In the comment boxes below the post about skirt-wearing, an excellent question was asked: what about vanity? In other words, as we consider our duty to dress modestly and with decorum, to what extent must we avoid the trends and fashions of the world, not only out of concern for modesty but also to avoid being vain about our appearances and choices of clothing?
Before I could even start working on this post, another commenter left a comment that heads pretty much in the direction I was planning to take, writing this:
"I don't think it vanity to enjoy clothing. We appreciate the world God gave us in all sorts of ways! The problem of vanity comes in when we spend an inordinate amount of time or money on these things -- when they become passions instead of appreciations, or when we use them to elevate ourselves above others."
The sin of vanity is very closely related to the sin of pride: it involves an inordinate or unjustified sense of conceit in one's appearance, accomplishments, abilities, possessions, and the like. It is directly opposed to the virtue of temperance, about which the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
"Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion..." (CCC, 1809.)
I think the key in understanding this is to consider closely the phrase, "...provides balance in the use of created goods." It would clearly be an unbalanced thing for a cloistered nun in full habit to read fashion magazines secretly whenever the opportunity presented itself to her; it is equally clearly an unbalanced act for a homeschooling mom on a tight budget to refuse to shop anywhere but Talbot's or Ann Taylor. But the thing about balance is that it implies the possibility that the scale may tip too far to the left or to the right; if vanity tips the scale on one side, what vice will bring it down on the other?
The vice which works on the opposite side of vanity is the vice of false humility. True humility is a good, holy virtue, one which should be cultivated by all Catholics and indeed all Christians, as it is essential to living a Christian life. True humility always points away from the self and toward God; a truly humble person doesn't pretend he has no gifts or talents, but always gives grateful thanks to the One who has given him those gifts. It is the person full of false humility who puts himself down and says he is untalented; what he wants, of course, is to be assured that this isn't the case, so his pride may be fed.
Is it vain to like a certain clothing style, or to be appreciative of fashion trends? Is vanity alone responsible for a trinket here, a cute pair of shoes there?
It depends on whether these things are inappropriate to one's state in life, inordinately pleasing to one, or of an importance truly inflated considering their fleeting worth. The interior disposition is once again at the heart of understanding this; we must reach beyond appearances and into the depths of the soul if we want to know whether we are being vain or not.
As the second commenter I quoted above points out, the mere enjoyment or appreciation of God's material gifts to us is not vanity in and of itself. Women who are not religious sisters or nuns are permitted some variety in their dress; not only is there nothing inappropriate in a married woman's choice of different colors or styles in her wardrobe, there is a possibility that it might be far less appropriate for her to limit herself to a single color or style of garment considering that her clothing will inevitably reflect upon her husband: his tastes, his ability to provide for his wife, even his sense of honor may be reflected in what his wife wears in public. Vanity will prompt a woman to wear clothes that flirt with immodesty regardless of what is due to her husband; false humility will cause her to dress in the same skirt over and over again because she enjoys the pity of her friends.
A good wife will be aware of these pitfalls and be willing to dress in such a way that her husband is properly (but not inordinately) pleased with her appearance. We do not dress solely and exclusively for ourselves, and plenty of men wish for the courage to tell their wives that some particular style of garment they've chosen cannot in any way be said to become them. Vanity would refuse to accept this sort of advice from a mere husband, but humility will appreciate it, and make the necessary alterations. False humility, though, will sigh at the attempt, and then explain as sweetly as possible that she knows she doesn't look good, but doesn't he realize that any desire to appear to advantage or to dress in something that actually looks nice is just vanity?
If you are invited to a wedding, and make a special shopping trip to purchase an outfit to wear to it, is that vanity? Not necessarily. If you have a closet full of lovely dresses that fit well and are all perfectly appropriate for a late spring wedding followed by an afternoon sit-down luncheon reception but you decide to go shopping for something new on the grounds that none of the dresses you own are as nice as the one your second cousin twice removed is planning to wear to the same wedding, chances are you're being vain. Most of us moms are less fortunate in our wardrobes, though, and even our nicest Sunday dresses might not work for a more formal occasion (particularly if you're like me and you got rid of the dry-clean-only stuff a long time ago). Choosing to go shopping to get something better than dear coz., as I said, is vanity; but choosing to wear something that isn't really dressy enough for the occasion on the grounds that it's holier not to go shopping would probably be an example of false humility, because at the heart of such a decision is a complete disregard for what is owed to one's hosts.
So how do we decide if we're sailing according to the dictates of temperance, rather than steering into the tempest of vanity or running aground on the rocks of false humility? It isn't always easy; nothing about attempting to live in holiness is. To me, remembering the word "balance" is the most crucial part: avoiding inordinate attachment to the things of this world, including one's wardrobe, on the one hand, while avoiding a prideful false detachment that appears virtuous but is really puffed up with vainglory on the other, is a balancing act indeed. But like all attempts to please God, this attempt is bound to succeed if only we ask Him to help us know ourselves, that we might comprehend our weaknesses and be strengthened to overcome them.