(Sirach) 19:26-27: "A man is known by his look, and a wise man, when thou
meetest him, is known by his countenance. The attire of the body, and the
laughter of the teeth, and the gait of the man, shew what he is."
I Timothy 2:9-10: "In like manner women also in decent apparel: adorning
themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with plaited hair, or gold, or
pearls, or costly attire, But as it becometh women professing godliness,
with good works."
continence, humility, and meekness, is annexed to the cardinal virtue Temperance
(Wisdom 8:7) and has the reining in of human passions as its goal. Modesty
aims to conform the exterior of man -- his clothing, way of talking, his
bearing -- to the interior sense of humility that all Christians should have.
Though modesty is important for all people, I direct this page mostly to
my sisters because it is our modesty that is most under assault in modern
culture and it is the effects of our immodesty that are most culturally powerful.
Because he lives in fallen nature, man is to be clothed. It is more than
a matter of our need of protection from the elements as the very first book
of the Bible reveals:
And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and
delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and
gave to her husband, who did eat... And the eyes of them both were opened:
and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves,
and made themselves aprons... And the Lord God said to the woman: Why
hast thou done this? And she answered: The serpent deceived me, and I did
eat. And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing,
thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast
shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. I will
put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall
crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel. To the woman also
He said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt
thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and
he shall have dominion over thee. And to Adam He said: Because thou hast
hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I
commanded thee, that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work:
with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. Thorns
and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herbs of
the earth. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return
to the earth out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust
thou shalt return. And Adam called the name of his wife Eve: because she
was the mother of all the living. And the Lord God made for Adam and his
wife garments of skins, and clothed them.
God made Adam and
Eve perfect and perfectly harmonious -- with Himself and with each other.
Then they sinned and saw themselves as they then were -- fallen, separated
from God and from each other. Having lost the grace with which they were
created, they began to retreat into their own egos and blame each other,
even God, for their sins: "the serpent deceived me," "the woman you sent
deceived me," etc. The original harmony of the Garden broken, Adam and Eve
no longer completed the other perfectly per God's design, but were now in
felt need of each other, a need they tried to fill by grasping the other
through their concupiscence and brokenness. Their relationship was now tainted,
and shame filled them as their nakedness came to be a sign of their
incompleteness and vulnerability, and an inducement to lust. Sensing their
isolation from each other and from God, they covered themselves with
quickly-fashioned aprons. Then God Himself clothed them, replacing
those small fig leaf aprons with different garments -- body-covering
tunics (tunicas in the Vulgate, ktnvt in the Hebrew)
that extended to the knees (the root of the word ktnvt means "cover").
It is ridiculous to have to stress this point -- that God wants us clothed
given our fallen nature, but in that there is a movement of self-proclaimed
"Christian" nudists (the mind boggles), I must. There is shame attached
to revealing too much of the body to anyone who is not a spouse (or there
should be, anyway). The case of Noe (Noah) illustrates this:
And Noe a husbandman began to till the ground, and planted a vineyard. And
drinking of the wine was made drunk, and was uncovered in his tent. Which
when Cham [a.k.a. Ham] the father of Chanaan [a.k.a. Canaan] had seen, to
wit, that his father's nakedness was uncovered, he told it to his two brethren
without. But Sem [a.k.a. Shem] and Japheth put a cloak upon their shoulders,
and going backward, covered the nakedness of their father: and their faces
were turned away, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noe awaking
from the wine, when he had learned what his younger son had done to him,
He said: Cursed be Chanaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
And he said: Blessed be the Lord God of Sem, be Chanaan his servant. May
God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Sem, and Chanaan be
nudists interpret this passage as being about "privacy and respect" rather
than nakedness, just as homosexualists interpret the Sodom and Gomorrah story
to be about "hospitality" rather than sodomy (where did that word
come from, anyway?), but as we all know from 2 Peter 3:16 and the constant
teaching of the Church against "Sola Scriptura," there is much in Sacred
Scripture that the "unlearned and unstable wrest...unto their own
What sort of clothing should we wear?
On a sheer temporal
level, clothing should protect us from the elements and allow comfortable
movement in order for us to fulfill the duties at hand. Clothing should obviously
also be suitable to the context in which we find ourselves, i.e., one wouldn't
wear to a funeral what one would wear to a picnic. Further, and most importantly,
clothing should be modest, meaning that it should be designed with our
concupiscence in mind.
