The final order of business of the Oak Creek Ladies Guild meeting of 1871 was to vote on the proposed “modesty code.” Amelia Walker, hoping to project an image of edifying simplicity, dressed in a loose calico dress and a white cotton bonnet. She appeared to be closer to heading off to bed than leading the meeting.
Two weeks ago Kitty Haberdasher had blown back into the small village of Oak Creek from her first year away at college and brought the influence and excitement of the bustling city back with her. The following Sunday, the faint smell of perfume advertised her approach as she entered the church. Her crimson dress showcased razor sharp pleated ruffles that cascaded down the edges of its wide sleeves and flowed along the bottom of the skirt. Her hair was cut in a peculiar style of short fringe that peeked beneath her hat and lay across her forehead. Every eye in the room shifted away from the unadorned wooden cross hung high in the front of the room and landed on Kitty. She anchored herself in full view as the gaze of every man, woman and child dripped over her like honey. Father Clemons was quick to quell the distracting presence of Kitty by continuing forcefully on with the sermon.
It didn’t take more than a couple days for these new ideas rolling around in the minds of the women to take root and sprout around the village. Lucy Mullen sewed a colorful ribbon onto her bland white cotton bonnet. Charity Williams started to pinch her cheeks to create a pink glow on her face while Ruth Brown couldn’t stop stealing admiring looks at Kitty as if in an adolescent trance. Widow Brown raised a cautious eyebrow and commented vaguely on the surprising difference in dress and decorum of today’s modern woman, but said no more. Her lack of a strong opinion against Kitty was taken by some as acceptance of this new fashion statement.
Amelia, however, could only see the blatant peril such vanity produced. Never before had she seen such a vulgar display of immodesty and promptly demanded the upcoming guild meeting include a vote on a modesty code for Oak Creek women of simple white bonnets and loose fitting attire.
“We must stop this outbreak of vanity before it takes over the town,” said Amelia attempting to rally support from the women at the meeting with an impassioned plea. “We must regain our modesty standards and keep our daughters virtuous. What will be next? Showing our bare arms or wearing paint on our faces? Why decorate ourselves like Jezebels?”
Charity Williams with her raw pinched cheeks spoke up first, “Is the excitement over her dress any more an example of vanity than the fuss we make when choosing fabric for our tea dresses?”
“Our tea dresses are not meant to draw attention to our physical nature in the same way. I agree with Amelia. She is a temptress!” said the homely spinster Gertie Brown. If young women of the village started to dress like Kitty, Gertie would have to work twice as hard to find a man to take interest in her.
“I think she is a lovely thing to look at” Ruth Brown added.
“Unfortunately, so does your husband. I’ve seen him look at her with lust in his eyes,” Gertie spat back.
“Is my clothing any worse than a room full of women talking behind my back and judging my actions?” asked Kitty as she walked boldly into the meeting. The room quieted immediately as she continued “I think your behavior against me is less Christian in nature than the pleats I have on or the perfume I wear.”
The women averted their gaze and the room filled quickly with a dense fog of guilt. Kitty sauntered over to the voting box and cast her ballot. As the other women voted, Amelia held tight to her chair and felt the world slip beneath her. She could only hope she presented her case convincingly.
Gertie announced the results looking as sullen as if she had just been rejected by another suitor: 29-31 in favor of Kitty. There would be no further mention of a modesty code in Oak Creek.
“God help us,” Amelia muttered to herself as she fingered the high collar of her dress and gazed at Ruth’s infant baby sleeping nearby. “What is to become of us now?”
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