J.M.J. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) instructs us about today's Saint, Saint Ildephonsus, Bishop (+667):
"Ildephonsus, it is said, was one day praying before the relics of Saint Leocadia, when the martyr arose from her tomb and thanked the saint for the devotion he showed towards the Mother of God. It was related, further, that on another occasion the Blessed Virgin appeared to him in person and presented him with a priestly vestment, to reward him for his zeal in honoring her.
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"Modesty in Dress"
(available in booklet form from Queenship Publishing)
Inarguably, the kinds of dress for both men and women have changed dramatically, especially in the past seven decades. Much of today’s prevailing “high fashion” is meant to accentuate or expose particular body parts rather than to conceal them, the latter being the traditional reason for clothing.
Acknowledging that some of these styles in contemporary fashion would have been deemed “immodest" or outright “obscene” even a few years ago, one is bound to ask: are these ways of dressing still immodest at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium? Or do changing values allow for the admitting of these various types of clothing?
To give an intelligible answer, one first must look at the norm that for centuries guided Christians in the manner of dress: the notion of modesty.
Modesty in the strict sense is the virtue that regulates one’s actions and exterior customs concerning sexual matters. Specifically, modesty, which guards the virtue of chastity and is its “external protection,” controls one’s comportment so as to avoid unlawful sexual arousal in oneself or others. In this essay, we shall confine ourselves to the theme of modesty in dress.
(Many think modesty to be the humility of one who is not interested in self-promotion and fame. This is a different understanding from the one that is presented here.)
Modesty is counted as one of the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit; these perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” are listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity” (#1832).
To choose to dress modestly implies that one, by his dress, is deliberately avoiding to cause sexual excitement in himself or his neighbor. Hence, one who dresses modestly shuns clothes that are known or reasonably expected to effect sexual arousal in oneself or others.
Has the Church encouraged the practice of this virtue? Yes. Only a few of the stirring exhortations offered by some holy members of the Church are now presented. (We remember that these counsels apply to men as well as to women.)
Saint Paul (+ ca. 67), in his First Letter to Saint Timothy, wrote: “Women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befit women who profess religion” (2:9–10).
Saint John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) spoke out against immodesty in dress. “You carry your snare and spread your nets in all places. You allege that you never invited others to sin. You did not, indeed, by your words, but you have done so by your dress and your deportment and much more effectively than you could by your voice. When you have made another sin in his heart, how can you be innocent? Tell me, whom does this world condemn? Whom do judges in court punish? Those who drink poison or those who prepare it and administer the fatal poison? You have prepared the abominable cup, you have given the death-dealing drink, and you are more criminal than those who poison the body; you murder not the body but the soul. And it is not to enemies you do this, nor are you urged on by any imaginary necessity, nor provoked by injury, but out of foolish vanity and pride.”
It has been said that Jesus Himself appeared to Mother Mary Rafols, a Spanish Religious, and delivered a message about modesty. From some writings dated 1815, we read: “The offenses that I (Jesus) have received, and those that I shall yet receive, are many; especially the offenses of woman, with her immodest dress, her nakedness, her frivolity and her evil intentions. Because of all this, she shall accomplish the demoralization of the family and of mankind. . . .”
The Servant of God Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) addressed the urgent necessity of cultivating modesty several times during his nearly twenty year long pontificate. Here are a few relevant quotations.
“How many young girls there are who see nothing wrong in following certain shameless styles like so many sheep. They would certainly blush with shame if they could know the impression they make, and the feelings they evoke, in those who see them.
“The good of our soul is more important than the good of our body; and we have to prefer the spiritual welfare of our neighbor to our bodily comforts. . . If a certain kind of dress constitutes a grave and proximate occasion of sin, and endangers the salvation of your soul and others, it is your duty to give it up. . . O Christian mothers, if you know what a future of anxieties and perils, of ill guarded shame you prepare for your sons and daughters, imprudently getting them accustomed to live scantily dressed and making them lose their sense of modesty, you would be ashamed of yourselves and you would dread the harm you are making for yourselves, the harm which you are causing to these children, whom Heaven has entrusted to you to be brought up as Christians.
“There is a limit which no type of fashion, however licit, should exceed; beyond which fashion becomes the cause of ruin to the souls of those who adopt it and for the souls of all who come into contact with it. The right of souls is above those of fashions. Christian girls, think also of this: the more elegant you will be, and the more pleasing, if you dress with simplicity and discreet modesty.”
On November 8, 1957, Pope Pius XII, in an enlightening address to the Congress of the Latin Union of High Fashion, presented the still-valid principles of the Christian understanding of modesty in dress. Although given over forty-five years ago, this discourse offers some crucial and unchangeable aspects concerning modesty for all to ponder.
