lucky they had a not-too-old Sunday dress at home in the tiny press-closet, along with two hats: straw for summer, and a cheap but more substantial hat for the other seasons.
Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie tells us about one of those women. A simple girl from a rural farm, she comes to Chicago to live with her married sister and to work; she meets a traveling salesman named Drouet on the train, and continues to communicate with him after her arrival. She is disgusted by her sister's life of toil, her brother-in-law's rude manners, and the drudgery of her own job. In the midst of this she sees Drouet again, and in an unmistakable act he gives her money, twenty dollars.
She is conflicted for only a short time. Accepting the money, and accepting what it means--her eventual role as Drouet's mistress--places a gulf between her and the honest working girls who surround her in the city. But what girls they are! Their lined faces, red hands, exhausted air--their future of endless toil regardless of whether they marry or not--the grinding poverty that keeps them from enjoying the truly feminine aspects of life--none of that appeals to Carrie in the least. She keeps the money, and Drouet takes her shopping. For clothes. For a beautiful jacket and shoes, feminine treasures. The loss of her virtue seems not to trouble Carrie much at all, as a price to pay for this avenue to the life of feminine luxury she so desperately covets.
It is a mistake to see femininity as itself a desirable virtue above chastity, honesty, moderation. Carrie does, and she is willing to give up everything that makes her an honest and respectable girl for its sake. The working girls she scorns are less than women to her, with their ugly clothes and rough manners. But in the end, they keep something of themselves which Carrie loses: the capacity for real love, for happiness--for joy.
There is nothing wrong with a woman preferring to wear skirts and dresses, to paint her nails (or have them done), to pause at the cosmetic counter or the shoe department when shopping, or to display otherwise her female nature. But none of these things are required elements of being female, either. The woman who wears pants because they are comfortable, flattering on her, and practical for her life, or the woman who never paints her nails and keeps them clipped short because she types faster that way, or the woman who dislikes makeup and seldom wears it, or the woman for whom shoe-shopping is a penance of the most extreme variety, is still a woman--as are the women who can't afford a varied wardrobe, manicures, brand-name makeup, or shoes that don't come from the thrift store.
In other words, to place the concept of femininity solely on the way a woman decides to dress is to make the idea so shallow and mutable as to render it almost meaningless. And that would be a shame--because one of the things a book like Sister Carrie teaches us is that the rough women Carrie views with contempt are more truly feminine than she will ever be, with her fine clothes, soft voice, and complaisant manner. They are more feminine, because they don't despise their virtue and trade it for a few dollars' worth of clothes.