There is no need to have long list of Pharisaic rules as to what constitutes
modest attire; the last thing we need is for people to run about with rulers
measuring our hemlines and necklines, clucking their tongues in judgement
-- but that does not mean that no standards for modesty exist. God's standards
as given in Genesis 3:21 are a "bottom line": the body, shoulders, and upper
legs should be covered -- i.e., what a "tunic" would cover should be covered.
This is a minimum.
How this standard
is reflected in our clothing is a matter of personal taste and ethnic identity.
You will find some modest women dressed in clothes with a modern Western
cut, all in the latest colors and with the latest accessories. You will find
others in beautiful historical styles -- e.g., Victorian styles with lacy
white blouses; drop-waist and cloche hat 1920s styles; or clothes that are
considered fashionably "retro," such as what Jacqueline Kennedy might have
worn. Others prefer a more "Bohemian," peasant, "Gypsy," or ethnic look --
and what is more beautiful than those gorgeous saris that Indian women wear?
Some modest Christian women in the Middle East might look more like Muslims
than typical Western Christians. Still other modest women like a "preppy,"
"tweedy" look such as what the Princess of Wales would have worn when she
was still Lady Diana, an upper-crust English schoolteacher. Some American
Catholics even like the "Plain" look akin to that of the Amish.
The point is that there is no need to believe that we all have to look like
cookie-cutter 19th century spinsters or that we have to "dress ugly" in shapeless
tents. No! It is good to dress attractively! Proverbs 31:22 speaks of the
"valiant woman" as being attired in "tapestry, fine linen, and purple." Psalm
45 speaks of the "the Queen" in "gilded clothing." Apocalypse 21:2 speaks
of the Church as a bride "adorned for her husband." Queen Esther, a type
of Our Lady, is described as an "exceeding fair" woman whose "incredible
beauty made her appear agreeable and amiable in the eyes of all" (Esther
2:15). Pope Pius XII wrote in an address to the Latin Union of High Fashion
that the "penchant for the adornment of one's own person clearly derives
from nature, and is therefore legitimate." No, there is nothing wrong with
adorning oneself and being attractive! As we Italians would say, it is good
to "fare una bella figura!" -- to "make a good showing" by making things
beautiful! Why allow something to be unattractive when it could just as easily
or with little effort be lovely? (this Italian attitude goes to everything
-- one's home, clothes, dinner table, etc.!)
But "lovely" doesn't mean "hot" or "sexy." A woman can look as "sexy" as
she wants for her husband alone (so intimates
St. Thomas Aquinas), but for a woman to want to look "sexy" for strangers
is -- well, it's evil. Our Lord said that "whosoever shall look on a woman
to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart"
(Matthew 5:28) -- and adultery is a mortal sin. Why would a woman want to
tempt a man to mortal sin?
But every man is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured.
Then, when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin. But sin,
when it is completed, begetteth death.
Think about it,
ladies, and remember that men tend to be weak when it comes to the visual
allures of the feminine sex; do our brothers a favor and have a little mercy.
Imagine, say, that you have a profound weakness for chocolate but are giving
it up for Lent. Then imagine that almost every man you see is carrying boxes
of chocolate just to tease you with, that every time you turn on the television
you see luscious chocolate presented in the most sensual way. On every other
billboard you pass and every magazine you see, there is that chocolate in
full-color glossy print, photographed precisely to tempt you. This is life
for most men in our sex-saturated culture. Don't add to the problem; keep
the words of St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347 - 407) in mind:
You carry your
snare everywhere and spread your net in all places. You allege that you never
invite others to sin. You did not indeed, by your words, but you have done
so by your dress and deportment and much more effectively than you could
by your voice. When you have made another sin in his heart, how can you be
innocent? Tell me whom does this world condemn? Whom do judges in court punish?
Those who drink poison or those who prepare it and administer the fatal portion?
You have prepared the abominable cup, you have given the death-dealing drink
and you are more criminal than those who poison the body; you murder not
the body but the soul. And it is not to enemies you do this, nor are you
urged on by any imaginary necessity, nor provoked by injury, but out of foolish
vanity and pride.
