By now most of us probably know about the story Hannah’s New Dress. I will let Peggy Fletcher Stack describe the scenario from her excellent and multilayered article Does Mormon Modesty Mantra Reduce Women to Sex Objects from from February 28th:
One of them tells of little Hannah, who wanted to wear to the zoo a red-and-white sundress that her grandma had given her, but she noticed it didn’t have any sleeves. So her mother put a T-shirt under it. “Now I am ready to go to the zoo,” said the child.
The message is implicit: modesty matters and should matter even to the youngest members of the church. What is most striking about this story is that the young girl is the one who recognizes the problems with the dress.
Hannah ran to her room. A new dress was on her bed. It was white with red cherries on it. Red was her favorite color. But Hannah frowned.
“It doesn’t have any sleeves,” she said.
Having it be the young girl who realizes the dress does not meet modesty standards is a demonstration of how the church hopes that girls and young women are digesting the messages they receive about modesty. Of course, it is up to the parents, such as the mother in the story, to iterate and exemplify modesty. However, if young children do not eventually catch on themselves, the lessons are ultimately ineffectual.
The story of the little girl Hannah resonated with me recently as I read Mitzvah Girls: Bringing up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn by anthropologist Ayala Fadar. Fadar focuses her study on Bobover Hasidic women and girls and how young girls learn to become Hasidic woman and are taught to bridge the gap between secular culture and religion for their future husbands and sons. An integral aspect of this transition is embodying modesty. Modesty (Tsnies) within this context includes clothing (stockings and skirt length; headcovering for married women), comportment, and appropriate knowledge of secular culture to transcend both worlds. A young girl is considered to be reaching an important stage in her maturation when she chooses to be modest by herself. Fadar recorded one story of a young girl choosing modesty:
One day a first-grader with short brown hair and big brown eyes, Shayndie, raised her hand and shyly told Mrs. Silver that she had asked her mother if she could wear tights that summer instead of knee socks. Her family’s practice was to allow girls to wear tights that summer instead of knee socks in the summer (to be cooler) until they were in second grade, at which time they would have to wear tights year-round. Shayndie’s mother had happily agreed and bought her daughter new tights. Mrs. Silver told the class, “Wow! That is such a special story that I’m going to share it with the principle.” She retold the story to the class, as Shayndie, a quiet girl, beamed from her seat.
In both religious contexts, the celebrated act is not just dressing modestly but choosing modesty for one’s self.
Though the meanings of modesty in each religious context is different and nuanced, the specific clothing associated with both religious traditions (such as t-shirts under dresses or tank tops for Mormons and stockings for young Bobover year round) serve as markers that associate these young girls with a specific religious group and signifies them as separate and distinct from the mainstream. When discussing religion and clothing within mainstream (specifically pop) culture, the attention almost always goes to what is perceived as foreign or weird. We can’t forget America’s fascination with “magical underwear” during the Mormon Moment (the resurgence of the interest I think is owed to Book of Mormon the Musical). Visitors to New York City often stare at Jewish men in traditional Hasidic clothing on the subway or quietly (or loudly) wonder if the woman with him is actually wearing a wig. I wonder what an exploration of modesty and clothing as signifiers of difference would look like if we focused on the unassuming “normal” clothing that that are considered essential to achieve appropriate modesty. What ready-to-wear clothing sold in stores like Target and Gap are considered staples for maintaining modesty?
The story of “Hannah’s New Dress” emphasizes that the practice of choosing modestly is an essential aspect of growing up Mormon. Of course, this is just an expectation set forth, admittedly rather persuasively, by the church. And while there is ample evidence of young Latter-day Saints actively choosing modesty, there are many examples that fall in between the prescription and actual practice. But, of course, the intersection of the “in between” is often the most fascinating space to observe and study.