Thursday, July 29, 2010

Combating carelessness in dress

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.


Magister Christianus said...

You make a great point, Red, and my wife and other women have also said that part of it comes down to cost. When you cannot affort to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart, there is not a whole lot of choice.

Where I would suspect intentionality in provocative dress is with teens and early twenty-somethings and anyone who you can tell from their accessories could easily afford better. Often one can tell who is on the make, even at church. It also not hard to tell when someone is doing the best that he or she can.

Red Cardigan said...

I think you're right, Magister. Sometimes I hear lots of indignant buzz about women in strapless sundresses, etc., but in most parishes where I've been only the youngest women and older teen girls will make a mistake like that one. And attitudes have a lot to do with it, too; a woman may be dressed very modestly yet behave flirtatiously with every man she meets.

(By the way--been meaning to get to your meme. It's been a weird week around here! Look for it soon.)

Dawn said...

Excellent post. As a mom with 2 daughters, we talk a lot about modesty and have made it a point to have certain "church" clothes. Fancier than everyday. These days it's very difficult to find modest clothing for teens and pre-teens, the shirts are too tight, the pants are too low can only layer so much in 100 degree we look in thrift stores a lot where the "older" styles are more prevalent and cover more, it's not too hard to update something that used to be "out of fashion". Thanks for the post!

Charlotte said...

You know me - I disagree with much that you say here about this topic AND I agree with lots of it, too. For me, it's a 50/50 thing. Although in this case I do agree that many women are out to lunch as to what looks good on them or not.

But I want to ask you this: I want to understand why you write about this topic so often, including many times, very specific ideas or instructions about how people should dress and shop. I'm not asking in a snarky way. I just don't get why issues of modesty are such a hot topic with you? (And in making that observation, I'm not saying it's a bad topic or doesn't need to be visited once in awhile.)

I'm being serious in my inquriy. Thanks!

c matt said...

Unless a guy is wearing a pretty tight shirt around the waist or Under Armor, I don't see how you could tell he had six-pack abs.

It is, however, easy to tell when they don't.

Also, shirt cuts for guys really suck - to get something to fit adequately in the arms/shoulders, you have to buy something that is about 3 sizes too big around the abdomen, giving a look that is either very baggy, furled and wrinkled, or a combination of both, which = a messy look.

Same goes for pants - waist size is poorly correlated to the rest (at least for me) making it look like I'm wearing bloomers or something. European cut is hard to find, and expensive when you do.

Charlotte said...

Yes, Matt. And women today don't know how to sew or do alteration (me included). So lack of seamstress skills is a contributing factor to how people look these days.

Also - after people pay good money for clothes, most of us don't want to pay extra for alterations, whether at a local shop or to a neighbor, unless it's something very special or for a special occassion.

Red Cardigan said...

Charlotte, I usually write these things simply as a response when I've read about them on other blogs. A popular Catholic site was discussing the issue last week, and I also read a post by a blogger who commented on that site's discussion (which was linked to by somebody else on Facebook--I probably wouldn't have seen the blog otherwise).

Here's the thing: I am absolutely opposed to the two extremes on this issue.

Extreme number one is the take that it doesn't at all matter what we wear (either generally or specifically to Mass). God knows our hearts. If a curvy attractive woman wears short-shorts and a plunging tank top to Mass on Sunday, and a guy has a problem with that--well, that's his problem. No woman should ever be obliged to consider modesty when she dresses, because if we go that route we're no different from the Muslims who require burqas on their women.

Extreme number two is the take that insists that to be modest, Catholic women must wear calf-length or lower skirts and dresses, wear tops with elbow or three-quarter sleeves or longer, and never wear a top that dips more than two fingers' distance below the collarbone--because these "rules" were proposed by various people (popes, saints, etc.) in the past, and are thus hard-and-fast rules for all Catholic women in all times and all places. Slacks are especially evil, as they force men to concentrate on the fact that women's legs separate at some point higher than the knee.

