Drawing a Hemline: Sexual Modesty and the Pursuit of Wisdom

In this Crisis Magazine classic, Benjamin Wiker almost gets lynched arguing for a return to sexual modesty in dress.

 
 
I have a suggestion for those in academia who are concerned that women be treated as intellectual equals: Try sexual modesty. Before the lynching party arrives, I hope I will have time to explain.
 
I have taught at several colleges, one of which has a dress code. To many, a dress code seems old-fashioned at best, a puri-tyrannical breach of our right to freedom of speech at worst. (It should worry us that clothing is considered speech.) But allow me to present two examples — male and female — that illustrate how sexual modesty is related to the pursuit of wisdom.
 
 
Immodest Examples
 
A few years back, in California, there was a young man at a state university who insisted on attending all his classes wearing only a backpack. (If only he had worn a fanny pack!) He was nicknamed “the naked guy.” The presence of this statuesque youth was disturbing. He was not rude, loud, or aggressive. The difficulty? He was sans-culottes, and then some.
 
The only amusing thing in this matter was that the university could not come up with a violation to pin on him — let alone a place to pin it. After several weeks of cheek-by-jowl conferencing, he was slapped with a sexual harassment charge, even though his mode of “harassing” was entirely passive, and given the boot (and, we hope, a traveling suit as well).
 
Why could the university not simply invoke the obvious: young men have to wear clothes in public because human beings, especially young women, have trouble concentrating sitting next to a naked man? Why could the university not admit that sexual immodesty directly disturbs the intellectual life? Why could it not draw a hemline and say, “Thus far and no farther”?
 
Because it had, like so many other academic institutions, abandoned any restrictions in regard to how students must dress. Having embraced both the slovenly and near-naked, the university could not find a way to regulate the naked.
 
Another example is from when I was teaching at a college without a dress code. I was having students give presentations on the Roman Empire. In one group, a young lady was playing the part of Julius Caesar — do not ask why. She wore a miniskirt made out of less material than a standard eyepatch. Needless to say, the young men were not engrossed in her intellectual presentation. I doubt they heard anything she had to say. Her immodesty absorbed their entire attention. As far as they were concerned, she was all body and no mind.
 
Those who defend such immodesty usually argue that a young woman has a right to wear whatever she wants, and the young men have no right to ogle her. On the contrary: It is not a question of rights but rather of nature. Just as it was natural for young women to be flustered in the presence of “the naked guy,” so it was natural for young men to be flustered oglers in the presence of a near-naked young woman. If he was sexually harassing the women, was she sexually harassing the men?
 
 
The Natural and the Conventional
 
Those who defend such immodesty do not, of course, call it immodest. A little etymology will reveal why. The Latin modestus means “moderate,” as in “keeping within bounds,” and it is derived from modus, which means “a boundary or standard of measure.” Those who have rejected dress codes have done so because they have rejected any boundaries, any standards of measure in regard to sexuality. Standards of dress and sexuality stand and fall together.
 
The principle normally invoked by the intelligentsia for the standardless standard is that clothing is merely conventional, whereas (we assume) skin is natural. The amount and style of clothing differs so drastically from Aborigines to Elizabethans to Americans that any standard is arbitrary. So the argument goes.
 
But this argument is misaimed. The focus must shift from the clothes, which do vary, to the human beings underneath, who in their essentials do not. Unless we are entirely Gnostic — and I believe that many trendy moderns are, at heart, ancient Gnostics — we must recognize that sexual passion is a human given. It is natural and not conventional.
 
Further, sexual passion is like any other passion — anger, joy, hunger: it is not continually “on” but becomes aroused. Hence, the barbarous but accurate phrase, “He [or she] turns me on!” This sudden flutter and consequent flow of hormones is natural.
 
But we are not defined solely by our capacity to feel and express passions. Human beings are, by nature, able to think deeply and come to profound insights. As the politically correct crowd rightly points out, the intellect is not the sole possession of white, western males but is a human endowment, shared universally.
 
 
Passion Cancels Intellect
 
And now the pinch. Science may be brought in to confirm the following, but that would only be to vindicate what almost all of us know by experience. Thinking deeply (which is natural) and sexual desire (which is natural) cancel each other out (which is natural). Our intellectual and sexual attentions are inversely proportional.
 
This relationship is not confined to sexual passion. Such distraction of the intellect occurs with most other passions as well: “I was so hungry, I couldn’t think”; “I was so angry that I wasn’t able to concentrate”; “He was so sad that his eyes were just running over the page — he may as well not have ‘read’ the book.”
 
Imagine trying to conduct a seminar an hour past lunch when nobody has eaten since breakfast, when all of the participants are as mad as hornets, or when all are mourning over a fellow student’s recent death. Can we admit that these other passions disturb our ability to think but exclude sexual passion? If anything, sexual passion is a stronger distraction. Thus, the more immodesty, the more distraction.
 
Furthermore, admit it or not, sexual immodesty not only distracts, it reduces. It reduces especially the young women to something less than they really are. Regardless of the current attempt to equalize sexuality, it has always been the case that the female’s sexuality garners a stronger attraction. A man half-dressed in class will appear ridiculous to the women and disgusting to the men, an embarrassment rather than a source of temptation. But a woman immodestly dressed throws the young men into dry-mouthed confusion. If it were any other way, then selling-by-sex industries, from prostitution to advertising, would not be almost completely dominated by the immodesty of women directed to the insatiable sexual appetites of men.
 
It is this simple: We are rational animals. The rational aspect of our being distinguishes us as human beings. The animal aspect of our being is the source of the sexual distinction between male and female. The university purports to teach our rational nature, that which least distinguishes male and female, not our animal nature, which is the source of the sexual distinction and the passion of sex. It follows that immodesty exaggerates sexual difference, while modesty allows for the dominance of the intellect where there is the least difference between male and female.
 
