“I say then, live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” ~ Gal. 5:16
During our last vacay, the book “Dressing with Dignity” by Colleen Hammond fell into my hands. Mrs. Hammond writes an interesting book about modesty, primarily focusing on women’s fashions. She takes the reader through a quick history of clothing and how fashion evolved (or rather declined) over the centuries, speaks about the respect due to both men and women and then gives a set of guidelines for all women. Colleen quotes from an astounding array of sources – from the Vatican, famous people, books, Saints and greats of the Church both alive and deceased, doctors and philosophers (including one of my favourites, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand).
While I agreed with many of the solid points made in this book, some of her thoughts made me uncomfortable. Why, I wondered? I’m not a typical “woman of the world”. I do think about and try to dress modestly on a daily basis. I currently work for a Catholic College that has a strict (in the eyes of the world) dress code that I help enforce and I graduated from a Catholic College where many discussions were had every year about appropriate attire for women. A conversation of this nature should not make me uneasy – this is WELL gone-over territory.
One main reason for my discomfort came to me after much reflection. I suppose over the years, I have begun to acquire ‘borderline’ fashions – nothing overtly immodest, but…definitely on the edge. When there is little but my own conscience to judge whether clothing is appropriate it’s sometimes difficult to be honest with myself and listen to The Spirit. And…it’s a little disconcerting to be told that perhaps I might have been slipping.
“Dressing like a floozy tells the world, ‘Look at me, want me, lust after me. I’m easy and you can have me.’ Displaying intimate parts of the body is a form of advertising for sex – so if you dress to attract sexual attention, you can hardly blame anyone else if that kind of attention comes your way. But dressing modestly tells the world, ‘I respect myself and I insist on being treated with respect.’ It’s possible to be stylish and attractive without wearing something that is too short, low-cut or see-through.” ~Pg.12
Squirming yet? So was I. But it gets worse.
“To wear the kind of clothing that can arouse unchaste thoughts or desires in others is to present them with a near occasion of sin. To wear that kind of clothing, knowing it has this potential, is a sin (either a mortal sin or a venial sin, depending on the degree of the immodesty and the other circumstances).” ~Pg.9
This stopped me for a moment. What you wear has a direct effect on those around you, especially the men (if you’re a lady). While I cannot agree that women bear 100% of the burden of sin (men have as much responsibility to fight their natural urges as women have responsibility to dress themselves appropriately), I will admit that wearing something low-cut or micro-mini knowing that the possibility exists a man might sin because of it, must be a serious consideration for us ladies. I could be an occasion of sin for another!
But, said my inner devil’s advocate, doesn’t style and fashion vary depending on the part of the world you live in? Certainly living around the equator necessitates less clothing, compared to living in, say, the Arctic. How can there be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ guideline?
“Style must never be a proximate [near] occasion of sin… It is often said, almost with passive resignation, that fashions reflect the customs of a people. But it would be more exact and much more useful to say that they express the decision and moral direction that a nation intends to take: either to be ship-wrecked in licentiousness, or maintain itself at the level to which it has been raised by religion and civilization.” ~pg 9
I suppose there is just as much licentiousness in Africa, as there is in the Arctic. The problem is a much deeper one – a sickness in the heart and soul, from which flows our outward appearance.
“Dr. Alice von Hildebrand pointed out to me that from the time that Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden of Eden, it has been a sign of respectability and distinction to have clothing totally veiling our bodies – especially the female body. Why? Dr. von Hildebrand makes the point that anything that is precious, mysterious, and sacred is hidden from view. It is veiled.” ~pg. 29
“To dress modestly is the appropriate response that women should give to their ‘mystery’.” ~pg. 37
Women are ‘precious, mysterious and sacred’ and once they believe it in their hearts and souls, they will begin to ‘veil’ themselves appropriately. Have you ever seen the movie Pretty Woman? It’s striking to see the transformation in Julia Roberts’ character as she shifts, from ‘paid escort’ to respectable, refined girlfriend. Her clothes and her actions become much more modest and attractive. Everything from her speech to her table manners is transformed.
The problem of immodesty runs much deeper than telling someone to merely change their clothes, but is rather the process of speaking to the heart of a woman, conveying the message that she is captivating, beautiful and worth fighting for – the crowning glory of creation.
