Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


Modesty, by William Bouguereau, 1902

Ecclesiasticus (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."

Modesty, like 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:

Genesis 3:6-7, 13-21
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:

Genesis 9:20-27:
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 his servant.

The "Christian" 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 destruction."

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?

James 1:14-15
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 cross-dressing:

Deuteronomy 22:5
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 of it.

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 impersonators.

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 incompleteness.

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 who does.

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 them down.

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 above.

The temporal benefits of dressing modestly

I've mentioned 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 woman who:

  • starves herself to a size 4 so she can fit into those midriff-bearing Britney Spears-style tops;

  • 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;

  • is totally 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;

  • feels compelled to work out 2 hours a day so she can wear bikinis;

  • has liposuction 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.

  • Stand straight 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?

  • Sit down 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?

  • Bend over 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?

  • Stretch 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
Modest By Design
Modest Apparel USA
Shukr Muslim business
Kathy's Modest Sewing Patterns Page for the do-it-yourselfer
Hausmutti's Modest Dresses seamstress
Vessels of Mercy seamstress
Beautifully 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 Colleen Hammond (page will open in new browser window).

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