Skip to main content

The Forgotten Virtue: Modesty In Dress


By Monsignor Charles M. Mangan

Dress for both men and women has changed dramatically during the last fifty years. Much of what is worn today is meant to expose rather than conceal the human body.

For centuries, Christians have looked to the virtue of modesty as it applies to vesture in order to judge what is appropriate.

The Catholic tradition has given us a valuable definition of modesty, which is the virtue that regulates one’s actions and exterior customs concerning sexual matters. It controls one’s behavior so as to avoid unlawful sexual arousal in oneself or others.

Modesty is one of the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as “the first fruits of eternal glory”: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.

To dress modestly is to avoid deliberately causing sexual excitement in oneself or one’s neighbor. One who dresses modestly shuns clothes that are known or reasonably expected to effect sexual arousal in oneself or others. Modesty is dress pertains to both genders.

Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), in harmony with the Magisterium and orthodox spiritual authors, addressed the necessity of cultivating modesty.

“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 illguarded 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.

“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 presented the still-valid principles of modesty in dress.

Clothing fulfills three necessary requirements: hygiene, decency and adornment. These are “so deeply rooted in nature that they cannot be disregarded or contradicted without provoking hostility and prejudice.”

Hygiene pertains mostly to “the climate, its variations, and other external factors” (e.g. discomfort, illness). 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.” 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.”

Fashion “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.

“The rapidity of change (in styles) 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 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 casily led astray by them.”

The human body is “God’s masterpiece in the visible world”; Jesus elevated the human body “to the rank of a temple and an instrument of the Holy Spirit, and as such must be respected.”

Certain fashions and styles “create confusion in well-ordered minds and can even be an incentive to evil.” It is possible to declare when the “limits of normal decency” have been violated. This sense of decency sounds an alarm when immodesty, seduction, lust, outrageous luxury or “idolatry of matter” ...

1 | 2  Next Page

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article

1 - 10 of 14 Comments

  1. Jo17383
    11 months ago

    Wearing immodest clothing without thinking about its effects is like displaying some of a yummy cake to a man with a full belly and thinking that you're not partially responsible for his overeating. He shouldn't eat the cake but you're tempting him to eat it or at least salivate just by the sight of it when he shouldn't.

  2. Theresa
    1 year ago

    holyness to the Lord

  3. JoAn Karkkos
    3 years ago

    What are the writings/encylicals or letters written by Pontiffs to and for women?

  4. Daniel P. Eberhardy
    4 years ago

    This is a very good article that can use some development. The clothing objected to serves as sexual advertising. Our sexier parts are private, to be invaded by no one but a spouse; the genitals, especially, are sacred. Such clothes may serve as sacred vestments when worn in private by the spouses. Elsewhere, they approach sacrilege.

  5. Christina
    4 years ago

    It is so good to see an article that addresses such a seemingly forgotten, but crucial, topic. Why is so little ever said of modesty? Why do our pastors allow such blatant immodesty at nuptial masses, even in "good" diocese? When will priests start to preach fiercly on the dangers of immodest dress and the shocking sins of impurity that have enveloped our nation? We need guidance and direction from our priests and bishops today!

  6. Margaret Bacon
    4 years ago

    Thank you for this article on modesty. I found it rather well balanced. I know that modesty is a difficult topic to address in a way that provides the truth while not turning off readers before the point is made. I think that you accomplished this task.

    I also appreciated the fact that you addressed the topic of modesty to both men and women. As a woman I am frustrated when me feel that taking their shirt off whenever they want to is okay. I am also frustrated when men talk about modesty like it is something that is mostly a girl-problem. This is annoying because of the obvious fact that men need to be modest too. Even more so, it is annoying because I have watched Christian men prefer the company and attention of young women who are not dressed modestly. Not exactly a great example to women who are struggling to be modest and yet modern and attractive enough to get a date!

    Anyway, the only improvement for future articles that I suggest is more detail about what is and is not acceptable for both men and women. I would be happy to give more suggestions about this if you contact me!

    God bless!

  7. saeed anwar
    4 years ago

    i am really very happy to read the above said article. I am pleased to sea the actual relationship beteen dressing and modesty .But todays dressing invites the humanity against the modesty.My message to the humanbeing is plz follow the orders of THE HOLLY GOD .

    4 years ago

    The article is highly informative.

  9. Jason R Latham
    5 years ago

    I find this modesty debate has become a complete obsession with hung-up Catholic people. It even allows some people to cultivate their fixations with clothes. If you did not keep mentioning all this and publishing it abroad, people might be able to concentrate on what really counts in the spiritual life, never mind people's skimpy attire and "dishonouring the womb with bare midriff". A madman has made that up, not a saint.

  10. Mrs. Landry
    5 years ago

    Thank you Msgr for your courage in saying the difficult thing. We need to hear more on this which is so contrary to our culture today.
    Your message is strong in saying that I am not a toy to be put on display and played with. I am a woman of value and I am a being that desires to be love for who I am and not what my body can do to please the selfish passions of others. Our Lord will surely Bless you.
    Praise be Jesus in His faithful ones.
    Mrs. Landry

Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Colossians 1:21-23
You were once estranged and of hostile intent through your evil ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 54:3-4, 6, 8
Arrogant men are attacking me, bullies hounding me to death, no ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 6:1-5
It happened that one Sabbath he was walking through the ... Read More

Saint of the Day

September 5 Saint of the Day

Bl.Teresa of Calcutta
September 5: The remarkable woman who would be known as Mother Theresa began ... Read More