"Aren't you cold?" I was asked more than once that day, by more than one older lady at church. That was my signal that my v-neck sweater was exposing too much. I was embarrassed because it was a sweater I'd often worn back home in the U.S. where it was considered modest.
But ideas of modesty and femininity are different here.
I should start by saying that I'm a Christian girl and one of the many weird things about Christians is we sometimes debate about modesty in our dress. A Christian lady who is modest (covered up) and also feminine (i.e., not wearing man-shaped clothes) is praised for her grace and appropriate attractiveness. Both modesty and femininity are on my mind whenever I go shopping or get dressed.
On average, I think Japanese women put more thought, time, money, and effort into their appearance than American women do. This post, one of the most popular on this blog, goes into more detail about femininity in Japan and the interesting definition of "girl-power."
In some ways, Japanese fashion is extremely conservative: high necklines that hug the neck in a small circle, blousey loose-fitting tops that hide curves, neutral colors. In other ways, it's daring and showy: miniskirts and shorts, the glint of jewelry everywhere.
Back home, things are the the opposite. It's not so kosher to show so much of the leg, but tops are clingy, showing clearly the contours of the woman's torso, and necklines are deep and wide., daring and showy to Japanese eyes. In the U.S., to be feminine is to have your top half clearly defined and your bottom half loosely covered. In Japan, the top half gets loosely covered while the bottom half is defined. American modest styles emphasize "femininity" through showing the upper body's shape, while Japanese girls often use texture and details like ruffles, ribbons, lace, etc. rather than body shape to emphasize their femininity, though current trends towards minimalism and simplicity are on the rise.
Here is a handy diagram I drew. On the left is a general ideal American Christian girl's look, while on the right is a Japanese girl's typical feminine outfit:
Another difference between these two pictures is the American version is usually relegated to Pinterest and special occasions, while Japanese girls actually dress up cute every day.
Personally, I've never been so comfortable with American-style clingy tops. No one really needs to know the contours of my upper body, do they? So I find Japanese trends liberating. I love loose, flowy tops. I've gotten away from "I must have my waist clearly defined at all times!!!1!" and enjoy experimenting with dropped waists and un-belting my dresses. I enjoy little girly details that I couldn't find at clothing stores back home. On the other hand, once in a while I probably also show more leg than I used to back home--albeit covered in opaque tights. Funnily enough, husband Yuya only seems to notice "wow your legs are out" if I leave off the tights. When it comes to legs in Japan, it would seem showing skin, rather than just the silhouette, is the line where immodesty starts. Americans have gotten into this trend as well with the controversial yoga pants+long flowy top combination, one I just don't want to try. As comfortable as they are showing legs, I don't think I've ever seen a Japanese girl wearing "leggings as pants." Leggings/tights/yoga pants are always paired with skirts or shorts.
However, the true definition of modesty doesn't simply mean "covered with some kind of opaque cloth."True modesty is bigger than getting hung up on rules. True modesty doesn't try to attract attention, turn heads, follow trends, show off wealth, worry about what to wear, uncover what should be covered, or do anything with extravagance. Under that definition, modesty might actually mean the dreaded frump. Under that definition, I'm pretty much as far away from true modesty as Jessica Rabbit. I definitely have some thinking to do about the way I dress and think about clothes in both countries.