In my various postings, I try to argue for a kind of middle ground. Since the Church has not issued a dress code, she obviously expects her children to use their own common sense and notions of virtue and awareness of culture etc. to help them make good decisions. As I wrote in this post, I really think that the vast majority of bad decisions are made more out of carelessness or thoughtlessness than actual malice--that is, I don't think most women look in their closets on Sunday morning and think, "Now, let's see--how can I scandalize the uptight, look sexy enough to get every guy's attention, and otherwise draw attention to myself?" But a lot of time, the "skirts-only" crowd or some other group will imply that this is exactly what's going on.

One other thing: as the mother of three daughters, two of whom are now teens, I do think about this issue--you can't shop for clothing for growing young girls without being confronted with the really immodest styles our culture tends to push. Luckily my girls have a good sense of their own modesty, and don't want to put themselves on display no matter what the "trendy" clothes look like--but that doesn't happen by accident.

Hope this explains things!

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, one more thing, Charlotte. My tendency to give specific tips has to do with sharing things I've found helpful. As most women know, it's distressingly easy to drift from "modest" to "frumpy," just as it's distressingly easy to drift from "modest on the hanger" to "not modest on me personally, because of X feature or figure shape." Part of the reason it's so easy to end up there is because our culture doesn't exactly promote modesty, and tends to reinforce the "SAHM=frumpy=shapeless jumper or 'mom jeans'" stereotype. So I try to think of the personal pitfalls I've dealt with, and share ways to combat them--I'm sure other women out there have good advice from their experiences, too! :)

Deirdre Mundy said...

Erin-- another problem I've seen (overheard...)

Sometimes, a teenaged girl can be dressed COMPLETELY modestly for Church (Business lenghth khaki skirt, hose, button down shirt in a pretty pattern, nice shoes) only to be criticized.

Why? Because there's a subset of Catholic that equates 'attractive' with immodest. So if her outfit causes the young men around her to smile (not leer mind you, just smile in the way that says "look! a pretty girl!") some cranky person will take her aside after Mass and scold her...

So, yes, these "modest doesn't equal dowdy" posts ARE necessary--especially for all the teenaged girls out...

And we need to realize that clothes that get the reactions "She looks nice today" are not the same as immodest clothes.

(I'm way past that stage myself. I basically have two modes- decent, and ridiculous.)

BTW-- anyone have advice on good styles of clothing that are BOTH nursible AND unlikely to cause wardrobe malfunction while you're carrying a grabby 8-month old? I've been having a lot of embarrassing moments recently... I've been thinking handcuffs for the baby, but that seems over the top.....

Charlotte said...


If I saw a teenage girl dressed like you just described, I'd wonder what was wrong with her. Just sayin'. I mean, other than in winter with tights, who wears "hose" anymore?

What you described sounds like a picture of a woman dressed in circa-1980's business attire. (Although I suppose there could be some modern version of it.)

Teenagers dressing modest? Fine. But I do believe there is a way they can do it without a huge neon arrow pointing at them that says "I'm a huge homeschooled dork."

If I sound judegmental, so be it. I have seen first-hand (due to close friends who are homeschoolers) what happens when girls are forced into a dated/way-older-than-their-age "modest" look - and then are made fun of or marginalized by other kids, and even other homeschoolers.

People have to be relevant to be taken seriously. There is a way to be modern and modest and the same time. I feel nothing but pity when I see a young girl dressed like a 75 year old woman in the name of modesty.

freddy said...

I've found, in nursing my 7, that a fairly loose cotton t-shirt with a scoop-neck works best. It's easy for baby to pull blankets off, but usually they can only pull the shirt down a bit, not up.
I avoid v-necks and boat-necks 'cause the down-pulling can reveal a bra-strap or just a little too much cleavage, depending on the strength/age of baby. I've never really had good luck with nursing designed clothing, partly because of the "grabby" stage, and partly because of my buid -- I'm not terribly "well-endowed" so to speak.

On topic: I'd really like to hear from some men on the modesty issue. Should men reclaim their authority to tell wives and daughters "wear this, don't wear that?" Most women I know have no problem telling hubby what to/not to wear, so why shouldn't men get the same consideration? I think it would certainly be useful for a young woman dressed modestly only to be criticized to be able to respond, "Well, my dad said I looked very nice, and properly dressed for this occasion."

Deirdre Mundy said...

Charlotte-- I probably described the outfit poorly then. And it was at a parish where most women wore stockings... in some parts of the country, especially up here in the north, stockings are comfortable for all but 2 months of the year!

