Modesty in dress I: In general
I have been writing about the virtue of modesty, which has to do with how we present ourselves socially, which requires a recognition of who we are and how we stand with others. So far I have written something about modesty in words and actions at home and in the Church. Now it is time to turn my attention to modesty in dress. I should mention that in what follows I am speaking of ordinary clothing, not clothing for things like role playing or costume parties, though certain rules will apply even in those circumstances.
I think that usually when people think of modesty today, they think of modest dress, but I addressed modesty of words and actions first, not just to save the more controversial subject to last, but also to set it in a broader context.
Again, when people think of modest clothing, they often think in terms of its opposite, sexy and provocative clothing. Then discussions of modest clothing typically revolves around women’s clothing, controversies about pants vs. skirts, and hemlines and necklines. Once again we need to set this in a larger context: modesty is for everyone, young and old, male and female, though it’s concrete expression will vary according to circumstances.
In any case, we need first consider the purposes of clothing. First of all, clothing is for protection, physical protection. Given the dangers of ultraviolet radiation and the incidence of skin cancer, physical protection is a need even in warm and sunny climates. Second, clothing is also a means of self-expression, but like any expression it must be fitting and appropriate to who a person is and how he stands in relation to others; it must always be respectful of others. A particular form of clothing cannot be justified simply by the claim, “That is who I am.” Clothing performs an important social function. Again, the expression of ‘who I am’ certainly contains a subjective element, but, as we have already seen, our identity has an objective foundation that needs to be reflected in our clothing. Third, clothing can also be a means of what might be called ‘moral protection’, both for oneself and for others.
Now while it is nice if clothing is comfortable, that should not be the primary standard for clothing; rather its validity as a moral criterion correlates with its relation to physical protection. Sometimes comfortable clothing can more conducive to health (e.g. it doesn’t cause skin rashes or, in the case of shoes, cause problems with posture), but sometimes comfortable clothing can be less conducive to health (shorts might be comfortable but do not provide protection against sunburns and ticks).
Now lets consider the matter of ‘self-expression’. First of all our clothes must show us to be human beings, which means that the human body should be displayed in a proper fashion, both for men and for women.
Now, as human beings we are most defined by our intelligence and our capacity for articulate speech. For that reason, the part of our body that most characterizes and defines us as human beings and through which we primarily relate to others is the face. The face is the glory of the human body that normally remains uncovered; the clothing that covers other parts of the body should call attention to, rather than distract from the face.
Further, because of our intelligence, we possess a noble nature. Sloppy and slovenly clothing often denigrates the nobility of our nature. When I spent time in Portugal almost thirty years ago I was impressed by the simple dignity with which farm workers dressed. Sturdy slacks, suitable for the work, a well worn collared shirt, and a hat. If they came indoors for lunch, they might need to wash hands and face before sitting at the table, but they were presentable.
Next, since clothes should in the first place make known our objective identity, they should immediately make known whether someone is male or female. Androgynous, ambiguous, or ‘gender bending’ clothes, are objectively immodest and offensive.
Next week, I will need to enter into the controversial subject of women’s clothing, but let me close today with some remarks about the casual and the formal. Because clothing performs a social function we need also to dress in way that is respectful of others according to different situations and circumstances.
In this regard, while there is a vast range between the formality of evening gown and tuxedo to the casualness of the swimsuit, in general we have become overly casual. I would be so bold as to say that with the exception of places like beaches and sporting events or activities, when anyone goes out into public, even if just to the store, respect for others calls for a basic decency even in casual wear. I will leave it at that without getting into details.
The basic standard of public decency in clothing applies all the more to those who are attending Mass, especially Sunday Mass. It might not be necessary to return to the old standard of the ‘Sunday best’, but surely our attire in the Lord’s house should be respectful both of the Lord and the other worshippers.
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