Wednesday, September 7


A Discussion on Modesty

I am a bit of a historic costume geek, as anyone who knows me will be familiar with my long threnodies on the death of gentlemen's spats and womens' evening gloves, and one of the reasons I love fall so much is the predominance of tweed. Well, that and the leaves, and the woodsmoke, and the cool evenings. I kid, I kid. That being said, I've just started carrying out a mini-research project by asking what young Catholic women think about modest dress--not just what constitutes it (the endless and unanswerable debates of knee-length, ankle-length, shapeless or fitted) but what exactly do they find works best for them in terms of style, and what would they like to see that they aren't seeing in the stores. There has to be a better alternative than an unchanging parade of rumpled floor-length skirts and baggy sweaters.

With regards to my own uninformed male opinions, I think it's hard to say if something's modest or not in the abstract; it has to do largely with how someone's wearing it. There are a few guidelines of the most extreme nature, but beyond that, context plays a big role. Getting the tape measure out usually doesn't help much. From the few conversations I've had on the subject with girls, a skirt hemline just below the knee seems a happy compromise. While young ladies have a responsibility to dress modestly, an equal responsibility falls on guys to curb their imagination. Certainly if something so innocuous as bare arms below the elbow or girls' calves are an occasion of sin, I'd suggest the guy get a grip on himself. It's out of the woman's hands by that point, at least I'd be inclined to think so. Both sexes have to work in tandem, and guys need to be modest as well--no running around shirtless on the quad, I don't care how hot it is!

In the circles of Catholic Nerddom here at ND we see a variety of approaches that work. And, most pleasantly, they prevent making the wearer look like she's wearing a plaid table-cloth. Even ankle-length skirts can be worn dressily, based on what I've seen here. Perhaps the Shrine's Emily or Lucy at Lux Fidelis, or Lynn the Frank Parater Fanatic, from our comments-box, will have something to add to the subject. Guys, also feel free to comment. I asked around in the blogosphere, and Lauren at Cnytr suggested good women's suits that didn't look too boxy and masculine, gloves of all sorts, blouses that showed a bit of collarbone but remained modest and flattering, and a revival of the "intellectual" look with glasses and oxford shirts. Jane of Alle Psalite thinks women need more hats and longish (though not extremely long) skirts, and sees nothing wrong with trousers. Neither do I, for the record, so don't go off on about how they're forbidden by the Book of Leviticus. Though, there's something rather poetic about a girl in a skirt, a sight much more common these days than in the past couple of decades.

Incidentally, I have no set opinion on the necessity or irrelevance of chapel veils, it all depends, at this particular moment in time, on whether the individual wearer finds them good for her spiritual life. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I am not. I do not consider myself expert enough on St. Paul to either defend or refute the interpretations of his Epistles which they ultimately spring from. (I'm not interested in a discussion on this point right now, though it could make good blog fodder in the future.) That being said, I do think when they're used, they should drape well, be gauzy and voluminous rather than attenuated lace pocket-squares, as they have the potential to be quite picturesque and lovely witnesses of traditional practice. Let them be veils rather than antimacassars. Hats also would work well, too, so long as they aren't blocking my view of the Holy Sacrifice.

I'll begin with a quote from St. Francis de Sales: "For my part, I would have devout people, whether men or women, always the best-dressed in any group." Sometimes it works to be a sign of contradiction, but it helps if you're not too grungy-looking. Looking forward to your comments.

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