 
Feminism’s Consequence
 
This is not an abstract argument. I have seen the difference it makes when the differences between male and female are hidden, so to speak, by the drape of modesty (i.e., because of a dress code). When a young woman would go up to the board to demonstrate a proposition from Euclid, all eyes were focused on the board, and all minds were attentive to her words. If she were wearing a miniskirt, for those who were watching, her natural intellectual powers would have been canceled by her natural sexual powers.
 
In this regard, and many others, modernity has things backwards. It tries to make sexuality common by making it public and rationality private by making it relative and particular. Thus, we are invited to display our sexuality to everyone (regardless of gender) as if it had, in its origin and goal, the universality of intellectual pursuits, and we are admonished to divide our rationality as if it had the particularities of the body, such as gender. Hence, women’s studies are declared an intellectual province, while philosophy is taken to be provincial.
 
But against this, modesty in academia allows for the pursuit of wisdom because it does not confuse the universality and commonness of intellectual things with the particularity and exclusiveness of bodily things. The intellect naturally tries to embrace the whole of reality; the body naturally tries to embrace another particular body. The mind is open for the sake of uncovering truth; the body is covered for the sake of opening up to another body exclusively, that of one’s spouse.
 
This is not a Manichaean position. Modesty acknowledges the body. It does not hide the body because it is ashamed of it; it veils the body because its sexual power is not an appropriate object of public display. Is that not what feminists have been telling us, that they do not want women to be sex objects? They have been right to say so and should follow through with the natural consequence: modesty.
 
In regard to academia, the need for sexual modesty is a recognition of what should be an obvious, natural truth. Neither males nor females should be distracted from the primary purpose of the university: the formation of the intellect. Whether it be from the fall or from the inherent powerful nature of sexual desire (or both), the presence of sexual passion in the classroom displaces intellectual passion. Institutions owe it to their students to minimize such distractions. Even on the mean level of economics, students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend such institutions of higher learning. Why pay for sexual passion? The culture is already saturated with it, and most of it is free. If the university is “selling” itself as offering what cannot be gotten elsewhere, then its focus should be intellectual, not sexual.
 


Benjamin D. Wiker is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of the new book,
 The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Regnery, 2009). This article originally appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.

 

Benjamin D. Wiker

By

Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need To Know. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com, and you can follow him on Facebook.

  • Kell Brigan

    If you’re talking about The Naked Guy from Berkeley, he wasn’t “given the boot”; he switched to attending classes in a bandana “loin cloth”. What’s the source for your version? (Mine’s Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” — she attended Berkeley at the time, and hers is a first person report.) Personally, given what the rest of the student body (i.e. female) wasn’t wearing at the time, I agree with his not being expelled. If the women could run around in the same degree of semi-nudity (string bikini tops, for instance), loin cloths aren’t such a stretch. Also, you’re misrepresenting women’s reactions to him. Women were his most vocal defenders, and not “dismayed” by him at all.

    Come one, guys. Just because you’re Catholic doesn’t mean you get to substitute manufactured fiction for history. I can give you twenty reasons for modest dress (at this point in history — 1982, not so much…) without once having to fabricate anything.

    Attention world: not all Catholics play this fast and loose with the truth.

    Oh, and, not coincidentally, MEN NEVER HAVE THE RIGHT TO OGLE WOMEN. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. Not if a women shows up naked and starts poll dancing in the middle of a parking lot. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. IT IS NEVER HER FAULT. IT IS NEVER HER RESPONSIBILITY. MEN WHO OGLE ARE COMMITING THEIR OWN SIN, AND IT’S NO ONE ELSE’S FAULT WHEN THEY DO. IF THEY CHOOSE TO NOT LEAVE A TRIGGERING SITUATION, THEY HAVE SINNED. YOU CAN’T DEMAND ALL WOMEN LIVE IN BURKAS AND CLOISTERS JUST BECAUSE MEN DON’T WANT TO GROW UP. THIS WILL NEVER BE A LEGITIMATE ARGUMENT FOR MODEST DRESS. MEN ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN SOULS; WOMEN’S DRESS, OR PRESENCE OR ABSENCE IN PUBLIC AS FREE CITIZENS IN ANY WAY WHATSOEVER, DOES NOT REMOVE THE RESPONSIBILITY FROM MEN TO BEHAVE ETHICALLY AND MORALLY. YOU SIN; YOU’RE THE SINNER. PERIOD.

    “If she were wearing a miniskirt, for those who were watching, her natural intellectual powers would have been canceled by her natural sexual powers.”

    TOTALLY, 100% WRONG. A MAN’S OPINION OF A WOMEN HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH HER REALITY. YOUR OPINIONS DO NOT CREATE US OR UNMAKE US. WE WERE MADE BY GOD AND WE’RE HERE TO STAY, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT MAN THINK WE’RE REAL, OR HUMAN.

    HER intellectual powers are just fine, thanks. The only thing’s that’s happened is that some of the MEN in the room, the weak LOSERS who CHOOSE to GIVE IN TO SIN think they are somehow now justified in mentally raping her as an object without “intellectual powers”.

    GROW UP.

    REAL MEN DON’T BLAME WOMEN FOR THEIR OWN STUPIDITY AND LACK OF CHARACTER.

  • Patrick

    Kell,

    When did he leave?

  • BPK

    While many of the objections Kell Brigan brings up are valid, I disagree with both the tone and the conclusions:

    The correction she offers concerning the “naked man” story is beside the point–even if Mr. Wiker was a bit sloppy with the particulars of the story, the overarching purpose of telling the story remains intact and is in no way compromised by “manufactured” circumstantial points.

    And of course men never have the right to ogle women. “Custody of the eyes” is a key component (and daily cross, I might add) of a Catholic man’s life. What you fail to note, however, is that a corresponding grave obligation mandates that women help men in this endeavor. If a woman dons an immodest outfit so as to trigger a response in the men who will see her, she is committing grave scandal–she is actively putting men into a very difficult occasion of sin and, besides, debasing herself.

