Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An act of sartorial seduction

I have to thank my sister-in-law for sending me an email link to the funniest thing I've read in a long time on the subject of modesty. Austin Ruse weighs in on this ever-present Catholic blogosphere topic:
A blast email sent around last week brings this story to mind. Its title is “Regarding Not Wearing Pants.” Would that it were an essay by Woody Allen rather than a Catholic ninny. The author, who shall remain nameless but who is a Catholic layman with a wide Internet following, wants women not to wear pants because he claims pants show too much of their figures, and women wearing pants can lead Catholic men to impure thoughts and actions.

The author says, “The godless, sexed-up, secular fashion industry is out to make money and convince you that vice is virtue. They, and their damned pants (italics mine), accentuate your flaws.”

He continues, “Sadly, and we understand you may not be aware of this, but almost every style of pants reveals private information about your figure (by way of contour) what only your husband (and if not him, no man, including your sons, if you have sons) should perceive.”

There’s more: “Thus, even a woman endowed with the most spectacular genetic form, in the bloom of her youth, can be given the illusion of ugliness, if not cheapness, by wearing pants. Likewise, pants rarely do anything but exaggerate extra volume on our figures.”

Isn’t this all rather creepy?

The author is not just anti-pant: he is very much pro-dress, at least of a certain kind. “While some styles of pants can be attractive, in terms of beauty, pants will never trump a tasteful dress or skirt of similar material, pattern, and quality.” This guy is hardly a fashion plate, so what’s he know about fashion? What’s more, have you seen the dresses these days? They’re enough to give Caligula an aneurysm.

There's lots, lots more, and if the line about modern dresses giving Caligula an aneurysm doesn't make you laugh then you aren't a woman and/or haven't been dress shopping recently--in which case the whole Catholic modesty blogosphere thing has probably gone unnoticed by you.

But Ruse makes a serious point in the piece:

My wife, a conservative and modest Catholic, got this email and hit the roof. A friend of hers said it well, “These guys want us to dress like the Amish.” And it’s true. What they really want is for Catholic women to dress in shapeless sack dresses. They want Catholic women to be readily recognizable and frankly strange and unappealing. And more than anything else, they want to be in charge, Biblical head of the wife and all that.

A reader asked me recently just why it is that I write about the modesty topic (aside from being female and in my forties and needing to buy and wear clothing in an era that caters to the styles and body sizes of women ages ten to eighteen, of course). What Ruse writes here illuminated something for me--I have always felt somewhat torn when it comes to this topic. On the one hand, modesty is a Christian virtue, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to it and includes modesty in dress as a consideration for Catholics (but not the only consideration; modesty also involves speech and actions). On the other, though, it has always seemed to me that there were far too many instances of Catholic extremism on this topic: an extremism that makes detailed lists of which ordinary, common, everyday clothing items are modest and which are not--but somehow, these lists are only or mainly for women--and then fostering a certain amount of spiritual pride among the list-makers and list-followers because they, the enlightened, know better than to violate these arbitrary but somehow rather widespread rules.

I have said in other posts on the subject that quite possibly what people are objecting to, under the blanket heading of "modesty," is simply a question of what is or is not appropriate to wear at different times and in different places--especially when it's a question of what one wears to Sunday Mass. There's no denying that our culture is an informal and sometimes rather slovenly one, and with that informality came a loss of the sense of what it means to dress up for something. And with that loss came, eventually, the loss of the ability to dress up for things. I would put it this way: it's possible to buy a really nice dress to wear to a wedding or some other formal event, and it's possible to buy a "business dress" or "business casual" outfit to attend a corporate function, but it's increasingly hard to buy a nice-ish-yet--practical outfit to wear to dinner at a restaurant that doesn't feature crayons, or to Sunday Mass, or to a nun's profession of vows, or--as this hilarious and famous blog post illustrates beautifully--to a baptism. It is especially hard to do any of these things if one is a mom in a one-income family in a time of economic downturn; beautiful dresses may still exist, somewhere, but are seldom inexpensive, washable, comfortable, and sized to fit the women who are taller than average or shorter than average, and/or who don't magically lose all their pregnancy weight in six months. Or six years. Or whatever.

Now, however, reading Ruse's essay, I think that what really makes me chime in on this topic is what he mentions in that paragraph quoted above. It is the subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--misogynism that lurks underneath many of the calls for greater modesty in dress. It is the declaration that a perfectly normal article of clothing--pants, for example--are always and everywhere immodest on females, while always and everywhere modest on males (which doesn't even make anatomical sense, especially in the sad case of those unfortunate gentlemen who wear plain-front trousers and are still buying the size they wore in college, despite the reality that this size is far too tight and revealing to be either flattering or modest). It is the assumption that without constant male guidance and direction, every woman is a closet hussy who can't wait to squeeze into a revealing outfit and make male heads turn, so she can cause male souls to fall into sin.