What else women's clothing should express
That we are women
Women's clothing should not only be comfortable, suitable to the task, and
modest, but also feminine. It should be harmonious with what we are:
women. Because of this truth, you will find that most traditional
Catholic women never wear pants, or only wear them when working in the yard
or some such. While I think it's unwise to make the shunning of pants the
sine qua non of orthodoxy, there is much wisdom here: pants are an
historically male article of clothing, and the Old Law was explicit in condemning
A woman shall not be clothed with man's apparel, neither shall a man use
woman's apparel: for he that doth these things is abominable before God.
While we are not
bound by the Old Law, while there is nothing wrong in se with wearing
what amounts, in terms of flesh-coverage, to a long skirt with seams along
the inside legs, and while St. Thomas Aquinas himself wrote that dressing
in such a way "may be done sometimes without sin on account of some necessity,
either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes,
or for some similar motive," it is still the constant teaching of the Church
that the sexes are not to dress too alike. And it is true, too, that skirts
are more much modest than pants, which conform to the body, reveal its shape
too closely, and accentuate the behind and crotch area. In other words, modesty
is about more than simply "covering" flesh; it is also about not revealing
the body with clothes that are cut in ways that accentuate certain parts
In addition, women simply look more "like women," more feminine, in skirts
and dresses and they behave in a more feminine way when wearing skirts
or dresses. When wearing a skirt, one sits and walks differently than when
wearing a pair of jeans. Try the experiment for yourself if you already wear
pants: wear jeans for a week, and then wear a comfortable dress the next
week and note how differently you feel and carry yourself.
Note, too, how differently you are treated. Men tend to treat women
with more respect, and more like ladies, when women dress with a distinctly
feminine dignity. In other words, if we want a world filled with chivalrous
gentlemen, it's up to us to act like ladies. Now, this certainly isn't
a call to bring back the fainting couches or for women to feign stupidity
and an unnatural fragility; rather, it's a call for women to be more
genuine. When we go about acting like men, dressing like men, training
our emotions to be more "cool" like a man's, focusing on career in the same
way a man does, quashing our fertility so we can be promiscuous like men,
and so on, we are not being genuine women, we are being male
The "masculine" has for too long been seen as the standard of desired behavior;
in the name of "feminism," all that is feminine -- truly feminine
-- has been treated as unimportant. Our natural, typical womanly desires
-- to be mothers, to stay home and raise our children, to care for a home
and a husband, to want a husband who is more powerful than we -- have been
scoffed at as evidence of "Cinderella complexes" or simple weakness. Catholic
women and the naturally virtuous, traditional women of false religions (may
they come to Jesus) must not accept such a state of affairs! Women are different
from men, that's all there is to it. We are not all the same, of course;
some women are called to marriage, others to the religious life, others to
virginity and, possibly a career, like the brilliant Maria Gaetana Agnesi
(A.D. 1718-1799), whom Pope Benedict XIV appointed as the Chairwoman of higher
mathematics at the University of Bologna in A.D. 1750. Some women are "tomboys"
and others are the frilly sort. We have role models as diverse as the perfectly
maternal Blessed Virgin; the fiery St. Joan of Arc; the lyrical St. Hildegaard
von Bingen; the philosophical St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross; the artistic
St. Catherine of Bologna; the mystical St. Teresa of Avila; the feisty St.
Catherine of Siena; the industrious St. Frances Cabrini; the bookish St.
Catherine of Alexandria; the domestic St. Martha; the been-around, penitent
St. Mary Magdalen; and the child-like St. Thérèse of Lisieux
-- among many others! We can model ourselves after any or all of these types
of women, but we are, thank God, not men and never will be. And real men
like it like that.
That our bodies are holy gifts to be revealed and given to another person
only in marriage
Given all the talk about the shame of immodesty above, one might get the
impression that the Church sees the body as a "bad" thing, and that we cover
ourselves because we are ugly. But this is in not the case! Adam and Eve
didn't cover themselves because they were created "bad" or "ugly"; they covered
themselves because, through the Fall, they no longer reflected what God made
them to be: perfect complements of one another and the perfect image of their
Creator. In covering themselves, they attempted to recover
the dignity that they'd lost.
Pope Pius XII wrote in the address mentioned above:
The Church, on
the contrary, does not censure or condemn styles when they are meant for
the proper decorum and ornamentation of the body, but She never fails to
warn the faithful against being easily led astray by them.