To me, (khaki skirt, cute button down shirt) she looked like a high school girl in 'internship interview' clothes. Or maybe "School Uniform nice." You know--clearly dressy, but age appropriate. NOT dowdy. But she was attacked anyway, because... she was showing some of her legs!

Scoop neck instead of boat or V-- I'll have to try to find some that don't look like "I threw on this T-shirt because I have nothing else clean!" :) Button down is my favorite, but problematic because my shirt size shifts radically in a one or two hour period, and grabby hands seem to be very good at UN buttoning! (Some of my friends swear by wrap-style tops... but those ALWAYS seem to end in a bared bra for me.....usually at the MOST embarassing moment possible....)

Seriously, Church or not... I usually have one or 2 outfits that work... and then spend the rest of the time wishing I could just wear a burkha!

Anonymous said...

I was one who was drawn from the bigger discussion to a small one, mostly because I have a serious love of fashion (as I do for a lot of material things; I love magnificent architecture, gorgeously decorated homes, rich elegant fabrics, fabulous gardens, etc.) But I also have a weird fascination with women who are kind of angry at God that they weren't alive in 1865. I'll explain.

For those who insist on these scrupulous standards of modesty, I do see a sentimentality for a particular idea of femininity; specifically, some aspects of dress of Victorian and mid-19th century women's clothing. For some reason , that's the default feminine and modest style for them. It's always Laura Ingalls and Anne of Green Gables and maybe some Jane Austen thrown in the mix, you know what I mean? It's never 16th century clothing, no one calls for bustles or 9th century head coverings, or farthingales, hoops or, almost surprisingly, a return of the corset. The corset was, literally for hundreds of years, the de rigueur article of women's clothing that every lady wore. To forego one was considered slatternly and extremely unladylike. The looser the lacing, the looser the morals of the wearer! The feminine ideal was weak and needed the structure (for a long while, corsets were considered a medical necessity, never mind that whole organ displacement thing...) and when Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion (largely because of new fabrics), I'm sure there were arguments every bit as heated as the long-skirts-only modesty threads we read today. I think it must have been far more scandalous back then, frankly.

And yes, there is a part of me that would love to wear a corset! Not all the time but with the right outfit, what a waist-whittler!

But ultimately the reason I disagree so much with the whole long-skirts issue is that it doesn't strike me as Catholic. It's got a protestant whiff about it. Catholic women of my ancestry wore elegant, stylish clothes, and never dressed as if they were in a costume, pretending this was another place and time. Sure, they had it easier, but I just find it surprising that so many women have so much difficulty finding stylish, elegant and modest clothing. And I do think that the slob look is another version of immodesty. And please do go to your tailor and get your clothes altered to fit you well! It's not terribly expensive and worth every penny. Don't look at it as spending more; think of it as cheaper than custom clothes; after all, that's the real history of women's clothing: it was always made for you, personally, up until the industrial revolution. This idea that we'll always look great in pre-made stuff hanging on the racks is a modernist heresy! ;-) Altered clothes will look better, longer, which will save a little money.

Of course I disagree with immodest dress. and I do agree that most women simply don't know how they look. Ever been shocked into dieting because you saw a picture or video of yourself and said, "Is THAT what I look like?!?" Same thing with clothes and it's why Stacy and Clinton use that secret footage. They just don't know. But the overly-scrupulous are doing that on purpose. They know how they look and they usually want you to look like that, too.

St. Fashionista

LarryD said...

I think Fr Longenecker ought to have Mantilla Amontillado weigh in on this subject, what?

ps - Ha! My word verification for this was "habit"!

Red Cardigan said...

To the person who keeps trying to spam this thread: quit it.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, and just in case anyone is still reading this post: someone is trying to spam this post with a link that claims to take you to "nursing tops." Ignore that comment, if you see it. Do not click the link--I have not clicked it, because I never do, and because half the time the idiot spammer is actually selling something quite different.

Spammer: I mean it. I'll shut down comments on this post if you try it again. And since you've actually gone to the trouble to create your own Blogger profile, I'll complain to Blogger next. And if you're the person from India who is tracking your link via a third-party link tracking website--you've made it awfully easy for me to figure out who you are, you know.