My Closet Tried to Hold Me Hostage But We’re Cool Now: What Lauren Shields’ “The Beauty Suit” Taught Me About Different Kinds of ‘Modesty’
I didn’t mean to start my spring cleaning at 10:30pm on a Tuesday. I had just gotten home from having a drink with a friend, and it was warm enough in my attic room to open a window. I was optimistic in the way that only a cheap cider and a text confirming that your order of pad thai will arrive in thirty minutes or less can make a person. Tonight, I announced to my roommate’s cat, would be the night I finally switched my summer and winter clothes. I dragged the boxes from the attic, and began what would be a three-hour process.
It was a lot more than I bargained for.
The thing about my clothes is that I have a lot of them. I love clothing. I like experimenting with how colors, patterns, and cuts fit together. I like that styles of dress (or undress) are, in their own ways, incredibly political when executed in certain contexts. At various points in my life, clothes have helped me say things about myself that I couldn’t articulate in words. Getting dressed is sometimes my best litmus test for gauging the distance between how I’m actually feeling and how I’d like to feel. In the process of matching mood to garment, I accumulate what can only be considered an excessive amount of clothing.
With each place I’ve lived, my closets have needed to yawn wider to accommodate everything I try to put in them. Between my mother’s enviable talents as a seamstress and her well-earned reputation as world champion of thrift shopping, something newly made, adapted, or fished from a Salvation Army rack appears weekly in the closet: a bright purple sleeping-bag length winter parka bought at Goodwill in July that is very slightly different than the knee-length purple parka bought in May, a pair of almost-new Doc Martens, a men’s button up shirt and tie transformed into a dress.
Over time, my closet began to divide itself into “Clothes I Wear” and those that comprise what author Lauren Shields might call “The Beauty Suit,” or: “a costume [a woman wears] when she leaves the house, one partly based on satisfying the male gaze . . . that takes our bodies as they naturally exist and adds enormous amounts of money, time, and effort in quantities men are never expected to approach.” It is a uniform she describes in her book The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist as “clothing that hugs our bodies and exposes our arms, legs, and sometimes stomachs and backs; shoes that are agonizing to wear and expensive to own but practically mandatory.”
The longer a piece of clothing lives in my closet, the more I feel I owe an unspoken debt to it for making it stick around so long. It’s like all those dry-clean only (shudder) sweaters and empire waist dresses are waiting for me to suddenly develop the ingenuity or sense of style required to understand their purpose in being there, or for me to rediscover the person I was when they felt right. The thought of getting rid of a nice Brooks Brothers skirt I got at Goodwill for $6 that I used to love but now nips so tightly at my waist that I can’t sit down, or a blazer practically made of static electricity, feels akin to throwing away a toolbox full of birdsong cassettes or a first-aid kit with only toe-splints—not strictly useful to me and taking up more space than what they’re worth but maybe, just maybe, indispensable if I decide to become a covert bird enthusiast or late-life ballerina, or should I ever want to option to don the Beauty Suit again.
My spatial reasoning skills have never been great or even okay, but it was immediately clear that there was no way the winter clothing bursting from the closet would fit in the two, mid-sized Tupperware bins waiting for them. I had tried to get rid of clothing before, but my sense of abiding duty and nostalgia always won out.
But, in the past year, something had shifted. I felt an increasing sense of disconnect from the Beauty Suit. Putting them on felt like dressing a paper doll—stiff, uncomfortable, and a bit silly. My sense of style had evolved from something intentionally feminine to something that emphasized a central tenet of “elastic waistbands or bust” (no pun intended.) I no longer felt as willing to wear things that caused me even a moment of discomfort—not out of anti-patriarchal resistance or smugness toward other women who are, in fact, comfortable in those clothes, but out of a sense of foreignness. By definition, it meant I looked different, was perceived differently, and took up space in the world in a different way. It also meant that a good many of my belongings no longer . . . belonged.
Shields’s book challenged me, especially as someone who doesn’t come from a religious background. The concept of dressing modestly rarely came up in my life for a number of reasons, several of which are more indicative of my relative privilege than they are of anything else. As an acceptably thin, white, straight, cis-woman, the way my body carries clothes is the subject of a good deal less consternation and regulation than it might be for others (though to be sure, is an area of concern and attention for many men). Modesty to me just meant making sure that whatever dress I wore to school was longer than my fingertips, and I often forgot to check.
I, of course, respect anyone who chooses to dress modestly for religious reasons or otherwise. So long as they don’t use the mandates that are important to them to shame other women who choose not to live by those rules, it’s great and makes a powerful statement against the male gaze. Understanding that individual women, even women who ostensibly belong to the same institutions, organizations, or ethnic groups find empowerment in different places and styles of dress is essential to truly intersectional feminism—at least as important as recognizing the ways in which our perceptions of ourselves and the world are shaped by the whole toxic mess of patriarchy and capitalism.
But, in the end, the greatest takeaway from this book was not how to feel good wearing a floor length skirt or covering my hair. Rather, it was Shields’ interpretations of the Biblical importance of modesty as a way of understanding life. To her estimation, the idea of living simply, or without prioritizing the accumulation of money or the stuff you buy, is far more important than rules about fabric weave or hat specifications.
In a trance-like state, I began tossing things to the floor without pause. The piles on my floor grew, first to the height of my desk chair, and then peeking over my mattress, and then toppling over with the addition of shoes. I kept some things I wasn’t sure about, but what had once seemed like a monumental life-or-death task now felt like part of an ongoing process that would continue as my understandings of work, gender, and comfort transformed. I fell asleep sore and satisfied.
When my partner came to help me bring everything to the consignment shop the next day, he joked, “It feels like I’m putting you in trash-bags.” In any previous moment, it might have been enough to undo me, to confirm a simmering panic that this was a big mistake, and when the nuclear holocaust came I would have nothing to wear. But it didn’t. And I don’t. I was still shoving fifteen unworn sweaters into bags, and I didn’t feel as though I was losing anything.
The best lesson of my early twenties, one that The Beauty Suit has helped confirm, is that getting rid of stuff I no longer find useful does not mean I have failed. I am not beholden to my things, and my relationships to them are bound to change in healthy ways. A dress is not a sentient thing until someone is wearing it, much the way a book isn’t a book until someone is reading it. My love of clothing and sense of self is not muted by my sudden retreat from “typical” femininity. Instead of dreading a stage of reinvention, I can be excited that my closet has room for it.
About the Author
Ayla Zuraw-Friedland joined Beacon Press in 2015 as editorial assistant to senior editors Joanna Green, Rakia Clark, and Jill Petty. She is a graduate of the Literatures in English program at Connecticut College, and spends the better part of her time haunting the indie coffee shops and bookstores along the Orange Line.