Perhaps one of the more sensitive personal issues you can raise with people is that of dress. How you dress has become a purely personal affair. Most are left to their own opinion as to what is appropriate.
There are, of course, some limits. Most Catholics will admit in theory that there is something that might be labeled “immoral or immodest dress.” These are clothes (or the lack thereof) that cover the body insufficiently and therefore are not morally or socially acceptable.
However, outside this extreme, most people seem to think they can wear anything, anywhere and at any time without any consequences. Clothes don’t have to be clean anymore. People can wear clothes that are deliberately ripped, stained and full of holes without fear of rejection. Clothes don’t even have to be clothes anymore. They can be shredded rags, the dingier the better.
Making Clothes Look Distressed
Such tattered garments are called “distressed” clothes (rightfully so), and they are becoming increasingly fashionable. It’s not just amateurs haphazardly ripping up faded jeans or retailers making random tears anymore. It is going mainstream.
The world of high fashion has now embraced “distressed” clothing as chic. Fashion designers are using new technology and hiring special effects technicians to get that natural moth-eaten, threadbare look that makes it seem like you’ve been wearing the garment for twenty years. Specialists are using blow torches, air guns, lasers and sanding machines to deliver loose threads, faded fabric and gaping holes. Nordstrom has just retailed a $425 pair of jeans with a caked-mud look.
Wearing ripped clothes has become a fashion statement that supposedly says a person is carefree, uninhibited and self-sufficient. Ironically, such “independent” people are flocking to the fashion in a rush to look just like everyone else. Moreover, those who buy ripped-up clothing are likely getting ripped off. The tattered name-brand clothes often outsell new unripped ones and come with a much heftier price tag.
Beyond the Obvious
The world is mad. Can’t anyone say it?
You should not have to explain why you don’t wear ripped clothes. This is something your mother should have taught you at an early age. She would sew up your tears the minute she saw them. If she found a hole in a purchase, she would make you take back such clothes to the store for a refund.
Times have sadly changed, and so have some mothers. A lot of fashion conscious moms can now be found in shredded shorts and custom-holed t-shirts.
Maybe a review of the basics will help make it clear why it is wrong. As politically incorrect as it might sound, it needs to be said that ripped garments are not modest clothing and should not be worn.
Perhaps the first place to start is by affirming that a ripped garment is not modest clothing because it is not real clothing. This claim is guaranteed to raise a firestorm, but from a purely metaphysical perspective, it must be admitted that such garments fail to fulfill their purpose.
Most people would object that it is still clothing, but just a different kind that is more comfortable and thus makes people happier. People should do that which makes them happiest. Therefore they should wear ripped clothes so as not to worry about their appearance or condition. It is all about comfort.
While clothing should be comfortable, the purpose of clothing is not comfort but protection. Clothing exists to protect and adorn the body and modesty of the person. To claim that comfort is the purpose of clothing is like saying tastiness, not nutrition, is the purpose of food. It is like saying relaxation, not rejuvenation, is the purpose of sleep.
Working Against Clothing’s Purpose
Thus, when a fashion designer carefully crafts a garment with a hole in a place where it would naturally appear through wear, he is making clothes that deliberately expose to risk the places which need the most protection. When that same designer put holes in sexually suggestive places, he is once again working against clothing’s purpose of shielding modesty.
Deliberately ripped garments work against the purpose of clothes. They are caricatures of what clothing should be. Far from adorning the body, the process of ripping turns that which should be strong, beautiful and orderly into something weak, ugly and frayed. Tattered attire is disordered and therefore should not be worn.
Lost Notion of Modesty
The second reason why ripped clothing should not be worn is that it is immodest.
Again such a claim raises hackles. Most people would object that as long as tattered clothes stay outside the extreme point of undress that is considered morally and socially unacceptable, you cannot say that it is immodest.
And here is the crux of the problem. People have completely lost the notion of what modesty is and how it is manifested. People lack even a catechism definition of this virtue.
People confuse modesty with chastity and thus only associate it with sensuality. Modesty does play a major role in preserving chastity, but it is much more than that. It is often mistakenly associated only with female attire, but it also applies to men.
The Dignity of the Individual
Modesty is the virtue that safeguards the dignity of a person in association with others. It benefits both the individual and society because it governs the exterior appearance and behavior of the person and thus helps make society civil and harmonious.
Beyond dress, modesty is concerned with the manner of speech, posture, gestures, and general presentation of the person. Modesty calls upon people to behave well with others and conform to standards of decency and decorum found in the healthy customs of an ordered society.
When you present yourself properly to others, you are modest. When you control yourself in your external actions and manners in society, you are modest. When you act erratically and speak in a manner that offends and disregards others, you are immodest.
Negligence in Attire
In matters of Catholic dress, this means holding to all that is proper to a soul that is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, you dress in a manner that is ordered, dignified and reasonable to who you are. Adults dress like adults; children dress like children. Authorities dress in accord with their office.
It also means you should not dress carelessly. Saint Thomas Aquinas states that you are immodest when you are unduly negligent in your appearance and fail to present yourself according to your state in life. You are also immodest when you seek to attract attention to yourself by showing a lack of concern for presenting oneself well (Summa, II-II, q. 169, a. 1).
Immoral and revealing clothing is of course immodest. However, improper, soiled and ripped unisex clothing is also immodest. It is not proper to the dignity of a person made in the image and likeness of God. When Our Lady spoke out against immodest fashions at Fatima, she was referring to this kind of immodesty as well.
Modesty used to be determined by established notions of decorum and decency that varied from culture to culture. The problem today is that there are few standards of decency left. Indeed, indecency has become the standard.
In an everything-goes society consumed with the frenetic intemperance of modern life, you are told you must have everything now, instantly and effortlessly, regardless of the consequences. You are encouraged to act immodestly in manners, speech and dress. Is it any wonder society is so uncivil these days? Is it surprising that there is so much talk of the lack of human dignity?
Given the lack of standards, it is hard to know where to begin the return to order. One way to start is by unmasking the myth of mass markets that pressure you to act immodestly. The acceptance of “distressed” clothes everywhere is not an expression of individuality but submission. By accepting them, you become a slave of fashion, not an independent thinker.
If you want to stand out as an individual today, dress properly and modestly. If you are not sure what constitutes modesty in these times, at least avoid all that is not. A very good start is to resist the distressing tattered attire fad.