During the 1860s, a trickle of English women went out to the colonies with loans from the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to cover their fares in Second Class – the middle class, between First and Steerage. They sent letters back to the FMCES when they repaid their loans, so we know quite a bit about them. Most of them were in their late twenties or thirties, so had missed the marriage market. Their best hope of economic security was to become governesses, a ‘white blouse’ occupation that required, above all, respectability and accomplishments. You might be lousy at teaching mathematics, but your manners must be beyond reproach.
A disaster occurred to one of them on the voyage out: several weeks away from Australia, she was walking on the deck when a sudden gust of wind blew her bonnet overboard. It was an appalling loss for her, because without a bonnet she couldn’t go up on deck or appear outside where she could be seen by the crew or the male passengers. Going bareheaded would be unthinkably bold.
I’m quite sure she could have bought or borrowed a shawl from one of the emigrant women in steerage, or rigged up a kerchief of some sort using a petticoat or bed linen, but a bonnet was important, because it showed her middle-class status. Instead she spent the rest of the voyage inside, unable to enjoy fresh air or sunshine or exercise until the ship reached Australia.
At about the same time, throughout the Pacific, missionaries were busily introducing Islander women to the delights of the Mother Hubbard, a shapeless, loose cotton dress with a high neckline and long sleeves that concealed all those parts of the female anatomy that the women concerned had not previously realised needed concealing. Eventually most Pacific Island women adopted the Mother Hubbard, because it became a symbol of Christian conversion. Variants like the Hawaiian muu-muu are still worn. I wonder how other women felt about the new outfit? Forms of clothing that emphasize extreme modesty can feel like an implied rebuke to those who don’t wear them.
On the other hand, Pacific Islanders had their own scrupulous notions of modesty and privacy that governed their lives. In 1851, the adventurer Ben Boyd seems to have unknowingly blundered into the women’s quarters on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This was where the women went to bath, to toilet, and where they stayed during menstruation. It was an area absolutely taboo to all men, and when he ignored the islanders’ attempts to keep him away, he was speared to death.
Modesty takes many forms. Currently there’s a debate in Australia – and many other parts of the world – about Muslim women and their distinctive forms of dress, summed up in some extremists’ demands to ‘ban the burqa’ – which is nicely alliterative, but not at all accurate since there are probably no women in Australia who currently wear a burqa. Perhaps a few hundred wear the niqab, and many more wear other traditional forms of dress, more or less concealing, though it’s by no means universal amongst Islamic women.
Clothing, particularly women’s clothing, carries so many meanings – class and respectability in the case of a bonnet, religious conversion in the case of the Mother Hubbard. It can also be a symbol of modernity or of rebellion. I can just remember, as very little girl, a family holiday at the beach, when my two grandmothers saw their first bikini. I can remember them both peering out the window at a young woman walking by in what – I now realize – was probably a very modest two-piece. ‘Look, you can see her navel!’
It was at about the same time, in the 1950s, that Greek and Italian immigrant families began to arrive in Brisbane. Inevitably, given the long years of war in their homelands, there were many older, widowed women amongst them. These women dressed in their traditional widows’ clothing of a black dress, black headscarf, and black stockings and shoes. They were a haunting alien presence, and locals found their clothing confronting.
No one forced a Mediterranean widow to wear these clothes, any more than the 1860s governess was forced to wear a bonnet. On the contrary, in either case to force her not to wear the clothing of her choice would imprison her, in a ship’s cabin or within the family home.
It’s not always women’s clothing that becomes the focus of attention. Men’s clothing has sometimes been politicised too, often as a symbol of modernity. In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire banned the turban as old-fashioned and inappropriate in the modern world, and replaced it with the fez. A century later Ataturk banned the fez as old fashioned in modern Turkey, and recommended the Homburg hat instead. There was a religious dimension to this change too, part of Ataturk’s drive to secularise the nation: an observant Muslim can place his forehead on the ground in prayer while wearing a turban or a fez, but not while wearing a hat with a brim.
But it’s usually women whose clothing is policed – or who police themselves. Men play a role in this, especially when a form of clothing is treated as an outward and visible sign of religious faith, for men are the traditional gatekeepers in religious observance.
Older women play a role in the policing too. Modesty takes many forms, and it is deeply internalized. Personally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a bikini. I like to think this is a personal decision – and an aesthetic one, believe me. But I never wore a bikini, even in my long ago youth, and I suspect there has always been a faint memory there of my grandmothers at the window tut-tutting – ‘Look, you can see her navel!’