    Modesty is a two-way street. Women have the obligation to dress so as to avoid sexual attention. Men have the obligation (which you duly noted) to keep themselves away from possible sexual temptations, regardless of whether the fairer sex is willing to help him in his endeavor.

    God bless,

  • Fr. B

    Dear Kell,
    When God asked Cain where was his brother, Cain retorted, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From the letter of St. James we learn that we in fact are. Certainly, men are to do all they can to turn away from temptation, but women must do their part to not to lead into temptation. Our Lord said in Matthew 18:7,”Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom temptations comes!” From here our Lord tells us to be willing to pull out an eye or cut off a hand to stop sin. Surely a woman is being asked then by God to put up with a little bit of discomfort for the sake of modesty. What also has to be kept in mind is the way these things are out of balance because of Original Sin. The strength of men’s desires and women’s willingness to think of others are both hampered by concupiscence. We see the example of our Blessed Mother, the perfect woman. Our Lady of Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe all show her dressing modestly. May all men seek to follow St. Joseph who protected Mary and Jesus’ purity and may all women prize their bodies as did our Lady.

  • Okie

    St. Paul said that the stronger brothers should not allow their strength to be a stumbling block for their weaker brothers. Even though I am not sold on this notion that women somehow are totally in control of their sexuality and men are simply slobering idiots when it comes to sex, let us go with this line of logic and come up with the easy solution. If your freedom makes your brother slip into sin, then you have abused, and have committed as sin yourself. Sure, in an Eden, we can all run around naked and be unafraid. In our times, Christian women must help men when it comes to the custody of the eyes. Furthermore, St. Paul said women should have their head covered in the assembly…how ridiculous would it be to assume that one should wear a head covering in Church, as to make sure not to distract men from worship, but outside of Church, a woman can bear most or all of her body and it be acceptable? And how is it empowering for women to dress like prostitutes?

  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    What Kell and so many others in our society fail to realize is that modesty is about love, not rights: Do you love members of the opposite sex enough to avoid dressing in ways that would make it more difficult for them to do what God wants them to do.

    Please stop spouting all this crap about women being able to dress however they want and having no responsibility for the consequences, Kell. The fact is that chastity has to be a team effort or it will not succeed, and those who refuse to play as part of the team will be held partly responsible for the failures of other team members.

    On the sports field someone who refused to make a team effort and tried to win the game single-handed is blamed if his team loses. Why not in the field of sexual morality?

  • Jenny

    Kell,

    St. Paul has some very different things to say on the matter of being the cause of another’s sin. He went so far as to say we must not do something, even if it is NOT sinful, if it will lead our brother to sin. I suggest reading 1 and 2 Corinthians for starters.

    As for men being immature… it’s not immature to be affected by something as fundamental to the human nature as sexuality.

  • Kamilla

    Kell,

    My source for informatin on “The Naked Guy” is a classmate and friend of his. His refusal to wear clothes was plainly a thumb in the eye of “the establishment” as when he showed up to my young friend’s apartment for a party, he was attired exactly as the other students were – T-shirt and shorts. It was only later on during the party that he disrobed, and only then after asking the hostess if it would bother her.

    Personally, I would have thought a simple rule on the basis of hygiene should have taken care of the matter.

    Kamilla

  • Kamilla

    I recognize the symptoms Kell is displaying because I used to suffer them myself in my former rebellion, as a religious feminist. It is a common side-affect of feminist hystrionics – this inability to read with comprehension. While immodesty in terms of clothing was never really my strong suit, I have recognized something more recently that surprises me a bit. Since I gave up the short “butch” haircut, grew my hair out and started wearing skirts, I’ve been amazed at the difference in how others, both men and women, respond to me and treat me.

    Kell, you can’t *make* people like you or treat you with respect. To demand such makes you sound like a spoiled Toddler. You can only show them what you expect and, for the most part, they will respond in the ways you do expect to be treated. Dress like a cheap tart and that is exactly how you will be treated. Dress like a respectable woman and, well, I can only ask that you try it. It’s actually quite nice to have doors opened for you, etc.

    Mr. Wiker,

    Excellent, excellent article. A number of things stood out for me, but this in particular, was striking:

    “The intellect naturally tries to embrace the whole of reality; the body naturally tries to embrace another particular body. The mind is open for the sake of uncovering truth; the body is covered for the sake of opening up to another body exclusively, that of one’s spouse.”

    Kamilla

  • Catholic Femina

    The American people as a whole have loss their since of dignity in dress. I was hit in the face with this when I was attending a Catholic college in Naples, Florida. I always felt that modesty was covering and not showing, and a professor I had felt this was not necessarily the case. In fact she banned students from wearing any garment that revealed underwear in her class. (T-Shirts being considered men

  • Criffton

    Kamilla, I fully agree. I spent several years as a “metalhead”, and had the opinion that if that caused others problems, they needed to stop being so superficial.

    Then I realized that I was choosing to dress in a way that said something about me, and that when others reacted in kind, it was not their fault, but mine. After cutting my hair and dressing clean, I made some close friends with people that were afraid to talk to me.

    We DO express ourselves through our cloths, and we should be prepared to accept the consequences. If one looks like a feminist, don’t be surprised if traditional guys shy away. If one dresses punk or metalhead, don’t be surprised when people assume you share that group’s ethos. If one dresses like a meretrix; they ought not be surprised when people treat them like one.

  • Unfortunate Observer

    Dress like a cheap tart and that is exactly how you will be treated. Dress like a respectable woman and, well, I can only ask that you try it. It’s actually quite nice to have doors opened for you, etc.

    My knowledge of the Gospel is a bit rusty, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus did not approach the sinful women and berate them. He didn’t call them tarts. He didn’t spit on them. He didn’t assault them. Instead, He treated them with loving kindness and respect. Through THAT treatment, and not through brutality, they reformed themselves. Perhaps you need to reconsider your very sinful approach.

