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.