This positive attitude of the Church derives from reasons far higher than
the mere aesthetic or hedonistic considerations which have been assumed by
a renewed paganism. The Church knows and teaches that the human body,
which is God's masterpiece in the visible world, and which has been placed
at the service of the soul, was elevated by the Divine Redeemer to the
rank of a temple and an instrument of the Holy Spirit, and as such must
be respected. The body's beauty must therefore not be exalted as an
end in itself, much less in such guise as will defile the dignity
it has been endowed with.
No, the body is
not an evil thing (though it is quite prone to evil and must be ruled by
the head); it is "God's masterpiece in the visible world," elevated by the
Christ -- Who Himself took on human flesh -- and made a temple at
Baptism. Further, Jesus raised marriage to the level of a Sacrament, restoring
it to what it was "in the beginning" (Matthew 19:8). In marriage, the man
and woman can stand before each other naked, with no shame at all, just as
Adam and Eve did "in the beginning." Outside of that marriage covenant and
the "Eden" of holy matrimony, however, revealing the body is shameful and
can only lead to a lust that doesn't honor the other in all ways as a
person, but degrades her as an object. Only in marriage, where the
spouse is a total gift -- body and soul -- to the other, is
there no shame in revealing the body and the vulnerability of our
An analogy: the very word "modesty" comes from the Latin modus, which
means limit; clothing limits accessibility to that should only be given in
marriage. Now, think of fire: is fire "bad"? No, fire warms us, cooks our
food, enchants us with its beauty, and so on; but an uncontrolled fire,
a fire without limit, destroys. It is the same with the body (and sex): modesty
sets limits on the unveiling of what is good so that it does not destroy.
To be immodest is to eradicate those limits and to give to the world that
to which it has no right but belongs to one's spouse alone. It is to profane
what should be treated as holy and to cheapen the gift of oneself.
That the soul and body are one
In the article on veiling, I note that the things
that are considered holy are veiled, e.g., the ciborium, the tabernacle,
the Holy of Holies, etc. We must regain the Christian view that our bodies
are worthy of such veiling. Resist what our post-"Enlightenment" culture
tries to tell us, and don't believe that our bodies are commodities to be
displayed and bought and sold. That view rests on the lie of dualism which
sees our bodies are something apart from who "we" are. But we are not "souls
with bodies" or "bodies with souls"; we are a unity of soul and body, a unity
that must be treated as a unity.
The soul is created at the moment of our conception, and even after death
this profound link between body and soul remains (which is why Christians
value relics of the Saints). At the Last Judgement,
our bodies will be resurrected and, if we die in a state of grace, glorified.
We cannot treat our bodies as "things" that we "own"; they are a fundamental
part of who we are. Accordingly, our exterior should reflect the soul, and
a Christian's soul calls for his to be body adorned in a Christian manner,
with modesty, dignity, and holiness in mind.
That we are not radically isolated individuals, but a part of a community
-- a community with which we communicate
We've all heard women who, when confronted with calls for modesty, love to
go on about their "rights." "I have a right to dress any way I want, and
only have to please myself! Don't judge! You think I dress like a slut, but
that doesn't make me one!"
Well, the exercising of one's political "rights" has consequences. People
have political "rights" to do a lot of things that are unwise. One has a
"right" never to bathe, too, but has no "right" to expect others to think
they smell like roses. It would obviously be a logical fallacy to state as
a proof that one who dresses like a slut necessarily sells her body for profit;
but a woman who dresses that way is just as obviously dressing as someone
The fact is, we are judged by our appearances -- sometimes too harshly ("her
skirt is 1/2 inch too short!"), sometimes for evil reasons ("look at her
clothes; she obviously has no money!"), sometimes for ridiculous standards
that a person has no control over ("her nose is too big!"), sometimes by
people who haven't removed the beam from their own eye. Appearance is often
held to be the only thing of value in a woman -- an attitude that causes
great suffering to women who don't look like the models in magzines (no one
looks like that, by the way; airbrushing, soft lights, surgery, and make-up
lie). And some women can be completely catty, turning "looking good" into
a huge competition, and dishing dirt on other women's looks in order to put
Nonetheless, the things we do have control over can rightfully be deemed
to be expressive of who we are. The Jerry Springer people who admonish
the audience with an upturned palm and a "don't judge!" when the latter laughs
at their circus freak attire really need to ask themselves what they are
trying to tell the world by dressing like circus freaks in the first place.
If you don't want the world to think of you and treat you like a circus freak,
or a slut, or what have you, then don't dress in a way that invites it.