It's one thing for a modest Christian woman to ask her husband, "Does this shirt look too tight on me?" if she is uncertain about it and trying to dress modestly (especially in those transitional months after nursing a baby, for example). It's quite another for her husband to dictate that she must wear thoroughly shapeless and unattractive clothing lest the slightest indication that her figure is female, with the sort of contours a female figure has, catch other men's eyes and cause them to sin. And if he is banning all pants from her wardrobe (including sweatpants or other exercise clothing) on the grounds that it just isn't modest for a woman to dress in an article of clothing that was exclusively male for approximately 140 years (from the advent of modern men's trousers during the French Revolution to World War II, when women began to wear pants to work in factories) and which has, moreover, been an accepted article of women's clothing for the past 70 years--then he is acting unreasonably, and in a way that fails to respect her inherent dignity and worth as his wife.

A Catholic woman does have a duty to avoid dressing in a way that is truly immodest; that is, she must not dress in a way that reveals what ought to be concealed. To put it another, if slightly crude, way (as I heard it put recently): if a woman heads out the door in an outfit that indicates that she expects to "get lucky" later that day, then chances are she is dressed immodestly.

But since this sort of thought is not at all, ordinarily, uppermost in the minds of Catholic wives and mothers as they dress for church or shopping or whatever else they are doing that day (and, indeed, a married woman does not think of "luck" at all on those occasions when she justly contemplates an exchange of the rights and duties of marriage to which she and her husband both agreed on their wedding day--but I digress), I maintain that few serious Catholic adult women are really trying to inflame the passions of poor helpless Catholic men for whom the mere beholding of feminine pulchritude is a siren call to serious sin--by the act of donning a pair of elastic waist "mom jeans" prior to a trip to a Big Box Home Improvement Store. It is neither charitable nor rational for Catholic men to act as though the last seventy years did not occur, and that a woman wearing trousers--any trousers, including this kind--is such a provocative novelty that no modest woman dare commit such an act of sartorial seduction.


Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

I really liked this comment over in Mr. Ruse's combox:

Oh mylanta! One wonders what the this Puritanical e-mail author would suggest we single women do. Shall I request that my father escort/chaperone me, his 30-year-old daughter, to the clothing store because I have no husband to pick out my purchases? Good grief.

Barbara C. said...

Some of the anti-pants people seem to be confused. On one hand pants are evil because they accentuate too much of the figure and give men impure thoughts. On the other hand pants do reveal unappealing flaws in a woman's body like too much flab...which you would assume would disgust men and turn them completely off.

I worked at a place that had a dress code at the corporate office in which women were not allowed pants (except one Friday a month) and men were supposed to wear a tie everyday. Guess which policy was enforced and which wasn't.

Apparently the policy was made due to a former female employee who wanted to wear sweat/pajama pants to work. She then switched to mou mous when it became "dresses only". Some of the women wore really hoochy mini-dresses. Since I spent A LOT of time on the floor or in dusty warehouses digging through files I found the "dresses-only" rule really impractical.

Tony said...

"I maintain that few serious Catholic adult women are really trying to inflame the passions of poor helpless Catholic men for whom the mere beholding of feminine pulchritude is a siren call to serious sin"

My, what an uncharitable and sarcastic statement!

As a man who struggles with sins of the flesh, I am assaulted constantly by billboards, magazine advertisements, checkout lines, television commercials, and most every facet of my daily life.

I would like to think of Mass as a sanctuary from the blatant temptation to impure thinking that western daily life has become for me.

Alas this is not the case. I get this attitude of "what are you, some sort of pervert?", "Look somewhere else!", "It's not my problem, it's yours!"...

I'm not expecting the women at Mass to dress like nuns (even though I'd like the nuns to dress like nuns), but if you'd like to emulate Mary Magdalene, it would be a good idea to pick the time after her conversion. Also, I don't attribute to malice, what can be explained by ignorance.

As for the pants thing, I have seen a few women wearing very pretty dresses, with lace shawls if they were sleeveless.

My 18 year old daughter, who dresses like a typical teenager most days, is careful what she wears to Mass, expecially if she has a ministry to attend to.

Ellyn said...

That was the humorous pick-me-up that I needed today!

I used to let that kind of email really bother me, but now they only annoy (and amuse) me. Living near Chicago I know that there are times (let's just say, hmmm, January?) when pants are not only practical but absolutely necessary. I'm sure I speak for my Catholic sisters in many dioceses in which winter is an invigorating experience. And I'm not deluding myself when I say there is nothing remotely seductive about me in my L.L. Bean khakis. Nada. Rien du tout.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I find the whole "have your husband pick out your clothes" thing kind of creepy.

I mean, it's one thing if, for instance, your husband has a wool allergy and you keep that in mind when sweater shopping.

But for him to dress you? Like a life-sized Barbie?

And the whole weird juxtaposition about how pants make women look like prostitutes-- and old and flabby, too! Huh?

Honestly, if one of my daughters was dating this man, we'd urge her to run away. Very fast. Because he seems to think of women as dolls, to be posed, dressed, and manipulated for his pleasure.


Red Cardigan said...

