The Forgotten Virtue: Modesty In Dress
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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."
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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" exists.
What the Holy Father said in 1957 is still pertinent: " . . . 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, anyone purposely inculcates "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."
Clearly, "the immorality of styles depends in great part on excesses either of immodesty or luxury." 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. 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."
Let us contemplate well the following three points concerning modesty in dress.
1. The Influence of Styles. There is a "language of clothing" that communicates certain messages, even destructive ones. One who with knowledge and deliberation routinely dresses provocatively so as to entice another to impurity commits a mortal sin. The souls of both are wounded.
Jesus demanded purity in glances, thoughts, desires and actions and warned against giving scandal. Isaiah (3:16-24) prophesied that the city of Sion would be dirtied by its daughters' impurity.
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."
2. The Importance of Control. Fashion designers, critics and consumers are to recall "that style should be directed and controlled instead of being abandoned to caprice and reduced to abject service." Those who "make style," cannot allow the "craze" to dictate when that particular trend goes against right reason and established morality. Consumers 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 for a standard measure is "moderation." It 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."
When Christian decency is present, then one's dress is "the worthy ornament of the person with whose beauty it blends as in a single triumph of admirable dignity."
One needn't necessarily wear clothes popular decades ago in order to be modest; however, there are standards which are so basic that to transgress them--regardless of the era, one's good intention or ignorance--is to offend against decency.
Here are some practical "helps."
Clothing composed of a transparent (i.e., "see-through") material isn't modest because of its obvious intent to expose various body parts 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 that use shorts and a "jersey" type of shirt may be tolerated provided that both are moderate and 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, given that such may well be an unnecessary occasion of sin for another.
Men and boys not only have a responsibility to dress modestly but they also 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 precisely because of that immodest clothing. But it must be admitted that 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.
Clothing that reveals the front and back of women and girls and highlights their breasts is reprehensible. Skirts that rise much above the knee, emphasizing the shape of the leg for that very purpose, are inappropriate.
A lady in her early forties stated that every time she purchases a skirt (regardless of the store), the clerk mentions that since she is tall and thin she should buy something sufficiently short that will draw attention to her legs. This lady rebukes the suggestion.
A wife and mother of two children recounted her 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. 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. Immodest attire neither contributes to the promotion of the human person nor to the establishing of the Kingdom. The modesty practiced by Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Saints is obtainable and necessary for us.
(Adapted from a booklet available inexpensively in multiple copies for easy distribution: Queenship Publishing Company, Goleta, California.)
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