Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Growing Up Modest

My family looked like everyone else when I was little. Mom liked to be comfortable so she wore jeans a lot, but she also sewed her own dresses and liked feminine details like ribbons and lace.

Then my parents attended Bill Gothard's seminars. In the Advanced Seminar, Gothard and his buddy Jim Sammons explained why women shouldn't wear trousers. The accompanying textbook went into a lot more detail, warning against long necklaces, sundresses, false eyelashes, dangling earrings, open-heeled shoes, and t-shirts with "written messages".

So Mom got rid of her jeans and started wearing only skirts. For a while I was still allowed to wear pants to school, on Wednesdays when my class had P.E., but Mom homeschooled me the next year and got rid of my shorts and jeans. I tried to take it in stride, but I did miss those pink seersucker shorts dreadfully. I thought about them every summer.

And speaking of summer, swimsuits became an annual adventure. When I was four, I wore a pink bikini to the neighborhood pool. Later I had a blue one-piece with a little whale on it; I remember wearing it at the lake. The next year Mom had me wear a  cotton romper in the water. It tied at the shoulders and had elastic around the legs (remember the 80's?). I was 8 or 9 when Mom made me my first "swimdress": dark red floral calico, full skirt gathered at the elastic waist, puffy sleeves, a little ruffle at the elastic neck, and matching red bloomers. I stayed with my grandparents for a week that summer and Grammie wanted to take us to her pool.

"Did you bring a swimsuit?" she asked.

"I have a new swimdress," I said dubiously.

"Same difference," said she. But I doubted she understood.

I spread the red outfit on the bed for her to see. Grammie tried to cover her dismay as graciously as possible. But we didn't visit the pool.

Swimwear, late 90's
Over the years I swam in a denim jumper, a prairie dress with a tied belt and bloomers, culottes and a homemade blouse, and finally a periwinkle twill jewel-neck dress with a pleated split skirt and puffed sleeves. I wanted to put cuffs on the legs, but that was not permitted. At the time, I laughed about it. It was better than crying. When it was finished, I put on a pearl choker, put my hair up, and gazed at myself in the mirror. I sighed, I shrugged, and then I laughed.

The beach was a tricky place anyway. We generally went when nobody else wanted to be in Lake Michigan: early mornings when it was still cool, or overcast days. Though we were safe in our full-coverage outfits and the boys kept their shirts on, at the first sighting of a woman in a real bathing suit, we were packing up our beach toys and heading for the car. I bought my first retail swimsuit for my honeymoon.

From Gothard's Advanced textbook
Princess seams were often a problem. As difficult as they were to sew, I loved the smooth curves. But sometimes those curves got us into trouble. I once encouraged my teen sister to buy a floral church-style dress at a yard sale, only to have Mom tell her she couldn't wear it because the bodice fitted "too tightly". I felt terrible. Another time I made a blouse out of a rosy cotton chintz, only to hang the finished article in the storage room for a younger sister to wear before her bosom blossomed to 34B.

We bought cotton mesh polo shirts from Land's End, because they were the only knits we were allowed to wear by themselves. Jersey knits like turtlenecks and t-shirts could only be worn under jumpers, sweaters, or vests. Blouses usually needed a tank top or camisole underneath to disguise any bra straps. Bras could not be lined with any kind of padding--I wore this style until I started breastfeeding. We all wore full-cut briefs, and long homemade bloomers under our skirts. Girls wore nightgowns (sometimes with matching bloomers), not pajamas.

When I got bold enough to buy sweatpants and a pair of loose cotton capris, I sometimes wore them under my jumper on the trampoline. I also started wearing pajamas, being careful to cover up in a robe when I left my room. At the University of North Dakota, I wore shorts and a sleeveless shirt for swimming instead of my old dress.

For years, the boys could only wear shorts to the beach. I nervously went out in shorts for the first time in 1999 when I traveled with two younger brothers to visit my grandparents. I was nearly 24. It was terribly awkward, sitting in the middle of Bebop's backseat being blinded by my white thighs. But it was a hot day and I was determined to try shorts while I had the chance.

Besides dressing carefully ourselves, hiding the JCPenney catalog, and periodically asking to be removed from the Victoria's Secret mailing list, we were cautious about immodesty slipping through in other ways. Dad would preview VHS movies in his office, then show them to us with entire scenes blacked out. The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, and Chariots of Fire were all edited for modesty.

The offensive dress
I was a teenager when my dad showed us the black-and-white biopic Madame Curie, but he skipped through a couple of scenes in the most emotional part of the story, explaining that Marie's dress was  "immodest". This year, I watched the film again, savoring the chemistry of Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as they depicted one of my favorite real-life love stories. Then came the particularly tender scene with Greer as Marie trying on a dark floor-length gown (described by her adoring husband in the film as "becoming", "very beautiful", and "a rather special gown--not low, of course"). The dress is important to the story, since Pierre has a fatal accident before Marie has a chance to wear it. But I'd never seen the scene before. I studied the dress curiously, searching for "eye traps". It was partly a relief not to understand what was wrong with the gown, partly an exasperation.

At the time, I thought my family held unusually high standards, even for conservatives. Now, thanks to the Internet, I can now read how the modesty principle worked out practically in another fundamentalist family. And another girl's story of how churches use "modesty" to shame women. I can laugh with other ex-ATI daughters about lingerie and zealous mothers as clothing police. But, like gazing at my swimsuit in the bathroom mirror, it's a strangled laugh.


  1. Oh J, I feel mingled nausea and grief and humor at reading this. I too remember stepping out in shorts for the first time as an adult, I remember swimming in ridiculous outfits, I remember having my necklines yanked up and hemlines yanked down in PUBLIC by outraged rellies, I remember being told a family member couldn't even look at me because I was dressed like a prostitute. I was covered from collarbone to toe, including tights, but the skirt was "too short". I'm so glad we're free. So glad.

    1. And I'm so glad I no longer hear those voices in my head every time I open my closet! It took a lot of years to shut them up...

  2. Re: Eyetraps.

    Ok, I give up: 1 must be the open lace; 4 the slit; 5 the . . . v neckline?; 6 the fitted bodice? Two and three, I'm not sure. Skirt not loose enough? Bodice falls over hips (even though it's not princess-seamed or otherwise fitted)? Sleeves too short??

    1. 6 is the patterned hose. 2 and 3--the assymetrical lines drawing the eye away from the "countenance", the seam across the hips & the points of the big square collar pointing away from the face. ;)

  3. I think some of these rules are a bit overboard.