    Does this make you feel better, men? Does it make you feel like more of a man to be absolved of responsibility for your actions? You imply in word, over and over again, that you simply can’t be expected to resist a woman. You’re too weak. You’re too out of control. Therefore, it is her fault (?) when you rape and attack her. Rather than treat all women with respect, you can only respect those who dress just so…whether it is in a long dress, pants and a shirt, a veil, or a burqa. Can you say what is best for a woman to wear?

    It’s just the Catholic rationale for “She was asking for it.” A bit of a head shake on the part of the speaker: “Yes, well, it’s such as shame that Mary was attacked by that man. She’ll never have children, the assault was so brutal. And of course, the psychological toll will be great…but, you know, she was asking for it. She didn’t dress modestly enough. He was confronted with a powerful biological urge and just had to get it slaked. She’s as much to blame as he is!”

    Disgusting. Take responsibility for yourself, men.

  • Kamilla

    Unfortunate Observer,

    You are mistaken in your criticism of me. While I am a sinful woman and my reply may be sinful, it is not so for the reason you say. I was speaking to the way the world will treat a woman dressed like a cheap tart, not the way Jesus would. Of course, you’ll forgive me for being tempted to think Jesus would offer most of today’s coeds something to cover up with as he told them to, “Go and sin no more.”

    Kamilla

  • Joe H

    Dress codes are marvelous, I believe they ought to exist at every educational institution in the country.

    Aside from the promotion of sexual modesty, they also help combat the pettiness and vanity that results from the consumerism of clothing, the division into social cliques, the ridicule of the unfashionable, etc.

    The less we focus on such things, the more we will identify people by their character and intellect. Lack of a dress code is what helps the superficial and profane dominate the thoughtful and reverent.

    My hope is that my generation will overthrow the regime of shrill feminism and restore some semblance of rationality and sanity to our public life, including our schools and universities.

  • cantor

    Let’s not be naive – everyone, especially women know the power their bodies have over men, its a fact. It may be biological, psychological, or whatever, it doesn’t matter, its an out and out, done and dusted f_a_c_t. God has chosen to give this power to women for reasons best known to Himself.

    This power is unlike any other human trait or quality in its impact on the opposite sex – only women have it. This difference should be celebrated. Used judiciously and with grace, it generates a wonder and awe at the beauty that God has treated us to in the sublime female form. Used more liberally, it can provoke a reaction in the male which a more discerning women would know should be reserved for one’s spouse or future intended spouse. Now that is strictly speaking!

    In practice, women use it much more liberally than they should, and usually to their advantage, socially, at work, wherever…they have it and they use it. That’s fine, but it must be acknowledged that women have complete control over this, as well as the corresponding reaction which progressively changes from wonder and awe to gawk and maw (as in wide open). Wiker is absolutely correct. The progression is from intellectual (an appreciation of beauty) to brainless (animal).

    As far as taking responsibility for their actions (actually, re-action would be more appropriate, as it is a response to the stimulus presented by the woman), while it is possible sometimes for a man who can still think straight to look away or just move away, I have seen situations, and been in some myself (I’m a bloke, sorry that’s Australian for man) where its well nigh impossible to do anything else but look. I’m talking here about confined spaces like elevators, meeting rooms, etc. I think Wiker’s piece is well thought out and argued. He hits the proverbial nail on the proverbial head.

  • Michael

    Unfortunate observer.
    It is about attitude. No one is implying that if young women go around half naked that Catholic men are absolved of responsibility for raping those women. What is being discussed is how those young women are perceived by others. The bottom line is if you don’t want to be perceived as a tart, don’t dress like one. If you expect respect, dress as if you respect yourself.

    Finally, the point of this article extends beyond the state of relative undress of young women. In our society at large, most people dress like slobs. It used to be said that clothing makes the man. While this may not be entirely true it is not entirely false either. Before people leave the home, they should glance at themselves in the mirror to confirm that their dress sends the right message. I have spent some time among the poor of Mexico and one of the cultural differences that struck me was that, at least in Mexico, the poor seem to care more about how they look out in public than the middle class does in the United States.

  • Donna

    who violate modesty, but from my experience men and women tend to do so for different reasons. Women tend to be deliberately provocative, whereas men tend to be simply thoughtless. (‘ The naked guy ‘ being a spectacular exception !) Generally speaking, a woman in a miniskirt is not dressing for comfort, while a man who goes shirtless on a hot day probably is. Both are providing occasions of sin for the opposite sex, however. and both may be at fault.

  • Hildy Johnson

    (1) I must have missed the part where someone was recommending burqas as a solution. There is a via media here. You can dress attractively and comfortably, even in hot weather, without doing so provocatively. It takes a little creative shopping at times, given what is there in the stores, but it’s honestly not that hard to achieve a modest and stylish look through light layering.

    (2) Yes, men and women are each responsible for their own bodies and souls and do not get to blame each other for their own sins. This applies equally to both genders. Men cannot blame their sexual sins on women’s choice of clothing or behavior, and women cannot blame their inconsideration toward men on men’s own immaturity. A mature man, who is trying to be respectful and who would NEVER assault a woman in any way no matter how provoked, may still be excited despite himself by a woman wearing clothing that reveals a lot of her body, whether the woman wearing it intended for him to be or not. Usually she doesn’t, and only wears it for the sake of “fashion”. Yet a mature man has as much a right to an environment free of unwanted visual stimulation as a woman has a right to an environment free of unwanted comments and physical advances that are only “intended” as “jokes” or “fun”. At some point, mutual respect and understanding are necessary so that we can all concentrate on common goals that have nothing to do with gender or sex.

