June 14, 2012

“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

I went on holidays a couple of weeks ago (to the beach no less), and this book fell into my hands during my vacay.  Colleen Hammond writes an interesting book about modesty and primarily focuses in on women’s dress.  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 women.  Colleen quotes from an astounding array of sources - from the Vatican, famous people, books, Saints and doctors and greats of the Church both deceased and alive (including one of my favourite Church philosophers, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand). 

While I agreed with many of the solid points made in this book, many parts caused me to squirm in my seat and prompted in depth discussions with my friends, my husband and even my dad.   In short, it caused quite a stir.

Why?  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 discussion of this nature should not make me uncomfortable – this is WELL gone-over territory. 

A few reasons for my discomfort came to me today – the Feast of Pentecost. 

1.  I suppose over the years, I have begun to acquire ‘borderline’ fashions.  When there is little but my own conscience to judge whether clothing is appropriate for a Catholic woman it’s sometimes difficult to be honest with myself and truly listen to The Spirit.  So it’s a little disconcerting to be told that perhaps I might have been slipping. 

 2.  I don’t like being told what to do.

3.  While it is good to have some kind of guidelines to follow, I don’t think there can be only one set for all women, the world over.

4.  I don’t like being told what to do.  

Hammond began her book by discussing men and women before and after the Fall in the Garden of Eden.  Much was lost after the fall, including reverence and respect for God, each other and ourselves.  Because of that loss of reverence and respect, we have a tendency to disrespect our own bodies as well as those around us. 

“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

Women are the guardians of the morality of society (what's that saying about the hand that rocks the cradle ruling the world?).  If women’s morals decline, society’s morals decline.

“Dr. [Alice] von Hildebrand says that when women no longer know how to blush, it is an indication that a society is on the verge of moral collapse.  If this is true, it sounds like we’re in a lot of trouble.  Dr. von Hildebrand also says that we women carry a heavy share of the guilt for the loss of respect for purity in our society.  I agree.  And if we don’t treat ourselves with respect by dressing modestly, how can we expect others to do so?  By dressing immodestly, we betray our feminine mission and vocation as guardian of purity that is given to us by God himself.”  ~pg.8

A little harsh, isn’t it?  Are you squirming yet?  I am.  We betray that mission and vocation as the guardian of purity - a vocation given to us by God himself.  If our vocation is to be a guardian, and we betray that vocation, aren't we betraying also those we are guarding?  

“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 ladies, especially the men.   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 can admit that wearing something low-cut or micro-mini knowing that the possibility exists a man might sin because of it, is serious business for us. 

But 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. 

“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

So yes, immodest exposure ceases somewhat to be the gravest of snares due to the utter lack of modesty in our society.  But there are ‘limits beyond which customariness does not remove the grave snare’.  Even though we may be used to people dressing provocatively, there are still general boundaries to which we should adhere in the interest of modesty.  

But 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?   Colleen addresses this too with a quote from Pius XII.

“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 can be just as much licentiousness in Africa, as there is in the Arctic.  The problem isn’t so much that all women should be covered from head to toe at all times.  The problem is rather a pervasive sickness of 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’ by virtue of the fact that they are 'the very vessels of life', 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 lady.  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 goes 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’, just as Mary bore the Saviour in hers?

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.  

I got to this part of the book while I was relaxing at my parents house, but I was anything but relaxed.  I put the book down and wandered around aimlessly, picked things up and put them down, all the while envisioning myself tossing at least half of my current wardrobe (as I have quite a few tee shirts and short sleeved blouses).  My first reaction was to laugh and pigheadedly say to myself, "well that's not going to happen." I have a hard time believing all of my tees are immodest just because they show my elbows.  In my stubbornness I didn't want to even entertain the notion.  But I had no peace about the whole thing.  This went on for at least an hour.  

Finally, I asked the Spirit for guidance and light in the area of my dress, and prayed "Lord if this is truly what you want for me, change my heart".  I blinked, and felt the same as I had a second ago.  No great and grand lightning bolt hit me, I didn't have any crazy ideas about tossing everything and gathering two muu muu's and a burqua together to serve as my wardrobe, I just continued on doing what I've been doing.  But from that openness, the Lord has been changing my heart - giving me more of an awareness of modesty in speech, manner and dress.   

Do not get me wrong.  I won't be doing a major clean-out at the moment, not only because I can't afford it but because I am not solely convicted that what I wear causes sin.  I am, however, convinced that my wardrobe can use some...tweaking.  Perhaps I will phase out certain pieces, and phase in others.  What I want to stress here is true and willing openness to God and His standards, more than anyone else’s…be that the fashion dictates of 2012 or Colleen Hammond. 

Who doesn't love Downton Abbey?
But Colleen’s ideals are not a bad place to start. 

“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 absolutely LOVE the way a drape-y dress made of a soft material looks and feels and am uncomfortable, come to think of it, in things that are on the tight side.  She gives other practical advice too – how to be sure your tops aren’t too tight, how to “fix” shirts that dip too low and how to test pieces of clothing to be sure they are covering you adequately as you go through your daily life.  

In cases such as these, it might be prudent to err on the side of more modesty than less.  I don’t mean to imply that now you can never go to the beach, never wear a bathing suit (although Colleen Hammond seems to be in favour of doing so), or adopt the practice of never letting your elbows see the light of day again.  My only recommendation would be to take to heart the message that you, ladies, are beautiful, mysterious, captivating and preciously sacred by virtue of your femininity.  Ask the Spirit what that might mean for you and your wardrobe?  

“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


  1. It's a serious topic that good Catholic women struggle with - not men, our fashions and our bodies are just different: are there immodest men's suits, golf shirts, etc?

    I think it's a mistake to treat this subject on a purely objective level, as some of the guides have, as you have indicated. There are good rules of thumb - skirts to the knees, etc., but many people would even disagree with those. But there is a lot of relativity. Now, the beach is a separate issue.

    Bathingsuits are immodest! But with whom do we go to the beach and what beach - that's part of the issue there.

    I suppose you can partially base it on me: I do not think t-shirts are immodest, dresses to the knees. It's all about short skirts, low tops. Men will automatically 'size you up' in about a tenth of a second. It's automatic. But those low this and short that will be a temptation for him to linger. That's the issue to me. For a man who is unchaste anything would be provocative: just consider the Middle East.

  2. Yes, I agree re: the bathing suits in general. What is the alternative though? Swimming fully clothed? Not swimming at all? There's a chasm of difference between bikinis and the one piece or moderately-body-covering two piece swimsuits, but at the same time the latter are still skin tight and only cover the most important bits. And then there's the question of the burqa-bathing-suits, which is what I call bathing suits that are pretty much a full set of clothing. How can a person swim in these? Because when I go swimming, I like to SWIM and exercise.

    And I also think you've hit it in regards to general clothing - short and low-cut will cause men (Catholic, Christian, Athiest, Moral, Amoral, etc) to size a gal up and possibly linger (which is where the sin comes in, both for the look-er and the look-ee). This is, to me, why this issue is so important, and deserves some thought!

    Thanks so much for your thoughts Colin!

  3. Modest clothing does not mean that your wardrobe is restricted to wearing unfashionable sacks dresses. Dressing in attire that is not modest will attract attention. This attention may not be positive or misplaced. http://www.apparelnbags.com/store/golf-apparel.htm



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