“Therefore, train young Catholic women in that sublime and holy dignity which is so clear and powerful a safeguard of physical and spiritual integrity. This virtuous and indomitable stateliness and pride are a great ornament of the soul, which will not be reduced to slavery. It enriches the moral vigor of the woman, who gives herself untouched only to her spouse, for the founding of a family, or else to God. It proclaims that her boast and glory is her vocation to the supernatural life and to eternity, just as St. Paul wrote to the early Christians: ‘You have been bought at a great price. Glorify God and bear Him in your body’.” ~Pope Pius XII (pg. 122)
So how does a lady go about re-styling herself and glorifying God and bearing Him ‘in her body’?
Mrs. Hammond gives what she calls ‘Vatican guidelines’ (detailed instructions on modesty of dress for women, issued on September 24, 1928 by the Cardinal – Vicar of Pope Pius XI in Rome, Basilio Cardinal Pompili)
“…a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper.” ~pg. 92
I know. Some of that is a little surprising, isn’t it? I wouldn’t necessarily say these are “Vatican Guidelines”, since it was the Cardinal-Vicar and not the Pope who wrote them, and they were published in a Bulletin of the Roman Clergy and not as an encyclical or apostolic letter but I also wouldn’t dismiss them altogether. Without going to the extreme, a lady can look at those general instructions and use them as a benchmark for her wardrobe.
“Pick long, flowing styles that accentuate (but don’t cling to) the curves of your feminine form. Be careful not to get anything that fits tightly. Not only are tight clothes undignified, they’re just plain uncomfortable! There’s nothing more awkward or more uncomfortable than having to walk around in clothing that you are constantly pulling and tugging at. Choose feminine clothing, and stay away from anything masculine – or even unisex! Men don’t wear delicate, flowing styles. Women are free to. Look for softly styled blouses, skirts that ripple when you walk, dresses that drape nicely.” ~pg 84
If I am honest with myself, I dislike clothing that’s on the tight side – and I am uncomfortable wearing them, as I never know where they will end up. Have you ever witnessed teenage girls in ‘micro-mini clothing’? They are constantly pulling their skirts down and their shirts up which is not only troublesome for them, but, as I’ve mentioned, can be for those around them.
But, says my devil’s advocate again, isn’t our world (and I would argue North America in particular) desensitized to the feminine form? I mean, a person can’t walk down the street of a small town, let alone a big city, without being bombarded with images and people (both men and women) dressed scantily. Aren’t we used to it by now and doesn’t that mitigate the severity of the sin?
“St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church, admitting that a limited measure of immodest exposure can cease to be a grave snare to people who have grown used to it, adds that those who first introduce it when it is a grave snare, sin gravely, and he makes it clear that there are limits beyond which customariness does not remove the grave snare. (Theologia Moralis, Lib. 2, n. 55). The Holy Office under Pius IX favored this view, as may be seen in Collectanea S. C. de Propaganda Fide, vol. 1, n. 1061 (Rome, 1907), requiring the adoption of some body coverage, in the interest of modesty, of savages who wish to become Catholic.” ~pg. 125
Even though we may be used to people dressing provocatively, there is still a line that shouldn’t be crossed. And if you have to ask the question about whether what you’re wearing is modest or not, it might be prudent to err on the side of more modest than less. I don’t mean to imply that modesty dictates that you can’t ever wear a bathing suit again (although Colleen Hammond advises such) or that you must never let your elbows see the light of day, I’m saying that the question is worth asking. How does your clothing and manners reflect who you are as a woman of God?
For me personally this book has got me thinking. Perhaps I should take a good hard look at my wardrobe, with a fresh eye. Perhaps I should whole-heartedly pray to the Spirit for guidance – after all, God made me and knows what is best for me; what I require to live a happy and fulfilled life. As it happens, several weeks after reading Hammond’s book, I found myself on the hottest day of the year, in adoration unthinkingly wearing a tank top and shorts. While I wouldn’t necessarily say I was immodestly dressed, I felt decidedly unsettled. I concluded that showing more ‘skin’, especially in holy places like the church or the adoration chapel, is below my dignity as a lady and should be avoided. And if careful consideration is given to dressing for church and God, then the same care should be extended to dressing for daily life. Others have started to notice – and it gives me a fabulous opportunity to share with them how the Spirit is changing me and helping me to grow in strength, character and beauty.
“It was said that the faithfulness of a woman brought back to the path of justice the husband who had gone astray: ‘the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife.’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). May it soon be possible to repeat of the whole of society that it returned to the path of salvation through the example, the teaching, the mission of the Catholic woman.” ~pg. 89
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