Tony, all due respect, but I would ask you to read both Mr. Ruse's article and (if you Google some of the quoted phrases) the original email.

The author of the original email suggests that husbands should shop with their wives and choose clothing for them so they will not select immodest clothing (as, apparently, all good Catholic wives and mothers will do the minute their husbands aren't looking). It's impossible *not* to see the ugly misogynism in this.

I am sympathetic to your struggle. I do my part by turning the worst magazines around or covering them with other magazines in the checkout line--because I don't think my daughters should have to see half-nude adult airbrushed anorexic-yet-"enhanced" women as some kind of impossible male fantasy standard, and I *certainly* don't think men should have to be confronted with this sort of thing as they wait in line to buy razor blades and toothpaste.

I also think that women should dress modestly for Mass--meaning, they should cover shoulders, cleavage, and knees (unless they happen to be younger than six, at which point knees and shoulders can be visible if they wear those cute little sundress-romper things). I think men at Mass should cover shoulders and knees, and watch out for too-snug pants. That's basic charity.

I don't think that banning slacks for women, or insisting that women wear shapeless sack dresses, or fainting in horror at the sight of a not-too-low-v-neck top on an A-cup woman is about modesty at all. I think it's about control, and about reinforcing the narrative that female beauty and the female form is really an ugly snare of sin for anybody but her husband, and even for him if she appears lovely to anyone but him.

Anonymous said...

You might get a kick out of this:

Lauretta said...

Tony, my husband also struggled with this issue for many years. After hearing the theology of the body explained and understanding it enough to begin to try to incorporate it into his life, he was amazingly freed of this bondage quite quickly. This was remarkable considering the fact that he was in his forties when it happened. We are so grateful to Pope John Paul II for his teaching and Christopher West for his simplifying of the teaching because it was truly a release from the prison of lust for my husband. We know your struggles and hope that you might be able to take the time to come to know and live this beautiful teaching.

SherryTex said...

A Burka by any other name would oppress just as much...or if I'm feeling more charitable, perhaps he works for the Snuggie corporation and all of us would be greater examples of modesty if we consented to dress in sweaty cheap polar fleece druid type robes all the time.

Amy said...

Wow, sometimes it pays to go back through your Reader when you've been offline a while. I was fascinated by this whole thing. I'm new to the Catholic blogosphere and had no idea this was an on-going hot topic. Two weeks ago my meeting with my spiritual director was about modesty in dress and how much I love fashion (classic, tasteful fashion) and whether that is a bad thing. I have to say he (he's a priest) found it quite hilarious to be giving out fashion advice!

The anti-pants guy is off his nut. Clearly.

Baron Korf said...

The fact that women exist will be a source of temptation for men. Now I am very pro-dress, but mostly because I like women to look womanly and pants rarely do that, but de gustibus non est disputandum.

I sympathize with the emailer in a way. Grave errors are first cousins, to quote Hildebrand, and he is obviously reacting to the terrible way most people dress these days. (I myself cannot wait until the bastard child of tights and jeans goes out of fashion.) However, that should not drive us to the other way by saying that visible femininity is evil.

Women should take steps to protect us men from our own weakness, but both men and women need to understand that it is impossible to eliminate all temptation. Eventually you fall to the law of diminishing returns where the woman is increasingly concealed by the man is no less tempted. Common sense needs to be used.

Lauretta said...

Women should take steps to protect us men from our own weakness, but both men and women need to understand that it is impossible to eliminate all temptation. Eventually you fall to the law of diminishing returns where the woman is increasingly concealed by the man is no less tempted. Common sense needs to be used.

Wonderful comment, Baron. I think that history will show us that modest dress did little to quell the lust in man's heart. That takes grace and humility and love. We dress modestly because that is the dignity with which the human body deserves to be clothed when in the presence of those who don't understand what the human body is, which is most everyone at the core of their being.

Rebecca in CA said...

Interesting topic...I think the fact that modesty is an important issue yet the rules of modesty are to a great extent relative to one's society can be difficult, and often drives people to want to state absolutes to make things easier. This usually ends up taking them to silly-land, as the original author illustrates with his poor reasoning.

I read something recently which looks at this all from another angle, which I found very interesting: the angle that excessive obsession about modesty can have the surprising effect of making women feel like sex objects:

JMB said...

I live in such a diverse area for Catholics that I don't see how a dress code is even relevant. Latinos dress differently than Italians, who dress differently than the Irish and Filipinos and African American Catholics. Seriously. Don't tell this Jersey Girl not to wear pants or slacks in the winter. I dress for the weather. Alcoholics have to learn how to live around drinking folk, men should be able to live around pant wearing women without causing them to sin!!!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Maybe he can make that argument in Texas, but in Wisconsin, it is a threat to women's health and safety to expect them to wear skirts and dresses at 20 below zero, even with pantyhose. Pants with two layers of long underwear (rather immodest under a dress) is more like it.

Peony Moss said...

I wonder what advice the author of that article would give to women whose husbands have left them? Who's going to help them pick out their clothes?