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.