Was the degree of covering before the 20th century just some non-scriptural cultural tradition? Were they really in the dark about their liberties? They could have revealed much more skin than they thought? Were their standards just random, arbitrary, and indiscriminate, disconnected from any real authority? When women started showing more body, was that the result of greater scriptural understanding, less unnecessary scruples? How is it that we are to judge modesty, here concentrating on the women's legs? Is this just subjective and perhaps even relative? Or does God, the Bible, give us objective, scriptural guidance on this?
The sense I get from observing evangelicalism and even fundamentalism today is that there is almost zero objectivity to the modesty standards for women. I'm not attempting to exaggerate or paint a worse picture than it is or be alarmist. What I get is that modesty is relative first to the world, not being as immodest as the world is, and then relative second to men's ability to control lust. Evangelicals and now even fundamentalists suggest that professing Christian women show restraint in light of the male problem of lust. In other words, if it will cause too much of a problem for men, then you need to cover a little more.
I went to a fundamentalist Christian college, Maranatha Baptist Bible College. I grew up in fundamentalist, independent Baptist churches, just so that you'll know where I'm coming from. In that era of time, way after log cabin and covered wagon days, the standard was covering at least the thigh down to the knee. Women could not show any of the thigh. Quibbling would occur on whether over or to the knee, or if the covering fell short of the knee when the women sat down, because she was to stay covered up at least to the knee even when sitting. I never heard sermons preached on this that I can remember, but it was always in the "rule book."
Since that time, however, I have observed that even fundamentalist Christian women wear shorts and dresses and skirts that are well above the knee, with plenty of thigh showing. Not unusual is the Sarah Palin type of skirt that falls three or four inches above the knee when standing, and then seven or eight when seated. And she's a conservative, "Christian" woman. The very maximum requirement in professing fundamentalist institutions are shorts no shorter than a hand width above the knee (why stop there?). Was the thigh always just arbitrary? Was there never really any point to the knee being the kind of magic borderline? We've obviously really broken through on this one and the knee has been deserted as the official line. So where is it now? What is right now? The knee seemed to be right before, so how far up the thigh can anyone scripturally go?
The line did move. It was below the knee. It moved to the knee and above it. How far can it go above the knee, and what would stop it from going further? What if we just said, no absolute nudity? Women have to have at least underwear and a bra on. We can't have a nudist colony church. Now I am being funny or facetious here, but I am wondering if, maybe not. Why would I be? If there is no objective standard in the Bible besides only the coverage of the woman's sexual areas, those three little areas that a woman's bikini takes care of, isn't someone adding to scripture if he requires any more than that? So if we're talking about how much further past the woman's pudenda and actually drawing a line, even mid-thigh, wouldn't that all be legalism? According to most evangelicals, drawing a line other than a scriptural line is to be a kind of Pharisee, that makes the traditions of men into the commandments of God. To be consistent, evangelicals should push for no more but also no less than the bikini standard. To go past that is to break this 'sacred' evangelical principle.
This essay says that the Bible does teach an objective line, a minimum of covering for the woman's legs. The Bible does not make a statement in "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not" fashion, but it clues us in on what nakedness is, and nakedness is to be avoided. The Bible teaches modesty. And we can gather what would be required for modesty. The purpose of this post is not to establish modesty as a teaching, but to assume it and then consider what the line is. The knee was not arbitrary. When we saw all those women previous to the 20th century covering themselves to the ankles, there was an understanding that they had.
The passage that will unveil the minimum requirement is Isaiah 47:1-3. Here goes.
God is prophesying the punishment of Babylon. Part of her judgment from God will be the trek of formerly free citizens into captivity, the captives of the enemy streaming into slavery in the foreign land of the captors. That train is described at the beginning of Isaiah 47. Verses 1-3 explain the humiliation of the women captives. Here are those verses.
1Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate.
2Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers.
3Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen: I will take vengeance, and I will not meet thee as a man.
Part of their punishment, beginning in v. 2 is for the women to be stripped of their distinctive headcovering, and then having their legs made bare. The legs would be made bare when the women uncovered their thighs to ford the rivers in the way from their old home to their new. The women would be unprotected and not spared the humiliations of the journey. Their subjection to these were part of the punishment on the wicked nation. To cross rivers the women would need to lift their hanging skirts higher than the knee to pass through the deep waters. In so doing, the women's nakedness would be uncovered and shame seen.
Uncovering the thigh is defined as nakedness. A woman's thigh should not be made bare. The Hebrew word for "thigh" is at least the thigh, which is how the King James translators understood it, the English word "thigh" meaning the same thing in 1611 as it does today. In the light of the context, "thigh" makes sense as well. A woman would draw up her wet robe to keep it from binding and constraining her ability to wade through the depth of the river, revealing a bare thigh. The thigh is the leg to the knee. To prevent nakedness, a woman would and should keep her leg covered at least down to the knee. It was a shame to her otherwise, as this making bare her leg was nakedness. Just like Adam and Eve felt shame in the garden with their nakedness, it is natural that a woman should be ashamed for showing her thigh.
The knee continued to be the minimum for modesty for women for centuries. Christian women were indwelt by the Holy Spirit and He did not illuminate to them anything less than that. A few churches hold the standard of the knee as modest, God-honoring modesty. They won't give in. The churches that changed and the Christians who gave into the world's new standards call these churches and their ladies prudes and legalists. They mock the standard. They say it adds to scripture. When the standard changed, it wasn't because Godly men and women worked out a more plain understanding from which Christians had departed. The world influenced the change, like it has in so many cases with dress standards.