As summer draws to a close, a few Catholic blogs and websites are tackling the thorny question of modesty in dress yet again, focusing (as usual) on women's apparel.
In an uncharacteristic display of good sense, I'm not going to link directly to any of those blogs or websites. That way, I can't be accused of bullying or beating up on any specific person or group of people as I share some thoughts these post have inspired.
This may seem like a radical statement to some people, but here goes: I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of Catholic women in America do not intend to dress immodestly or offensively. This holds true whether we're talking about their dress at Mass, their dress generally, or both.
The problem is that plenty of Catholic women, just like lots and lots of other women, do tend to dress carelessly and thoughtlessly, if not all of the time, then at least some of the time. And sometimes they even dress carelessly and thoughtlessly for Mass--though at least the habit of wearing one's pajama bottoms in public, which has become distressingly common (in every sense of the word) has not yet inflicted itself upon the Holy Sacrifice, or at least, not so much where I live, anyway.
A woman may do tons and tons of Good Works, and be a Thoroughly Nice Woman, full of Charity and Human Kindness--but her fellow parishioner may be tempted to judge her as immodest, simply because she was careless enough, when shopping, to believe the mendacious manufacturer who printed a size "12" on the tag of the blouse she purchased, when in fact the bust of that blouse is cut to a size "10" (since today's blouses are cut one bust size smaller than the rest of the shirt, for obvious if deplorable reasons), and, in further fact, the last time she was really a size "12" in shirts was two babies ago.
I honestly think that this sort of clothing-manufacturer shenanigans, plus the pressure from other women, is why so many women either shrug at the idea of modesty and go on wearing the things they most unfortunately purchased, or else take the opposite extreme, arbitrarily declare that slacks, short-sleeved shirts, and skirts which hit a couple of inches below the knee are always and everywhere the clothing of women of ill-repute, and proceed to swath themselves in trailing folds of denim and knits. Which are, at least, comfortable. I'm just saying.
But the truth is that the closest thing we have to any kind of guidelines as to what is considered acceptable clothing for church are the Vatican guidelines, and the Vatican simply requires the body from the shoulders to below the knees to be covered, on men and women. In practical terms, this means: no shorts, no skirts above the knee, no sleeveless tops, and no bare midriffs. Both men and women can wear long slacks; women can wear longer skirts or dresses, so long as they go below the knee. Short-sleeved tops are fine; tank tops or sleeveless dresses aren't. One would gather that strapless dresses or one-shoulder dresses would be right out at the Vatican, too.
Is it possible to adhere to these guidelines and still dress inappropriately for Mass, or even immodestly? Sure. A women could wear a skin-tight, clingy dress that has long sleeves and goes to her ankles, after all (think of Morticia Addams, for example). A man could wear too-tight jeans and a shirt which made it possible to determine that yes, he does have six-pack abs. But just because it is possible to find a long dress, or jeans and a shirt, or even a floor-length skirt and long-sleeved blouse that wouldn't be modest doesn't mean that long dresses, jeans, shirts, floor-length skirts or long-sleeved blouses are always immodest (naturally).
Which is why I come back to the statement with which I started the post: I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of Catholic women in America do not intend to dress immodestly or offensively, especially at Mass. Maybe, if it seems that their clothing could be a touch more modest, they are actually careless or thoughtless, not intending to be "sexy." Maybe they have worked hard on eradicating vanity, and thus refuse to spend too much time or attention on their dress (which in itself may be a laudable thing). Maybe they are "making do," in a rough economy, with a combination of older clothing items which don't fit as well as they used to, new items purchased on sale, and thrift-store finds. Maybe they still have clothing from their high-school days in their closets, and fail to realize that twenty or thirty years later, even if they still fit that size, things may have shifted about a bit, so to speak, or the youthful clothing styles reveal just a tad too much of a middle-aged body. Maybe the tops they bought and wore for a while seemed to fit perfectly fine whenever they looked in the mirror, but their husbands sitting behind them in choir noticed that when they actually moved, to pick up a hymn book, say, the tops failed to maintain total coverage and occasionally provided the tenor section with a bit of a view. Not that I know anybody that's ever happened to, of course. ;)
So how, without turning into fashion-obsessed or vain women, can we achieve modesty in dress, while avoiding rash judgment toward others?