The way we dress and talk and move is simply a part of how we communicate
to the world. Of all the people in the world, a Catholic should
know this intuitively. We worship using gesture and posture and a million
things that are not based on word alone, such as bells and incense and art.
This strange "disconnect" between the verbal and non-verbal on which our
modern culture expects us to base our ways of being and seeing is simply
not human and not rooted in the Truth of the body-soul unity mentioned
The temporal benefits of dressing modestly
that modesty in women helps make men gentlemen, but there are other everyday
benefits to dressing modestly. Consider this: who is free and who is in bondage
-- the woman who sees herself as part of a "chosen generation, a kingly
priesthood" (I Peter 2:9) and dresses modestly to reflect that fact, or a
to a size 4 so she can fit into those midriff-bearing Britney Spears-style
stuffs her breasts
into Wonder bras so they'll look good in those plunging necklines;
has to worry about
what's "hanging out" every time she bends over or sits down or stands up
or reaches for something;
uncomfortable, a-l-l d-a-y l-o-n-g, who feels stuffed after eating a cup
of yogurt, because her clothes are just too tight;
to work out 2 hours a day so she can wear bikinis;
because she feels "too fat" to wear what Christina Aguilera is wearing;
has a "butt-lift"
so her backside can better fill a pair of "low-rider" jeans;
has to buy a new
wardrobe every new "fashion season";
gets breast implants
so the boys will look at her;
has surgery on
her toes so she can fit into those "Sex and the City" pointy-toed stilletos
-- and then suffers with every step she takes when wearing them?
For all the supposed
"liberation" and sense of "empowerment" dressing like hookers is supposed
to give us, in truth it turns us into a nation of obsessive, shallow, suffering
anorexics who attract men who like hookers!
Will dressing like a tart get you male attention? Sure it will (and
walking around an A.A. meeting with a case of beer will get you attention,
too; there's no great trick in appealing to the weakness of others). But
the attention gotten is that of those who are either not Christian at all,
or who are weak and prone to sins of the flesh. Is that the kind of
attention you truly want? Is someone who wants you because you look
"hot" the kind of man you want to marry? Is he the kind of man you'd trust
in a marriage -- to not commit adultery, to not leave you when you get a
wrinkle or gain a few pounds after having children? Is he the kind of man
you want to even be the father of your children? Is he the kind of
man you want to grow old with?
On all levels -- the theological, the sociological, the psychological, even
in terms of simple comfort -- dressing modestly is the smart thing to do.
If you are called to the religious life or virginal singlehood, your path
is easy to see. If you are called to marriage, dress now for the kind of
man you want to marry; dress as the kind of woman your ideal husband would
want for a wife, and keep the gift of yourself holy for him. If you are already
married, dress as you and your husband want behind closed doors, but keep
that gift for him only.
A Mental Checklist for girls and women to consider when trying on clothes
Put the outfit
on and stand go in front of a mirror.
and ask yourself: Does the outfit cover my upper legs and upper arms? Is
the neckline decent? Are there any gaps or puckers over the breast area to
indicate the top is too tight? If the top has buttons, is there any puckering
so that my breasts might be visible from the side? Is the outfit too sheer
so that one can see too much through the fabric?
Walk a few
steps and ask yourself: If there is any kind of slit, does walking reveal
too much? Is the outfit loose enough to walk comfortably in?
and ask yourself: Are my legs still covered? Am I still decent when I cross
and uncross my legs? Am I able to sit comfortably?
at the waist as if you're picking a flower. Ask yourself: does the neckline
of the outfit droop to expose too much of my chest? Am I decent from behind?
Am I able to bend over comfortably?
your hands up over your head as if you're reaching for something on a tall
shelf. Ask yourself: Are my belly or legs exposed? Can I reach comfortably?
Finding Modest Clothing
One has to search
nowadays to find clothes that aren't immodest. Below are a few sources, some
Catholic, some secular, some from other faiths. Some are larger businesses,
others are individual seamstresses. Some focus on modest clothing, others
are businesses that happen to have a lot of modest clothes among more immodest
ones. Links will open in new browser windows:
Hannah Lise | Modest Clothing for Women and Girls
Kathy's Modest Sewing
Patterns Page for the do-it-yourselfer
of Mercy seamstress
Modest Wedding Gowns and Formal Dresses
Latter Day Bride
modest wedding gowns
For more information
on dressing modestly, see the book "Dressing With Dignity," by
Hammond (page will open in new browser window).