Diary of an Autodidact is doing a series on Modesty Culture that is well thought-through and quite interesting. I have some thoughts on it and I'm probably going to do two posts, one on some additional factors and one an essay (in the original sense, writing as an adventure to uncover my own thoughts) on a philosophy of dressing to share with my children.
Personally, although I grew up in the veriest hotbed of modesty culture, I never internalized it in the way that seems to have affected many other women who did. I never felt ashamed of my body. Maybe this is because my parents were sane and didn't make a big deal of it. We certainly dressed very conservatively, but it was just what we did. Maybe it was because I just never got that kind of attention, for good or ill, in any setting. I don't know whether it was my complete lack of physical grace or my overpowering nerdiness, but I always felt, with much regret, that the only way I could prove a stumbling block to men was to leave my feet in the aisle.
I knew perfectly well it wasn't my dimensions, which fit nicely into the ideal (back in the days before twins), but still, there it was. I did not think I would ever even get anyone to notice that I was female at all. (True, I did manage to catch a man eventually, but it was by years of political debate online and personal attraction was entirely an afterthought.) So although I probably should feel more incensed and more empathy with
those who were shamed for matters beyond their control, my ability to actually
feel such empathy is, alas, held back by the envy of one to whom
feminine allure has always been a hopelessly closed book.
I have, therefore, instead of personal experience, more abstract thoughts on factors that may have affected the popularity of modesty teachings among people with more noble (or at least, not creepy) intentions.
One is the fashion arc from the 80s through the present day. I'm no fashion expert myself, but Duchess checks out books on historical fashions by the dozens and leaves them lying around, and when books are lying around, I read them. One book had an appendix summarizing the changing predominate silhouette in women's fashions as the defining feature of each decade. Since the beginning of this century, the predominate silhouette has been form-fitting from head to toe. This is a fairly unusual look: usually the silhouette is pinched in somewhere, but loose elsewhere. But in more recent fashions, it's been figure-hugging everywhere. (This is finally starting to let up a bit as maxi dresses come in. The one constant about fashions is that they change.)
Now, this interplays with ideas of modesty in several ways. For one thing, it was a huge shift (taking place gradually through the 90s) from the bouffant 80s look. For fun, check out an 80s movie or TV show. Odds are, the leading lady, no matter how young and alluring she is meant to be, will be wearing a high-necked, baggy top for pretty much the entire time. It's just what people wore. Even if she wears a low-cut evening gown (and even evening gowns might be turtlenecks), it will be cut and worn in such a way that cleavage is minimized. (Quite different both from modern eras and from many earlier ones.)
What this means, is that the middle-aged enforcers of values during the 90s and 00s were naturally going to have their mental fashion senses already set to a very different, less body-conforming style. The shift to a slimmer profile, drawing more attention to the actual shape of the body, was that much greater of a shock--and, if one was dubious about the propriety of drawing too much attention to the body in the first place, all the more likely to lead to the conclusion that modern fashions were downright sinful.
Of course, the corollary is that the fashions of the immediately preceding era are the ultimate in frumpiness in the current era. It's the natural tension between old and new ratcheted up and given a moral dimension because of the direction fashion happened to shift just then.
Further, the streamlined silhouette is extremely hard to wear successfully. There's no hiding the less than perfect figure, and especially the no longer young figure. So that gives an extra oomph to the Snow White syndrome. Not only are young people's clothes scandalous, they very pointedly and painfully showcase the shortcomings of the old.
Finally, although there have been a few prior eras of a trim silhouette, I think this is the first time it's been attempted through completely ready-made clothing. A gentleman of the early 19th century wore a very form-fitting outfit. And he had it specially made by a skillful tailor to actually fit him. (Someone who was not a gentleman and therefore couldn't afford a tailor didn't try to wear fashionably form-fitting clothes.) But very few use tailors any more, or are capable of sewing for themselves at that level.
Instead, women are all trying to wear off-the-rack clothes that fit perfectly all over. This, of course, is nearly impossible. Except for the lucky few who find a brand whose fit model matches them, and celebrities who can devote their lives to perfect clothes, most women wearing current clothes are stuck wearing snug clothes that don't quite fit. (The agonies I undergo in the area of jeans alone are enough to blight my existence. I cannot find a pair that will stay up but not pinch. I think my hip bones are the wrong shape.) The end result is that it is absurdly difficult to find clothes that fulfill their basic functions of coverage consistently, and many people just give up, resulting in more exposure than people really intend or want.
The other thing I want to address is the broader cultural milieu, which is just as disturbingly obsessive as modesty culture. Like the number of times I have to refrain from showing my children an interesting article about science because the entire sidebar of certain news pages is filled with "news" articles critiquing how women celebrities look in (or out of) their various outfits. (And it can't be avoided at the grocery store.) Or the way, just when their body has achieved the one great thing that in all the universe only the female human body can do, give life to another human, the instinctive reaction of most women is, "My body is totally ruined." Something is seriously, seriously wrong in the way we think and talk about women's bodies, and it is not just modesty culture.
Ironically, the tabloid culture and the modesty culture are basically the same, even though the popularity of the latter is in many ways a reaction to the former. In both, the point about a woman's body is the effect it has on the (male) observer. Or the female observer for purposes of comparison. Either way, it's there to be looked at, not to do things with. Just goes to show how much attempts to be counter-cultural tend to be highly overrated--the act of reacting is itself defined by what it reacts to.