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Modesty is the New Black: A Look at How Feminism is Changing Women’s Fashion

Fashion trends come and go, and people say that classics transcend time. However, what passes for classic varies from person to person. Some say what’s classic is modest — but the provocative basics, such as the little-black-dress, persist throughout the decades.

The first half of the 2000’s saw the rise of the skinny jean, along with the return of the miniskirt, the rainbow grunge of Lisa Frank, and the rest of the nineties. Now that the twenties approach, hemlines lengthen and necklines rise.

Structured blazers, turtleneck bodysuits, nineties “mom” jeans and seventies prints and fashions take the lead as 2018 begins. One part of your bodily silhouette may be enhanced by a skirt cut in the bodycon fashion, but the hemline will now drop to the classic knee length pencil skirt. Just as a makeup lover chooses lips over eyes or vice versa, we may very well see the other areas of her silhouette start to tend toward modest fashion and lines, along with a shift to a multicultural and non-binary lens. So what’s the reason for this change?

A Multicultural Take on Fashion

For many, fashion is a statement of what it means to be who you are. Technology and travel bring multiple cultures together, and ultimately a multicultural angle in fashion had to happen. If the United States is a true cultural melting pot, its fashion movement should also reflect that fact. A multicultural awakening is happening, as society shifts away from the over-sexualization of women’s bodies.

It’s been long-overdue that fashion week needs more racial inclusivity with its designers, and that fact may now be fueling designers of various backgrounds to represent their cultural identity through fashion and move fashion forward by elevating new and different looks.

Some fashions appropriate the traditional dress of other cultures, but the argument for cultural sharing is what happens when someone properly educates themselves in the tradition of the culture and respects it while representing its fashions. In the United States, cultural exchange happens every day, from the sushi you eat to a passion for Bollywood, where the bindi first took off in fashion beyond its spiritual leanings.

Hand-in-hand with cultural exchange comes the grace of respect as you approach fashion from a multicultural and personal lens. The line between appropriation and appreciation can be thin: Young Indian women are taught to wear their bindis for religious functions, but Selena Gomez and Gwen Stefani have both worn bindis on stage.

Context is key when it comes to respect. If a performance highlights the culture in some important aspect, it may be appropriate for a white person to share cultural clothing. Such as with certain events like an Indian wedding or a Diwali dinner. However, it’s important to really evaluate the driving factor behind using another culture’s garb.

From Entertainment Award Wardrobe Warnings to Modesty Winning

Fashion runways typically break stereotypical molds with their over-the-top looks. Many of the women on the runway are donned in bulky, showy dresses and garb. Entertainment awards, however, have traditionally been a bit different. Only a few years ago, the Grammy Awards issued a wardrobe warning to ensure “all buttocks and female breasts are adequately covered.” Remember that time when Jennifer Lopez showed up to the Grammys in a sheer Versace dress? Today, though, you will notice a perceptible shift to more modest dresses.

Looking back on her infamously revealing green Versace dress, Jennifer Lopez stated she’d never forget it but that the night was about more than dresses. For the ceremony in 2017, Lopez wore a more demure dress — a pastel lilac gown with a thigh slit.

In 2017, the Academy Awards experienced interesting walks down the red carpet by female stars in flowing dresses that draped them from the neck to the floor. Each dress swept the carpet and sparkled, not taking away from the beautiful lines of the female body. Instead, these elegant gowns drew attention directly to each female star’s face, beaming smile and talent.

The Extra Little Black Dress Gets a Makeover

Even our classics at home seem to be getting a makeover. The classic little black dress remains an essential staple for a lady’s closet. Women often wear it to feel timeless, romantic and elegant.

The little black dress turned 90 in 2016, featured in Vogue originally in 1926. The LBD launched during the time of the women’s liberation movement.

Today, the little black dress persists as a classic, but a woman may choose from sweeping floor-length, baby doll or bodycon looks. The modern style raises the neckline and extends the length to the calf, while maintaining the elegant curves of a woman’s body. Women have the freedom to show what they want to show without being so subject to over-sexualization of the thighs, hips or breasts.

So What’s Going On?

The tendency to over-sexualize women through the male gaze likely pressured women over the years to wear more sexual outfits to maintain their employment status, especially female celebrities who are the most visible icons to young girls — perpetuating the unhealthy trend. Women in Hollywood are frequently denied roles because they are viewed as too old or “unsexy.”

Women of the red carpet recently protested the over-sexualization of women and the abuse of women in Hollywood by wearing all black to ceremonies like the Golden Globes. This is great because no matter how ineffectual it may sound, fashion can make a big statement in an industry as popularized as Hollywood.

Is modesty the new “thing?” Perhaps. Perhaps everything that’s gone on politically lately has started to wake up Hollywood and the fashion industry a bit to how media impacts our society’s respect for women.

I’m not saying women should have to dress like nuns. A woman empowers herself when she chooses when and how to reveal her sexuality. The choice is hers. Modesty doesn’t have to mean repression of the woman, either. It all comes down to acknowledging the difference between personal preference, and the enforcement of the male gaze.

A shift away from the over-sexualization of women’s bodies in the media is almost always a positive, especially when looking at how much of an impact media imagery of women can have, especially on young people. The more we can represent women in the media as human beings, and not as mannequins, the better.

Modesty is the state of being unassuming — which is a great way for female stars and women everywhere to take back their own bodies. No matter what, though, embrace your style — whether that’s a bodycon LBD at the club or a day on the town in your mom jeans.

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Written by Kate Harveston

Kate is a political journalist from Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing about women's issues and social justice. You can check out more of her work here at Fembot or on her personal blog,

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