We can avoid the second by simply refusing to judge women whose clothing doesn't meet our standards. We don't know what's going on in their lives, most of the time. We don't know if she grabbed a six-year-old dress from the back of the closet after the baby spit up on the last three clean shirts she had that Sunday morning. We don't know if she ran to Mass in ripped jeans after spending the whole night with her mother-in-law in the hospital emergency room. We have a duty to believe the best about others when we don't know otherwise, and we--and I mean me--should remember that.
But as for the first, I think there are a few things that might be helpful, especially when we're trying to dress not only modestly, but appropriately for Mass as well:
1. Plan what you're going to wear. Sunday mornings can be busy and rushed, especially for Mom. The old jokes about the mother of a growing family arriving at church and discovering that along with her careful hairdo, nicely-done makeup, lovely blouse, attractive earrings, and new shoes she was wearing her best black slip--and nothing else--come from somewhere real. Taking five or ten minutes on Saturday night to check the closet, see what's clean, and put together an outfit will save not only time, but a lot of trouble, on Sunday morning.
2. Try it on. This goes for clothes in stores you're considering purchasing as well as items in your closet you haven't worn for a considerable time (or since before a new baby). Look in the best mirror you have, if you're at home. Does it still fit? Does it still look nice? Is it missing any important buttons?
3. Test it out. Again, this is for shopping or for an item you already own but aren't sure about: continue looking in the mirror, and bend over, raise your arms, move a little. Look at yourself front and back, and from the side. Plenty of blouses seem to fit fine, until you turn sideways and realize the person seated next to you will have an excellent view of a certain undergarment.
4. Know your size, and wear what fits. This is frustrating for women, because we may fit a different size depending on the type of garment, the manufacturer, the prevailing styles, the pre- or post-pregnancy state of the body, etc. But not knowing your proper size can make it easy to buy and wear clothes that don't really fit. It may be hard to buy a size "14" if we used to be a size "10." But it's infinitely worse to squeeze into clothes that are a size or two too small. So don't pay that much attention to the size of the garment--pay attention to how it fits, as in points 2 and 3. It's better to wear a size that's much bigger than your "normal" size--or much smaller--if it fits properly, because after all you aren't wearing a number.
5. Learn your body type. Women's body types are usually classed as these four: banana (rectangle), apple (inverted triangle), pear (regular triangle) and hourglass. It all has to do with your general shape and the difference in measurement involving bust, waist, and hips--especially where you usually carry any excess weight. Learning your body type isn't essential for modesty, but it is extremely helpful in learning what kinds of clothing are going to be too revealing of things you want to conceal, or too fitted for your shape, etc.
6. Dress with your age in mind. Does this mean we should be frumpy past a certain milestone? Not at all. But there's nothing more aging than a women of forty or fifty trying to dress like a twenty-year-old. And when modesty mistakes are made, sometimes (though not always) they involve a more mature woman trying to wear something trendy or youthful that reveals much more on her than it would on a teenager.
I don't think there are very many Catholic women in America who dress immodestly on purpose. I do think there are a lot of women--maybe all of us--who sometimes get a little sloppy. I know I've been there. And while there are times and seasons when a little carelessness in dress may be perfectly understandable and even excusable, sometimes a little reminder or some helpful tips may be a better aid to our goal of modesty than a lot of finger-wagging and judgment may be.
UPDATE: Larry D reminds me of his recent rant, in which he takes guys to task for showing up at Mass in shorts. I'd have to agree. There are perhaps a few thousand men in America who actually look good in shorts (and no, I don't know how many of them naturally gravitate toward UPS jobs), but they'd be violating modesty to show up in shorts at Mass (because yes, we ladies would notice). The rest of the men aren't necessarily violating modesty per say--just good taste, common sense, maturity, and any degree of fashion sense.