The great artistic elaboration often displayed by articles of ornament or clothing, even when very small, and the fact—as shown by Karl von den Steinen regarding the Brazilian uluri—that they may serve as common motives in general decoration, sufficiently prove that such objects attract rather than avoid attention. And while there is an invincible repugnance among some peoples to remove these articles, such repugnance being often strongest when the adornment is most minute, others have no such repugnance or are quite indifferent whether or not their aprons are accurately adjusted. The mere presence or possession of the article gives the required sense of self-respect, of human dignity, of sexual desirability. Thus it is that to unclothe a person, is to humiliate him; this was so even in Homeric times, for we may recall the threat of Ulysses to strip Thyestes.
When clothing is once established, another element, this time a social-economic element, often comes in to emphasize its importance and increase the anatomical modesty of women. I mean the growth of the conception of women as property. Waitz, followed by Schurtz and Letourneau, has insisted that the jealousy of husbands is the primary origin of clothing, and, indirectly, of modesty. Diderot in the eighteenth century had already given clear expression to the same view. It is undoubtedly true that only married women are among some peoples clothed, the unmarried women, though full grown, remaining naked. In many parts of the world, also, as Mantegazza and others have shown, where the men are naked and the women covered, clothing is regarded as a sort of disgrace, and men can only with difficulty be persuaded to adopt it. Before marriage a woman was often free, and not bound to chastity, and at the same time was often naked; after marriage she was clothed, and no longer free. To the husband’s mind, the garment appears—illogically, though naturally—a moral and physical protection against any attack on his property. Thus a new motive was furnished, this time somewhat artificially, for making nakedness, in women at all events, disgraceful. As the conception of property also extended to the father’s right over his daughters, and the appreciation of female chastity developed, this motive spread to unmarried as well as married women. A woman on the west coast of Africa must always be chaste because she is first the property of her parents and afterwards of her husband, and even in the seventeenth century of Christendom so able a thinker as Bishop Burnet furnished precisely the same reason for feminine chastity. This conception probably constituted the chief and most persistent element furnished to the complex emotion of modesty by the barbarous stages of human civilization.
This economic factor necessarily involved the introduction of a new moral element into modesty. If a woman’s chastity is the property of another person, it is essential that she shall be modest in order that men may not be tempted to incur the penalties involved by the infringement of property rights.
Thus modesty is strictly inculcated on women in order that men may be safeguarded from temptation.
The fact was overlooked that modesty is itself a temptation.
Immodesty being, on this ground, disapproved by men, a new motive for modesty is furnished to women. In the book which the Knight of the Tower, Landry, wrote in the fourteenth century, for the instruction of his daughters, this factor of modesty is naïvely revealed. He tells his daughters of the trouble that David got into through the thoughtlessness of Bathsheba, and warns them that
“every woman ought religiously to conceal herself when dressing and washing, and neither out of vanity nor yet to attract attention show either her hair, or her neck, or her breast, or any part which ought to be covered.”
Hinton went so far as to regard what he termed “body modesty,” as entirely a custom imposed upon women by men with the object of preserving their own virtue. While this motive is far from being the sole source of modesty, it must certainly be borne in mind as an inevitable outcome of the economic factor of modesty.
In Europe…. state of things was modified in part by the growing force of the dictates of Christian morality, which regarded
all intimate approaches between the sexes as sinful,
and in part by the influence of chivalry with its æsthetic and moral
ideals of women, as the representative of all the delicacies and elegancies of civilization.
This ideal was regarded as incompatible with the familiarities of the existing social relationships between the sexes, and thus a separation, which at first existed only in art and literature, began by a curious reaction to exert an influence on real life.
…The French seventeenth century, and the English eighteenth, represent early stages of modern European civilization, and they both devoted special attention to the elaboration of the minute details of modesty. The frequenters of the Hotel Rambouillet, the précieuses satirized by Molière, were not only engaged in refining the language; they were refining feelings and ideas and enlarging the boundaries of modesty.
In England ….The altogether new quality of literary prurience, of which Sterne is still the classical example, could only have arisen on the basis of the new modesty which was then overspreading society and literature. Idle people, mostly, no doubt, the women in salons and drawing-rooms, people more familiar with books than with the realities of life, now laid down the rules of modesty, and were ever enlarging it, ever inventing new subtleties of gesture and speech, which it would be immodest to neglect, and which are ever being rendered vulgar by use and ever changing.
It was at this time, probably, that the custom of inventing an arbitrary private vocabulary of words and phrases for the purpose of disguising references to functions and parts of the body regarded as immodest and indecent, first began to become common. Such private slang, growing up independently in families, and especially among women, as well as between lovers, is now almost universal. It is not confined to any European country, and has been studied in Italy by Niceforo (Il Gergo, 1897, cap. 1 and 2), who regards it as a weapon of social defence against an inquisitive or hostile environment, since
it enables things to be said with a meaning which is unintelligible to all but the initiated person.
While it is quite true that the custom is supported by the consciousness of its practical advantages, it has another source in a desire to avoid what is felt to be the vulgar immodesty of direct speech. This is sufficiently shown by the fact that such slang is mostly concerned with the sacro-pubic sphere. It is one of the chief contributions to the phenomena of modesty furnished by civilization. The claims of modesty having effected the clothing of the body, the impulse of modesty finds a further sphere of activity—half-playful, yet wholly imperative—in the clothing of language.