    (3) Setting and context, time and place, matter a whole lot to what can be considered modest. That’s part of what makes these lines so hard to draw. Yet I agree with the original author that they need to be drawn somewhere, by common cultural consent if nothing else. There’s a saying, “what is customary does not excite.” The problem lies not only in a breakdown of customs but in a resulting lack of consensus about what is or should be customary. In trying to rebuild such a consensus, there’s a certain prudence about human nature that has to be understood and therefore to be discussed. How nice it would be to try to discuss human nature without accusations and recriminations, men vs. women or women vs. men, and who’s done more harm to whom and how and why.

  • Ann

    Let’s start with some dress codes in Mass.

  • St. Fashionista

    Here’s the problem: who decides? I’d wager that the posters here couldn’t even come up with a consensus. We can easily agree that a 12 inch wide piece of cloth is an immodest micro-mini, but there are those who believe that any skirt above the knee is a mini-skirt and is, therefore, immodest.

    There are those of us who wear shorts that we believe are modest, but the mere mention of “shorts” to others equals immodesty, even if they are mid-thigh or below. And I’ve had the conversations about “two finger-breadths below the collarbone” is the only acceptable version of neckline modesty, despite the fact that that guideline was written for a certain place and time.

    I’ve heard arguments that no woman should ever wear a bathing suit. It’s sleeveless and legless, so it’s immodest.

    And we shouldn’t do gymnastics, because a leotard is worn and leg-splitting movements are done.

    And I’ve had some Catholics tell me that no woman, ever, anywhere, should wear pants. And Pdare Pio would not hear the confession of any woman wearing pants. And I’ve responded with the photo of St. Gianna Molla in pants to put an end to that, but I ask: what photo did she use to prove that she was not being immodest? Because there was a time before her where it was absolutely immodest for a female to be seen in public in pants, but obviously that changed and she changed with it.

  • Richard

    Does this make you feel better, men? Does it make you feel like more of a man to be absolved of responsibility for your actions? You imply in word, over and over again, that you simply can’t be expected to resist a woman. You’re too weak. You’re too out of control. Therefore, it is her fault (?) when you rape and attack her.

    What Kell was shouting, was that it was wrong to OGLE

    MEN NEVER HAVE THE RIGHT TO OGLE WOMEN. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. NEVER. Not if a women shows up naked and starts poll dancing in the middle of a parking lot.

    Because of course, it’s reasonable to expect that no man would look twice at what is probably the most beautiful vision in eyeshot.

    Is that honestly the kind of world we want to live in? Is it the kind of world we should live in? Constantly present something attractive to someone else, and then pretend indignation because he’s attracted to it?

    In my college days, when we’d do some door-to-door evangelizing in the Michigan State dorms, one of us encountered a fellow whose room was covered, floor to ceiling, with Playboy centerfolds. He excused his ‘decorating’ style with the explanation that “It’s OK, I don’t notice them any more.” And that’s an alternative, isn’t it: get yourself to where you don’t notice that you’re in a room full of naked women (assuming one believed him)? Speaking of “natural”.

  • meg

    OK – for Mass only (to keep it simple) – here are some suggestions for dress.

    My first thought is nothing low cut i.e. visible cleavage. Common sense.

    Knees don’t belong in church on men or women (or kids for that matter). So no shorts or above the knee skirts.

    That covers a lot of ground. The last Holy Communion I went to was a parade of bosoms and bottoms and that was supposed to be a conservative parish.

    For men: No t-shirts especially with sayings. No jeans or sneakers.

    For women, the pants thing is tricky – the problem with pants being that if a woman looks really good in pants that fit well it is a major distraction to men of all ages, especially if they are sitting in the pew directly behind the woman that looks good in pants. Doesn’t help them concentrate.

    But you can’t say that only women who look bad in pants (and many do) can wear them. So I vote for no pants for women in church. I don’t wear them to church (not that me in pants would be a distraction to anyone) and it’s not difficult. Skirts are amazingly comfortable if they’re long and flowy because they’re totally unrestrictive. And they’re pretty.

    My two cents.

  • Zoe

    Modesty is not really about clothing, but disposition and attitude. Which is why it’s really hard to start getting specific about clothing. Today, for example, a pair of dressy jeans can be nicer than a pair of khakis. As for women not wearing pants at church, don’t even get me started on that one…

    It is helpful for schools to set dress codes for many reasons and reasonable for churches to set basic rules for dress, too — and some do. But these rules should correspond to the subculture the parish serves.

    We don’t live in a formal, class-based society anymore. As a society, the U.S. was always more egalitarian and unconventional than Europe. Clothing is not arbitrary — it reflects the culture and the way people live. The culture has changed — it’s more functional and informal, and a lot of what goes along with that is stuff few of us would want to change.

    How one holds himself, interacts with others, speaks — these are all part of modesty, too. Most of can agree on the extremes of immodest dress and behavior. When it comes to the gray areas, I think we’d be better off concentrating on instilling a respect for self and others, and a sense of appropriateness, and better clothing choices will follow.

  • meg

    As for women not wearing pants at church, don’t even get me started on that one…

    Yes, I knew the pants thing wouldn’t go unnoticed. Thank you for your restraint – I know it’s a hotbutton issue.

    Some random thoughts about skirts and modesty in general:

    I have only sons, but I know a group of traditional Catholics whose daughters wear only skirts – long loose ones – and they are kept away from pop culture for the most part.

    The result is that these girls are free – totally liberated. When I say liberated I don’t mean in the way of the old feminists (which because of sexualization unintentionally exacerbated body image problems), I mean free from body and fashion obsession. Free from worrying about whether their butts look good in their new jeans or if they need to diet. Since these girls’ bodies aren’t exposed in tank tops and tight jeans they don’t obsess about the size of their thighs, whether they’re tan enough or if their chests are big enough.