Clothing fulfills three necessary requirements, those of hygiene, decency and adornment. These are “so deeply rooted in nature that they cannot he disregarded or contradicted without provoking hostility and prejudice.” These demands are discovered in virtually all eras and almost among every people.
Hygiene pertains mostly to “the climate, its variations, and other external factors” (e.g., discomfort, illness). This first factor is derived from man’s physical nature.
Decency involves the “proper consideration for the sensitivity of others to objects that are unsightly, or, above all, as a defense of moral honesty and a shield against disordered sensuality.” It comes from man’s spiritual nature.
Adornment is legitimate and “responds to the innate need, more greatly felt by woman, to enhance the beauty and dignity of the person with the same means that are suitable to satisfy the other two purposes.” Adornment, which is preferable to the term beautification because the former is not limited to “mere physical beauty,” hails from man’s psychological and artistic nature.
The aim of fashion is to enhance one’s physical appearance. It “has achieved an indisputable importance in public life, whether as an aesthetic expression of customs, or as an interpretation of public demand and a focal point of substantial economic interests.” One may unmistakably conclude that built into the fashion industry is the constraint to change continually. One style is quickly ellipsed by another. “The rapidity of change is further stimulated by a kind of silent competition, not really new, between the ‘elite’ who wish to assert their own personality with original forms of clothing, and the public who immediately convert them to their own use with more or less good imitations.”
The Pontiff then isolated the current (even now in 2004) difficulty with fashion. “The problem of fashion consists in the harmonious reconciliation of a person’s exterior ornamentation with the interior of a quiet and modest spirit. “Like other material objects, fashion can become an undue attachment—even perhaps an addiction—for some persons. The Church “does not censure or condemn styles when they are meant for the proper decorum and ornamentation of the body, but she never fails to warn the faithful against being easily led astray by them.”
Because the human body is a creation of the Creator Himself, the Church has the obligation to speak out when this temple of the Holy Spirit is being abused or manipulated. The human body is truly “God’s masterpiece in the visible world”; Jesus the Lord elevated the human body “to the rank of a temple and an instrument of the Holy Spirit, and as such must be respected.” Indeed, the beauty of the human body “must therefore not be exalted as an end in itself, much less in such guise as will defile the dignity it has been endowed with.”
Sadly, we must admit that there do exist certain fashions and styles in our age that “create confusion in well-ordered minds and can even be an incentive to evil.” While it is rather problematic to define the universal norms that separate the seemly styles from the shameful because of several factors like the times, places, persons and education of people, nevertheless it is possible to declare when the “limits of normal decency” have been violated. It is true that this sense of decency sounds an alarm when either immodesty, seduction, lust, outrageous luxury or “idolatry of matter” exists.
What the Holy Father said in 1957 is as applicable—and essential—now: “. . . no matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger; style must never be a proximate occasion of sin.”
Those who design, promote and sell fashions have considerable responsibility. If, God forbid, any of these endeavor to inculcate “unchaste ideas and sensations,” then “there is present a technique of disguised malice.” For decency in dress to be restored, the intention of those who design the fashions and those who wear them must be upright. “In both there must be an awakening of the conscience as to their responsibility for the tragic consequences that could result from clothing which is overly bold, especially if it is worn in public.”
We may assert that “the immorality of styles depends in great part on excesses either of immodesty or luxury.” In fashion, immodesty involves the cut of the garment. How is immodesty to be judged? “The garment must not be evaluated according to the estimation of a decadent or already corrupt society, but according to the aspirations of a society which prizes the dignity and seriousness of its public attire.”
Wanton luxury is also excessive. “Prescinding from the dissipation of wealth which excessive luxury demands of its worshippers, who will more often than not end by being devoured by it, it always insults the integrity of those who live by their own toil, and it displays a cynicism toward poverty, either by flaunting too easy gains or by breeding suspicion about the way of life of those who surround themselves with it.” If the use of riches—even those obtained morally—is not moderated, then “either frightful barriers will be raised between classes, or the entire society will be set adrift, exhausted by the race toward a utopia of material happiness.”
Here is the trio of principles that is still pertinent to the question of what is modest clothing.
1. The Influence of Styles. There is a “language of clothing” that communicates certain messages. The dress of a policeman and a nurse convey that these persons are “helpers” and possess specific knowledge and authority. However, attire may also communicate negative and even destructive messages. For example, one who with knowledge and deliberation routinely dresses in a provocative or seductive manner so as to entice another to impurity commits a mortal sin, not only harming himself or herself but also gravely damaging the immortal soul of the other.
Jesus demanded of His disciples purity in glances, thoughts, desires and actions. Furthermore, He warned against giving scandal to others. The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah (3:16-24) prophesied that the holy city of Sion would be infamous because of the impurity of its daughters.
