Dear Jesus, bless our efforts at modesty. Grant that how we dress and carry ourselves may veil what should be veiled, and give us the strength to resist evil fashions and the glamour of sin (from the daily prayers of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity).
In my last article, I discussed how the virtue of modesty pertains to more than just how we dress, but to a general attitude and perspective of dignity for ourselves and for others. Of course, this holistic approach does include our clothing, so I figured I’d address the issue of modesty in dress, especially as the hottest month of the year begins today.
I want to briefly approach the issue of attire from two different perspectives as they pertain to modesty: 1) the perspective of psychology and the effect that clothes have on us and others, and 2) the perspective of spirituality, that is, why do we cover ourselves at all?
First, the old adage, “the clothes make the man” has a great deal of truth to it. The effect that formal wear has on a person, as opposed to every day jeans-and-a-t-shirt, say, serves to emphasise the dignity and solemnity of the formal occasion. The white wedding gown is the quintessential case-in-point of this principle. There is a reason why a bride searches for so long and strives so hard to find and fit into that perfect dress, paying often exorbitant fees for a dress she will only wear once. It is a symbol with so many rich layers of meaning distilled into one garment. For myself, I stand taller, slouch less, and generally feel more confident and mature (if not more comfortable) in a suit than in street clothes.
Our choice of clothing affects our state of mind (and our state of mind affects our choice of clothing). While virtues may eventually become automatic habits, until that happens, modesty requires effort and intentionality in living. While even the Catechism recognises that there is an aspect of cultural influence in standards of modesty, making hard-and-fast, once-size-fits-all rules about wardrobe nigh impossible, prayerfully asking what a particular outfit “communicates” about you, and whether that message is one you want to be projecting, is a useful guideline.
What we wear does communicate a message about us. When it comes to modesty in attire, beyond simply “wearing too little “, consider asking why you want to wear this outfit, and not that. Does your outfit indicate to others that you believe in your own dignity, and the dignity of others? Or are you communicating a contrary, carnal message by drawing superficial attention to your body? While modesty is about more than simply not causing others to have lustful thoughts, that is still an aspect of it. But, again, there’s more to it. Modesty in dress also has to do with dressing appropriately. We dress differently lazing about the house than we would when going for a job interview; or when at the beach as opposed to when attending Church–or, we should!
The second perspective to consider is what clothes are for. Obviously, they provide insulation and protection from the elements, but if that were the whole story, we would eschew them altogether in favourable weather. We do typically wear less in the summer and more in the winter (at least here in Canada), but even the legal system acknowledges and enforces the requirement to keep parts of ourselves covered. While countries and cultures may differ about how much or how little needs to be hidden, the notion that clothes are mandatory is universal. Even people and groups who reject and flaunt this norm do so in private areas separated from public view.
According to Genesis, our first parents were naked in the Garden, but felt no shame. After the Fall, however, they recognised their nakedness, and felt shame about it–to the extent that this was the reason they gave God for hiding when He was looking for them. Their shame at being naked was what led to their admission of eating the forbidden fruit.
Interestingly, their state of being naked hadn’t changed before and after eating the fruit, only their attitude toward nakedness had. After the Fall, mankind’s appetites and passions became disordered, no longer governed by the intellect and will. The automatic impulse in the appetites for what is good now needs to be reigned in with effort, distinguishing between greater and lesser goods (and even between actual goods and evils masquerading as good, or else objectively good things that are harmful in the wrong contexts).
Of the goods most perverted by the Fall is that of our sexuality. But this makes a certain sense, since in the right context, sex strengthens the bond of love, cooperates in the creation of new life, of new souls pro-created in God’s image–and, in the context of Christian Matrimony, is a sacramental sign and source of Christ’s grace for the couple as they live His love in the world. All of this, and it’s incredibly pleasurable, as well! It is little wonder that our passions are so strongly tempted in this regard. Sex, ultimately, is sacred.
And this is why modesty is so important. This is why, before the Fall, Adam and Eve, full of grace, were naked without shame, but after the fall, they desired to hide themselves both from each other (by sewing fig-leaf garments) and from God. Sin cuts us off from what is sacred, or else profanes it–or else what is holy destroys that which is sinful. Because of the need to protect ourselves from profaning the sacred or being destroyed by it, the holiest items of the Old Covenant were hidden in an Ark, and the Ark was hidden behind a veil in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. Moses wore a veil to diffuse the radiance of his face after speaking with God at Sinai, and God Himself had veiled His presence behind clouds and smoke. In the New Covenant, Jesus comes to us veiled under the appearance of bread and wine, and that Eucharist is reserved behind a veil in the church’s Tabernacle.
That which is holiest is kept veiled until the proper time and context, just as even to this day, the bride veils herself on her wedding day, and is only unveiled at the moment of the sacramental giving of the spouses to each other (an unveiling that is completed when the marriage is consummated).
Clothing, then, is our daily veil covering that aspect of our bodies that is most sacred in its purpose. Thus, veiling our bodies in modest dress and behaviour dissuades lustful passions from being inspired in others, and protects the sacred dimension of sexuality from being profaned. Let us then strive, by God’s grace, to love modesty and live modestly, reminding the culture around us of the dignity of a person, and the sacredness of their sexuality.
Read the first part of this mini-series “Everything You’ve Been Taught About Modesty Is Wrong”