    They are truly emotionally healthy. Obviously this is not all because of skirts. But they play an important role. Because of a high level of modesty these girls are lead away from the superficiality of unhealthy preoccupations. In a society where cutting, eating disorders, early sexual activity, drug use etc, are all fairly commonplace – isn’t a simple thing (albeit a countercultural one) like dressing our daughters in long loose skirts something worth considering?

    Another thought: I think most girls are born with a level of modesty that is leeched out of them over time with exposure to the prevailing culture, which doesn’t value modesty at all. The protection modesty provides – along with another natural protection, embarrasment – is destroyed. Sad.

  • Zoe

    I have only sons, but I know a group of traditional Catholics whose daughters wear only skirts – long loose ones – and they are kept away from pop culture for the most part.

    The result is that these girls are free – totally liberated. When I say liberated I don’t mean in the way of the old feminists (which because of sexualization unintentionally exacerbated body image problems), I mean free from body and fashion obsession. Free from worrying about whether their butts look good in their new jeans or if they need to diet. Since these girls’ bodies aren’t exposed in tank tops and tight jeans they don’t obsess about the size of their thighs, whether they’re tan enough or if their chests are big enough.

    They are truly emotionally healthy. Obviously this is not all because of skirts. But they play an important role. Because of a high level of modesty these girls are lead away from the superficiality of unhealthy preoccupations. In a society where cutting, eating disorders, early sexual activity, drug use etc, are all fairly commonplace – isn’t a simple thing (albeit a countercultural one) like dressing our daughters in long loose skirts something worth considering?

    Meg, thanks for your response.

    I have known many traditional Catholic families whose daughters wore “long, loose skirts.” Some of these girls were mature and emotionally healthy, some were not. Some ended up turning into integrated, free women. Some did not. It really wasn’t about the skirts.

    I don’t think the answer to unhealthy preoccupations, eating disorders, early sexual activity, etc. is formless skirts, jumpers, or anything of the sort. It’s not about hiding the body or making it formless. It’s about developing respect for oneself, and an understanding of the body as both natural and sacred and adorning it that way. And about good parenting.

    This is not an either/or thing — either long, loose skirts or letting girls wear whatever the latest female pop star is sporting. How do we raise children to be in the world and not of it? How do we teach them to engage with the culture, but not be overtaken by it? This is the challenge of every Christian parent. And many factors go into it. We always want a detailed map, an easy solution, and it doesn’t exist.

    I don’t have a problem with long, loose skirts… in fact, I don’t really care what someone wears as long as it’s respectful of others. Dressing well is not simply about staying cool or warm or self-expression or even tradition, but about showing respect to your neighbor. Which is why showing too much flesh or wearing skin-tight clothing is not fitting for Mass or many other public arenas.

    I’ve lived in places where the going fashion statement for Catholic women was liturgically color-coordinated jumpers. All I can say is thanks be to God I was delivered from that. [smiley=wink]

  • St. Fashionista

    Zoe, I agree with you and it triggers a few things in my personal past.

    I think it has to do with your previous comments on culture/society/, place and time…and that ties in with my upbringing in the north east. I’m sure I’m not making myself clear here, but my families’ history – my grandmothers, my aunts, great-aunts and great-grandmothers (who, while I don’t personally remember, are kept alive by tales of the other ladies in my family) and their lives of complete submersion in a Catholic culture went hand-in-hand with elegance. Sophistication. A touch of the aristocratic, even, as compared to today.

    Not one of them would be caught dead in anything oversized, ill-fitting, shapeless, and horridly out-of-date. Yes, times were different, but denim was a fabric used for men who were farmers in the country. My grandfather used to tend his backyard tomatoes in trousers and black shoes. My other grandfather wore the same while tinkering on cars on the weekends.

    The aunts wore gloves and hats with little net veils (and sometimes a well-placed sequin or flower…or both!) with smart little handbags. Their smart suits (which some of were made by hand) were expertly tailored to fit; I remember the jackets having lovely shaped waists. They looked like….ladies. And even though most of them had children, they didn’t look like “moms”, (and as a mother myself, I hope I’m being clear: not disparaging motherhood at all, but that’s what mothers used to look like. We didn’t get jokes about “mom-jeans” for nothing).

    Adult, elegant ladies. Not shapeless Little House on the Prairie denim jumper ankle-skirt, sneaker (shudder!) no makeup, ponytail-wearing frumps. Quite frankly, that was for Protestants who lived out in the country. (Like Amish, Mennonites, fundamentalists, evangelicals and Pentacostals; those kind of people just weren’t living in Boston or NYC back then. And as much as I love the Duggars, they do look bloody awful)

    Because of those ladies and because of what churches used to look like, it was Catholics who always had the better fabric, the more excellent design, the elegant look; oh, the class of it all! We were velvet and gold, brocade and silk fringe, hand embroidery, starched linen and imported lace (handmade by nuns in Ireland or France!). Not that the clothes made these ladies; I’m sure they would have carried themselves with that more-formal dignity were they in potato sacks, but they never chose the potato sack for modesty, comfort or anything else.

  • meg

    I’ve lived in places where the going fashion statement for Catholic women was liturgically color-coordinated jumpers. All I can say is thanks be to God I was delivered from that.

    Oh my goodness, never heard of such a thing. Yikes!

    As I said in my post it’s not all about the skirts. The problem is there is nothing out there between long skirts/jumpers and belly- or low cut shirts and tight stretchy fabrics etc. I hear it all the time from my friends with daughters. They get in screaming crying fights because the girls don’t want to leave the house if they don’t “fit in” with what everyone else is wearing (which is often immodest). Some of my friends actually make their daughters clothes or buy clothes and insert bits here and there so the girls are covered up.

    If only there were a panacea for eating disorders etc.! But nevertheless we are obliged to do what we can. We basically agree, Zoe, I think I’ve just lived through a few more horrifying decades then you! Having kids changes your outlook in unexpected ways too. There are no guarantees but we can stack the deck in thier favor – we must get them to heaven.

