Revisiting Immodest Dress

By squeaker

A lot of the problems surrounding immodest dress stems from an incomplete realization, by both women and men, of just how weak men can be when it comes to visual distractions. Most Catholic men talk a good talk when it comes to chastity and modesty. They have the best of intentions and try hard, but deep down inside they struggle badly with it. This is the rule rather than the exception. Just ask any priest who hears confessions.

Men are wired that way. God knew that the human race would not perpetuate if the decisions to reproduce were left solely to detached and disinterested intellectual calculations. Hence, He created a very strong sexual instinct for both sexes, but more aggressive, intense and relentless in men who are generally called to initiate relationships.

However, as a result of Original Sin, these impulses leave men very vulnerable and in dire need of help from women to minimize unnecessary stimulation. Men get easily aroused and distracted, sometimes without even realizing it or willing it. If an attractive woman sitting in the front pew starts playing with her long hair, I can assure you that dozens of men will have their eyes drawn to her (this is part of the rationale for veils). The same is true when a woman walks in wearing a short skirt or spaghetti straps. Time spent looking at a woman means less time spent listening to the Word of God or uniting themselves to the prayers of the mass.

Obviously, men remain responsible for their thoughts and actions. But they could use some help. Women may not realize how easily men are tempted. It’s like a reflex. It happens automatically and requires a conscious effort of the will to undo. Just as it would be cruel to tempt a recovering alcoholic with some booze, I would argue that immodest dress has an analogous effect. Nobody would dare say to the recovering alcoholic that his struggles are “not my problem” and that he needs to get a grip on himself. We’re called to exercise compassion for the weak. And men are certainly weak in this area, especially in this sexualized culture where stimuli are omnipresent.

Scientists have studied this phenomenon. Experiments were developed where men were asked to wear special glasses with an embedded camera that would record everything they looked at during some social situations. Afterwards, the scientist would review the recordings with the man, who was himself astounded at some of the things his eyes were drawn to without even realizing it. So even men don’t fully understand how weak they are.

The Church has developed objective norms on modest dress that apply not only with a church but for everyday life. Under Pope Pius XI, the following instruction was issued:

“A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper.” (Source)

A few years later, the Church said that sleeves reaching halfway between the elbow and the shoulder would be “temporarily tolerated“, apparently because women were having trouble finding clothes with sleeves reaching the elbow.

I would add a special tip to women when riding a bike: avoid a loose top. I hate to be graphic, but as you’re bending over your handle bars, a loose top exposes everything.

If you visit Rome today, many churches will not let you enter unless your attire conforms to the above standard. Although it was issued specifically for women’s dress, I think the same standard should be applied to men too. Men are equally responsible to dress modestly because women can also be distracted by immodest dress. However, women are much less vulnerable in this respect because male fashions don’t typically reveal as much as women’s fashions, but also because women’s minds are not as readily hijacked by sexual impulses as is the case for men.

We all have a part to play in bringing about the Kingdom. We’re not supposed to live like the world. We’re supposed to be visibly different. Modest dress is one part of the equation. When I’ve quoted the above teaching from the papacy of Pius XI to Catholic women, they almost universally agree and approve of it. Yet, I’ve seen these same women wearing see-through blouses or spaghetti straps, even in a church. Some of my friends who have spent their entire adult lives arguing for chastity and modesty have, on their wedding day, worn a strapless dress and ordered the same for all the bridesmaids. I don’t understand the contradiction. We can do better.  

It’s certainly a sacrifice to adjust one’s wardrobe and endure extra sweat in the summer, but it’s worth it to avoid being a stumbling block for others. I’ve thrown away shorts that didn’t reach my knees. At 6 feet 2 inches, it’s hard for me to find shorts that are long enough. But I manage. I’ve renounced tank tops even though people tell me that I have an athletic build. I don’t take off my shirt when I’m walking down the street (that’s kind of vulgar). And I always wear pants to mass regardless of the heat. It’s not as hard as it may seem. None of this makes me a hero, but just a worthless slave following orders (cf. Luke 17:10). Anybody can do as much.

The call for modest dress among women — both in church and elsewhere — is not an accusatory wagging of the finger, but rather a plea for mercy for your brothers in Christ who try eagerly to respect your dignity but who need some help.


Addendum on the definition of modest dress:

The definition of modest dress cited above was issued by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome on September 24, 1928 in response to an order by Pope Pius XI one month earlier, on August 23, 1928, for the implementation across Italy of a “Crusade Against Immodest Fashions, Especially in Schools Directed by Religious”. This initiative was led by the Sacred Congregation of Religious. The Cardinal Vicar’s definition was part of the letter sent to all Bishops of Italy in September 1928 ordering them to implement this initiative. Given this context, the definition bears more weight than a simple statement by the Cardinal Vicar.

In 1930, Pius XI asked the Sacred Congregation of the Council to issue a letter to the Church throughout the entire world requiring all persons in authority to combat immodest dress. Some elements of the 1928 initiative were extended globally. Although, the definition of modest dress was not contained in the 1930 letter, the context and sequence of events seem to imply that Pius XI had in mind the same definition he was using for the Italy-wide initiative.

