A colleague at the Catholic high school where I teach approached me recently with a question. Girls at our school, he said, often dress immodestly. What could he do? He had studied Church documents and read lay publications that deplored the modern degeneration of women’s fashions. Some of these documents cite evidence of a Masonic campaign to undermine Christianity by corrupting women. Others quote statements from popes and bishops who spoke against pants, short sleeves, and low-cut necklines for women. I too had come across some of these documents. While I sympathized with the general concerns they raised, I saw little use for them among my students. Dress codes only go so far. Most of them chastise the girls for immodesty. Occasionally, someone reminds the boys to tidy up their collars and sleeves.
In the long run, however, restrictive rules do not help anybody dress well. Students rebel or simply wear whatever seems most comfortable. The reason, I believe, is that the majority of teenagers—and adults—never learn how to achieve a stylish appearance and seldom consider why it matters that they look their best.
Concern with the relationship between clothing and morality is as old as original sin. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, God taught them to clothe their bodies as he sent them into exile. From then on, fashions regularly challenged morality. In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas found it necessary to distinguish between legitimate and improper uses of cosmetics for women. During the Renaissance, fashionable men paraded in tight hose and short breeches. Actresses in restoration theatre in England titillated audiences by appearing on the stage in male disguise.
In the 1700s, men and women wore heels, wigs, and makeup. That century also encouraged plunging necklines for women, while, later, the Victorian period corseted women in ways that unnaturally emphasized the sexual characteristics of their bodies. The link between fashion and behavior surfaces in many works of literature. In Little Women, Meg feels embarrassed at the cut of a dress her friends persuade her to wear to a party. A passage in War and Peace describes the novel’s heroine, Natasha, at the opera where she looks bemused “at the rows of pomaded heads in the stalls and then at the rows of seminude women in the boxes, especially at Hélène in the next box who—apparently quite unclothed—sat with a quiet tranquil smile not taking her eyes off the stage.” Significantly, it is after that evening at the opera that Natasha consents to elope with the dashing (and married) Anatole.
So, the connection between fashion and morality is by no means a modern problem. Two things, however, seem unique to our iteration of the issue. First is the abandonment of aesthetic principles in fashion. Many of us want to look good, but do not know how to do it. Second is the confusion of gender identities. Women freely don male attire, while men turn to traditionally feminine methods of cultivating personal appearance.
The first aspect of the current cultural fashion crisis is the loss of the sense of beauty. Beauty in personal appearance seems less important to us than individual taste or functionality. The Victorian corset, after all, worked by creating precise ratios between bust, waist, and hips. Floor-length skirts offset risky décolletages in earlier periods. Today, most men and women do not realize how adjustments of color, line, and proportion can improve or undermine their appearance. For instance, patterns add bulk, but solid, dark hues make surfaces look smaller. This simple insight can help us to decide how to make suitable use of patterns or solid colors in clothing. Likewise, specific color palettes match different skin tones, just as length can be used to attract or distract the eye. Thus, long hemlines draw the eye downward (not always a good thing for someone of petite height), while shorts and miniskirts create the opposite (and often problematic) effect.
My students are surprised when I tell them that fashion, like math or grammar, has its own rules derived from optics and geometry. In this respect, fashion design is no different from any other craft where the application of correct principles produces consistently satisfying results. Principles of aesthetically pleasing dress can be taught.
Specifics will differ according to climate, tradition, or circumstance. Age, girth, and occupation will always influence individual wardrobes. Nevertheless, awareness of basic principles that help to attain neatness and coordination of one’s attire not only delivers an aesthetically appealing look, but also saves time and money as we no longer buy unflattering clothes. In a world where supposedly anything goes, order in one’s appearance offers a powerful witness to the existence of beauty.
The second and more troubling aspect of modern fashions is gender confusion. In the past, visible distinctions between male and female dress helped to define sexual identities and social roles. The Renaissance nobleman’s dress showed off his virility even as it conflated masculinity with aggressive, predatory attitudes. The absurdly small waist of the Victorian corset shaped an image of weakness oddly paired with sexual availability signaled through the artificial exaggeration of the bust and hips.
If those fashions may have disseminated rigid stereotypes, modern dress suggests uncertainty about gender roles and gender itself. The widespread adoption of male clothing by women coincided with the rise of the women’s movements of the 1960s, which rejected traditional male and female social roles, taught women to claim independence from domestic duties, and urged them to compete with men for jobs, salaries, and prestige on the professional arena. Today, when the sight of women in pant suits has become commonplace, we may wonder at the popularity of typically feminine practices among men who frequent waxing salons, get facials, and wear makeup.
Indeed, such erasing of sexual differences between men and women is perhaps more egregious than the oversexualization of the human body and behavior through fashion. By blurring distinctions between the sexes, we achieve the opposite effect: instead of highlighting male and female sexual characteristics and prescribing male and female roles in relationships, we pretend that sex expresses only a personal choice. As radical gender ideology would have it, femininity and masculinity are no more than opposite poles of the fluid continuum of gender identities. Gender becomes a decision or a provisional experiment. Formerly a defining feature of our identity as men and women, sex, linguistically, now refers to mere physical characteristics and preferences that can be modified at will.
Clothing is a powerful signifier of sexual identity. Fashion matters as an external marker of our femininity or masculinity. Whether that means that women must never wear pants is debatable, I think. Such particular questions are best settled by applying those simple principles of design that can tell us what styles, lengths, and colors work for different individuals. More important is that men and women dress in ways that uphold their sexual identity.
This does not have to imply that we perpetuate stereotypes. Rather, it communicates our refusal to treat sexuality as a shifting, provisional concept independent of the actual structure of our bodies. Clothes that assert our masculinity or femininity counteract an ideology that severs the relationship between our bodies and ourselves. Ultimately, dressing well and dressing in accordance with our God-given nature are connected. They refer us to objective sources of beauty and natural order.