    St. Fashionista: You bring back memories for me! First of all of my mom and her mom, sisters, aunts, etc. with their veiled hats and little gloves and suits with much detail. I love to look at the old pictures from my mom’s wedding – it’s a moment that’s gone. During college we haunted vintage clothing shops and actually wore lots of that stuff. My mom grew up in Manhattan on a fashionable street so I’m not sure many women could afford to dress like that. But that was a charming era for sure.

    Don’t forget what went into those looks LOL! I watched my mom – there were rollers in the hair every night, very uncomfortable high heels, good heavens – foundation garments!? My mom wore a girdle when we were young (as did all her friends – she was not overweight) and we thought it was hilarious. Bra burning doesn’t seem like such a mystery when you think about foundation garments.

    It’s been my observation that the formlessness and shapelessness and Little House on the Prairie look is often the dress of some pretty interesting women. Women who aren’t married to modern culture but to Catholic culture.

    Some of them look – horrors! – frumpy, but most of them look nice – they do make an effort but stand apart because most other people are hyper-concerned with style. These women are not fashion divas but that’s because they never go to the mall, and good for them.

    Many of these devout Catholic families are the footsoldiers who will only buy locally (never at Walmart), have big gardens, buy local raw milk and eggs and cheese, support local farmers by buying vegatables and meats nearby, they make cards and gifts instead of buying them etc. Kids thrive with a wholesome outdoors-oriented lifestyle. They are removed from the world in a healthy way.

  • Zoe

    Many of these devout Catholic families are the foot soldiers who will only buy locally (never at Walmart), have big gardens, buy local raw milk and eggs and cheese, support local farmers by buying vegetables and meats nearby, they make cards and gifts instead of buying them etc. Kids thrive with a wholesome outdoors-oriented lifestyle. They are removed from the world in a healthy way.

    I respect these kinds of families very much, Meg, and I know many of them and share much in common with them. But I don’t think there is one way to be a faithful Catholic. You can live your faith in the middle of Manhatten (with children, too!) and you can do it amidst the rolling hills of middle America. At a time when we’ve lost our connection to the natural rhythms of life and the land, I’m thrilled to see Christian families embrace more natural lifestyles. And with that, comes a less expensive and less fashionable style of dress typically, and that’s absolutely fine because I don’t believe it matters very much.

    As for the lack of options for girls clothes, you are probably right about that, although there are certainly things out there that don’t show bellies and aren’t spandex. Maybe it depends on where you shop.

    I can relate to St. Fashionsta’s comments because my father’s maternal side was French Catholic and extremely stylish. Not once in my grandmother’s 98 years did she ever get up without dressing in a lovely outfit, applying some rouge, styling her hair, and putting on earrings and a bit of perfume. She was the matriarch of a large household and mother of six. She ran the kitchen and set the table every night with ironed white linens, never using paper or plastic dishes or utensils. She was francais, after all. This was a cultural thing, and a different time.

    Anyway, back the issue at hand… I don’t want to dis skirts or an “anti-pop culture” in any way. I just wanted to say that I don’t think modesty is primarily about clothing, and I don’t think long, loose skirts is the answer to the problems in our culture. The clothing we see on many girls today is a symptom of something deeper and it is those things we must address. There is nothing wrong with women/girls wearing pants or wearing more stylish clothes.

    P.S. Meg, I’ve lived some horrible decades fashion-wise, but if you’ve lived “a few more horrifying decades than me” that would make you well past retirement. Which maybe you are.

  • Kamilla

    Zoe,

    You said, “The clothing we see on many girls today is a symptom of something deeper and it is those things we must address.”

    I heartily agree. In fact, one of my chief complaints about so many solutions is that they treat the symptoms and not the underlying disease.

    However, my personal experience, coming out of religious feminism, is that these things often grow up together. I often find that I carry myself differently in a skirt than grungy jeans, for instance. Sometimes changing the outside will begin to effect the inner change.

    Kamilla

  • Zoe

    However, my personal experience, coming out of religious feminism, is that these things often grow up together. I often find that I carry myself differently in a skirt than grungy jeans, for instance. Sometimes changing the outside will begin to effect the inner change.

    I agree, Kamilla. It’s not an either/or. External things can change the internal and vice versa – and give an example to others. If the long, loose skirts Meg was proposing are the only way a girl feels respected, feminine and confident, great.

    Likewise, wearing clothes that are designed mainly to be provocative certainly can instill in young women – and those who see them – the wrong things. So, yes, it’s both working together. But I think it’s fair to say that generally, looking at the clothing young women wear today, it’s fair to say it’s a symptom of many deeper things. And that long skirts alone are not going to solve those problems.

  • meg

    No, no, not near retirement age (although I probably sound like it sometimes smilies/smiley.gif ). I had them kind if late but my kids are only 13 and under.

    You look like a kid, Zoe. I thought you were in your twenties.

  • meg

    I just realized you may not be the Zoe that blogs on InsideCatholic. Now I’m confused. I’m going to bed!

  • Zoe

    Hi Meg,

    You’ve got the right Zoe. But you should almost double the number you came up with when you saw my picture. (Looking younger than my age has its downsides.)

    Happy 4th! I’ll be wearing jeans today, but don’t tell anyone. [smiley=laugh]

  • meg

    Your secret’s safe with me!

    “(Looking younger than my age has its downsides.)”

    Just trying to figure out what those might be….. smilies/smiley.gif

  • Matt Talbot

    I’m reading about “custody of the eyes” and modesty and dress codes on this thread, and thought I’d share an experience that was apropos:

    About 20 years ago, a friend was engaged to be married, and a bunch of us guys threw a sort of “Bachelor party” in the form of a trip to Yosemite.

    A couple days into it, we hiked up a canyon in the back country and, coming to a pool at the base of a small waterfall, decided to go skinny dipping.

    When we were so engaged, a variety of people came along, both men and women, and some from both sexes joined us.