Pope Pius XII declared: “It might be said that society speaks through the clothing it wears. Through its clothing it reveals its secret aspirations and uses it, at least in part, to build or destroy the future.” Styles that respect the human body for what it is—the temple of the Holy Spirit—are commendable: those that seek to expose the body as a mere object to be used, abused or enjoyed for illicit sexual pleasure are to be condemned.
2. The Importance of Control. Fashion designers, critics and consumers are to recall frequently “that style should be directed and controlled instead of being abandoned to caprice and reduced to abject service.” Those who “make style,” such as designers and critics, cannot allow the craze that is in vogue to dictate to them when that particular trend goes against right reason and established morality. Consumers for their part must remember that their “dignity demands of them that they should liberate themselves with free and enlightened conscience from the imposition of predetermined tastes, especially tastes debatable on moral grounds.”
3. Moderation is Necessary. The respect of a standard measure is termed moderation. It is moderation that provides “a pattern by which to regulate, at all costs, greed for luxury, ambition, and capriciousness.” Pope Pius urged: “Stylists, and especially designers, must let themselves be guided by moderation in designing the cut or line of a garment and in the selection of its ornaments, convinced that sobriety is the finest quality of art.”
Should those who are responsible for today’s fashions return to the “outdated forms” of earlier times? No. Rather, there is a perennial value for clothing that transcends time and culture. When Christian decency is the mark of one’s attire, then that same dress becomes “the worthy ornament of the person with whose beauty it blends as in a single triumph of admirable dignity.”
Practically speaking, what exactly are examples of immodest clothing? This author, while acknowledging with the mind of the Church that not all change is bad and that one needn’t necessarily wear clothes popular decades ago in order to be modest, believes that there are standards which are so basic in every era that to transgress them—regardless of one’s good intention or ignorance—is to offend against human decency. Precisely what are these criteria?
Clothing composed of a transparent (i. e., “see-through”) material isn’t modest because of its obvious intent to expose to view various body parts that have been deemed—by most cultures and in most time periods—needy of cover.
Shorts that are very short (i. e., exposing much of the thigh), whether for a man or woman, can’t be regarded as decent. (Athletic pursuits indicate that shorts and a “jersey” type of shirt for both genders may be tolerated provided the shorts and shirts are moderate and that no temptation is encouraged.) Boys and men shirtless without sufficient reason (an allowance is made for swimming and vigorous work and exercise, as long as temptation is avoided) is problematic, especially given that such a sight may well be an unnecessary occasion of sin for another.
Perhaps the area of modesty in dress that attracts the most attention is that of attire for women and girls. Some may argue that this is unfair. Why should the responsibility concerning modesty in dress pertain to women and girls and not to men and boys?
As we have seen, men and boys are also held to modesty in attire. And it must be said forthrightly that not only do they have a responsibility to dress modestly themselves but also they are to encourage to whatever extent they can the women and girls of their acquaintance to dress modestly, even avoiding those who do not when they themselves are tempted to sin because of that immodest clothing. But it must be admitted; the sight of unclothed (even partially) bodies of women and girls has generally inspired lust and desire more than the bodies of men and boys. Such a conclusion is both sound and unbiased.
Clothing no matter how “chic” that reveals the front and back of women and girls, thereby significantly exposing their flesh, and drawing attention in some way to their breasts, is reprehensible. Skirts that rise much above the knee and highlight the shape of the leg for that very purpose are inappropriate.
A lady in her middle forties related that every time she purchases a skirt (regardless of the store), the clerk mentions that since she is tall and thin she really must buy something sufficiently short that will draw attention to her legs. The lady replies that she is not interested in such a possibility.
A wife and mother of two children recounted her genuine unease when attending Mass to find herself, her husband and her teenage son and daughter in the pew behind an adolescent girl who, with bare shoulders and a short dress, causes her husband and young son undue distraction during the Holy Sacrifice. One may contend here that this mother’s young daughter is also adversely affected by the bad example of another girl approximately the same age.
God has made the human body beautiful. It is not an object to be used for impurity but a gift to be esteemed and legitimately shared in the building up of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Immodest attire neither contributes to the promotion of the human person nor to the establishing of the Kingdom. More than ever, the chastity and modesty of Jesus the Messiah, the Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary, particularly under the title of Our Lady of the Rosary at Fatima, Saint Joseph, and the powerful intercessions of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus ansd the Holy Face (1873-1897), Saint Maria Goretti (1890-1902), Saint Mary Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), Saint Maximillian Mary Kolbe (1894-1941), Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), Blessed Francisco Marto (1908-1919), Blessed Jacinta Marto (1910-1920), Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925), Blessed Teresa Bracco (1924-1944), Blessed Pierina Morosini (1931-1957) and Blessed Mary Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) are urgently required if we are to obtain the holiness that the Risen Lord Jesus expects of us—His cherished brothers and sisters.