6 thoughts on “Revisiting Immodest Dress

  1. Men, don’t be so self-absorbed and smug about blaming women for your temptations while letting yourselves off the hook for your effects on women. That’s what the Islamists do.

    What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. We are ALL responsible to each other.

    I wholeheartedly agree, a woman should not flauntingly dress to toy with a man’s , but in the same way, a man should not go bare to the waist and/or in short, tight cut-offs.

    On the other hand, there are some people in both sexes who should never publicly jog in neon Spandex.

  2. Why is it anytime one says truth about sin, it is called “wagging the finger” or some “judgmental” thing. It is what it is. We all know why we do things if we question our hearts, and have formed some conscience.
    Just be honest with yourself “How does Jesus feel about this attire in front of Him or Our Blessed Mother Mary?. Look sincerely at your motives for dressing in a way that yes certainly does not belong In God’s Sacred Presence and Home, nor in the street or beach. In fact dressing in a way that exposes one’s body is always immodest. and as was alreadfy said destroys any witness. Just Who do we love here, is another question God or our selves and our desire for
    attention that is not even healthy, but stems from lust .
    If we are attending Mass I am under the understanding it is for Jesus, not any other reason. This is part of what is wrong with modernism and the watering down of the Faith and True reverential Worship, everyone is looking around like it’s a social and even chatting away, because they have made it all about them instead. Either you love Jesus with your whole mind and body and soul or you don’t. It is very obvious in some Parishes, that they most certainly do not. One can hardly pray over the din before Mass,(what happened to Sacred Silence), before and after Mass (that is what Church Halls are for.) there is hardly any kneeling during the liturgy, yawn yawn, more joke telling (so much for the Homily about the Readings and Gospel that was read,and the horrible practice of picking up the Eucharist with ones’ fingers and placing HIM in ones’ mouth as if one is eating a cookie,and treating God’s Sacred Body like it is hardly anything, as little kneeling as possible, and of course applause after the music ends. (The Sacrifice of the Mass is not a performance at the Arts Center (what happened to Sacred Silence), before and after Mass (that is what Church Halls are for.)

    People who try to make others “feel” bad about calling sin sin
    are people to watch out for. It is this same practice of trying to water down purity and reverence that the Freemasons are guilty and known for in High places. AND that is not paranoiac
    nonsense nor “negativity” but Truth. Read “False friends of Fatima” . or the “Crisis in the Catechism”, or The Devil’s Final Battle. ” Just like Father Bob never stopped speaking on the same topic , we are called to never be passive while so many now are trying to modify and water down darkness and real bad motives calling them less then they are or make sin less then it is. Woe to those who call darkness light and light darkness, is the quote that comes to mind.
    Perhaps one people think many people do not know what they dress provocatively. I beg to differ. People do know, (and that is not wagging a finger…it is stating the truth. In fact is an injustice to another’s intelligence to insinuate that they naively attired themselves improperly. People are very aware what they put on and for what reason. That is the issue.
    Do they know Who they are in the Presence of and if they do know why do they dress like that and make it about them instead Of Him, or for that matter when you love Jesus, you seek to show Him by pleasing Him. If we saw Our Father standing in front of us, when we are exposing ourselves or making our bodies to be attention getting objects when we bend over revealing ourselves, should this not make one pause .? and even ask oneself just what it is we are trying to achieve?
    Sure,Jesus loves us the way we are, too much to leave us that way. The question again is how much do we love Him?

    I hear parents or others saying, things like”Well is it not just good that they are in Mass?” My answer is if you love them , yet God before them as you should, why do you not tell them what is right in front of God? Just what are you afraid of?, being called “judgmental”? that is nonsense…and wrong and something is clearly not right with your relationship to God yourself if you compromise for the sake of fear and/or people pleasing, nor is your relationship with the child or friend healthy if you cannot even speak to them about such matters. One can do it lovingly of course especially if a stranger comes to Mass for the first ime and does not know better. I am not referring to them, but so-called regular parishioners. Wrong message…insult to God… period.
    Truth is vanity of ones’ body is more important to the person then
    God or proper worship.
    When you love someone you tell them the Truth.

  3. I have better things to do than to respond to at any length to someone who tells me that they have trouble finding shorts to cover their knees. I’ll wear what I want and be the exclusive judge of what is appropriate.

  4. John,
    Don’t shoot the messenger. You’re shooting the Popes and Saints who have spoken authoritatively on the matter.
    Perhaps you should refresh your memory on the limits of individual judgment by reading Catechism 1790-1792

    • Perhaps you should mind your own business. How about a few quotes from a Pope about wearing shorts to church. Once again, can’t recall anything Jesus said on this topic.

      • You talk about modesty, but at the front of your church you have a man wrapped in a loin cloth.

        “do what I say, not what I do” syndrome?

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