    This whole experience was new to me: I was single and 25 at the time, and had only seen naked adult women in magazines in my teen years.

    The thing is, none of the experience was particularly “sexual”, at least in a prurient, beer-commercial sort of way. We matter-of-factly gabbed with strangers of both sexes – “How long have you been up here?” “We got in two nights ago. You?” (etc.) – and there was no sense of barely-restrained rampant lust.

    I had an epiphany – whereas I had always associated nudity with sexuality, I came to understand that lots of that is just the culture making nudity by definition sexual, and demeaning nudity by making it sexual according to the world’s rules.

    I didn’t feel particularly tempted by anyone there, because everyone was clear that that was not what it was about – it was about cooling off on a hot day.

    I think the liberalization of dress 40 or 50 years ago needs to be understood as, at least in part, a reaction against the ways clothing was used to reinforce one’s place (read: caste) in society, and in part it was continuation of a reaction against the prudish leftover echoes of gilded-age priggishness and the Victorian horror of the body.

    There were some babies thrown out with the bathwater, to be sure; but some of the changes were both welcome and done for the right reasons.

  • Christina

    “I think the liberalization of dress 40 or 50 years ago needs to be understood as, at least in part, a reaction against the ways clothing was used to reinforce one’s place (read: caste) in society, and in part it was continuation of a reaction against the prudish leftover echoes of gilded-age priggishness and the Victorian horror of the body…”

    I’m assuming Matt isn’t suggesting here that the adaption of Christian standards for dress wasn’t a practice exclusive to cultures unfairly imposed upon by Puritans and Aristocrats! And surely,Pius XI, Pius XII and Padre Pio were far from prudish…all of them had a lot to say against the liberalization of dress and who laid out strict modesty guidelines for the faithful to follow. I have to believe these saintly men possessed sensus Catholica enough to be able to differentiate between standards rooted in harsh, puritanical leanings vs standards respecting a balanced sense of Christian modesty, a necessary virtue in light of our concupisence.

    That said, I read (and enjoyed!) the comments above (i.e. Zoe…and Meg!!). And I’m not at all suggesting women should walk around looking like we just stepped off a movie set of an 18th century period piece. I also don’t think the answer is to promote a distored sense of modesty as demonstrated by those wearing the potato sack dress…that’s more along the lines of Muslim attire…etc.! smilies/wink.gif We women should dress in a way that reflects our feminine grace. My mother, like many of yours, at her prime in the 40’s and 50’s, dressed like a lady -lipstick, modest, tailored suits and hats…rarely, pants – sorry! smilies/wink.gif

    There was a more common sense decency about Catholics then and it was reflected not only in their conduct but in their dress. It was not prudish or snobby. It was Christian like. It was civilized. We’ve lost that sense today. We’ve taken on the look of pagans. And I think we Catholics who are willing to acknowledge that, need to be more willing to look a little different; be counter cultural. It’s seems to me it’s time we quit seeking ways to better fit in with the pagans, and focus on more ways that will clearly set us apart. And yes

  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Matt Talbot, I appreciate hearing about your experience. I didn’t grow up in the US, and I wasn’t raised to always equate nudity with sexual desire. I think this is a mentality you have to either grow up with, or be exposed to, in order to really be comfortable with it. I find most Americans to generally be prudish about the body – including those in the secular world who over-sexualize it.

    Oh, Christina…. just as I was about to let go of this conversation, you pull me back in![smiley=wink]

    I don’t understand what precisely you mean by dressing with feminine grace. And what exactly is your problem with pants made from denim? And what exactly is wrong with any skirt above the knees, or a tank top in certain situations?

    It is certainly worthwhile to ask ourselves if we prefer to fit in rather than stand out as Christians, and how much this motivates our behavior. However, in my own life — and I’ve dressed in many different ways throughout my life – I have found that I bring more people to the Lord by appearing at first as one of them. I don’t mean I’d dress like a prostitute if I wanted to speak to a prostitute, but I probably wouldn’t wear an Armani suit with pearls either. This may seem like I’m just “giving in to pagan ways,” but I see it as the opposite — that I’m doing what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9 where he talks about becoming all things to all people so as to share Christ with them.

    There is room here to disagree, I think.

    I’m as bothered as anyone by a young woman with spaghetti straps or miniskirt at Mass, or by men in sloppy t-shirts and shorts. But I don’t believe there is a precise “Catholic way to dress” other than to do so in a way that considers what is respectful of others and appropriate to the place or event. And there is some gray area there.

    We are a universal church, many cultures and traditions, and we must take the virtues of respect, charity, kindness, and strength and bring those into the way we dress in today’s culture. What that looks like may differ from person to person. But I do agree with Matt that the dress styles we often admire from the past primarily reflected the distinctions of class and wealth. (They are also European styles and do not include peoples from other parts of the world.) Some of the styles we might want to claim now as “modest” were considered “immodest” or inappropriate in their day. Heavens, not wearing a hat or veil in church as a woman was considered immodest.

    I kind of hope this doesn’t stir the pot up again, but oh well….!

  • Sujit Devi

    Let woman know that those were men who,more intrested in exploting woman promoted nudity in disguise of freedom. they were shrude enough to convince woman to ware minimum,
    woman need to ask themselves as what they want in life? being respected as mother or just seen as ‘objects’ in the name of so called freedom. Therefore Vedic culture teaches ‘Matrivat pardareshu’ all woman are mother. Now I am a man and agree it or not either men respect woman as mother or they see them as objects there is no inbetween. there was no extremisim on woman to ware burkha nor was there excessive so called freedom to act based on whims, so its responcibility on society to teach small boys and girls as they grow up with mutual respect and responcibility towards each other,so men also need b responcible enough to consider other woman as mothers. But this very much depends on leaders of society. Therefore vedic way of life is perfect.More discussion can continue from vedic prespective

  • Sujit Devi
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