Monday, July 25, 2011
'Why do you always have to go around in a skirt?'

'I like them. They're comfy, more aesthetic, and less revealing than jeans at the length I wear them.'

'It makes people think you are judgemental when you never wear shorts or jeans, you know.'

'Maggie, have you considered that maybe they're judgemental for pronouncing me a Pharisee without even knowing my motivations?'

Maggie's eyes narrowed, and she put on her most compelling 'oh, come on' face. 'Rachel,' she said, 'You know that you're the one who's acting weird.'

One of the greatest charges that can be made against a principle or plan is its impracticability or likelihood of failure. No matter how just the cause, a war itself cannot be just if there is no chance of success for the right side. So it is with the concrete and with the abstract. Philosophy may involve love and reason, yet all who engage in the affair must follow the principle that love is not blind, but bound. The attachment of a philosopher to ideals that are pretty rather than possible is like a man loving a brunette for her golden hair. Truth that involves being played out in human acts must be able to be actualized. If Communism has still not produced the Workers' Paradise after decades of nearly free reign, one should toss out the vague notion of that paradise and not (as Communist dictators have so often done) the workers.

So it must be with modesty. Whether one has strong faith or simply strong ethics, modesty must be something women can practice, if it is the ideal way for a lady to clothe herself. Obviously, a woman is physically capable of wearing concealing clothes, but she is also physically capable of whacking herself in the head with a frying pan. What one can do with one's hands is not necessarily possible psychologically.
So can a woman suppress the vanity urging her to flaunt her assets or her physical instinct to arouse a man's concupiscence? Those of faith answer yes. If she could not, scripture and tradition would not require it. However, proponents of rationalism or of faith seeking understanding cannot settle for the authoritative Sed Contra.

First, one must admit where promulgation of modesty seems to go wrong. Some women are very sensitive to the rebuke of people they respect, a fact which can be both a virtue and a vice. I was stung for a full week when, as a teenager, an elderly man rudely found fault with a skirt I wore at church which my parents had judged to be just fine. The fact that my family and his had no real acquaintance only made it worse. A lady standing nearby took up my defence, but I was left speechless. Some girls can indeed be cowed in this way and never think to question it, but when out of sight of the over-demanding puritan, most will resent his lack of kindness and dress in anyway they please. The minority of women still under his control will then shun the majority. Thus, modesty may become a scandal.

To avoid the typical confusion caused by equivocation, which so plagues modern disputation, these are the definitions of scandal as used in this article:

  • (theology) Religious discredit; an act or behaviour which brings a religion into discredit.
  • (theology) Something which hinders acceptance of religious ideas or behaviour; a stumbling-block or offense.


But does this discredit the insistence that one must dress to promote the dignity of one's own personhood and that of others? Is vigilance of dress necessarily a sign of obsession with sex? Does the wish to be modest constitute a wish to be better than other women? Are strict people necessarily strange or unkind?

Regarding the fourth question: a
very dear girl of mine was almost in tears on the phone with me the other day claiming that when she admonished her friends for wearing derrière-revealing shorts, they snapped back that she was getting to be, well, like me in her ideas. Ouch, though I must say that of the past sins which come to hang over my bed at night, one of the heaviest is that I was not charitable enough as a teenager. My words had always been too uncompromising and undiplomatic, and my appearance reinstated them forcefully.

For many of my peers, my Bohemian frumpiness must have made them conceive of modesty as something grotesquely out of fashion, and the 'sacks' I affected indicated a sort of perpetual penance for having a woman's body. Looking back through old photos, I now see those girls had as bad a sense of fashion as I had, but I still shiver a bit thinking that a little more open-mindedness on my part might have helped them to choose a different path from the bikini-clad one they have taken.

So extreme dogmatists, and clothing makers such as these, do occasionally scandalize a woman so much that she gives up the fight and takes sides with the world.

But was the scandal given or taken? One may be too hard on a person for any number of vices, from dishonesty to lack of hygiene. This would still not excuse the wearied soul from failure. Also, how often does one encounter prudes so truly brutal that they taint their cause by association? As Alice Von Hildebrand wrote to Christopher West, where are these rabid puritans that humanists must so staunchly oppose? How many people are actually blackening their bathwater with coal to obscure their bodies and how many women are strapping down their bosoms to make them less noticeable? A very neglible minority, if any at all. Such extremities are obsolete.

It might also be mentioned, hopefully without being ad hominem, that those who are less strict are hardly often more kind. I stumbled across an article with the intriguing title 'How to Be Immodest About Modesty' over at the National Catholic Register, but was quickly disappointed with the writer's lack of charity and as she attacked the lovely Colleen Hammond, referred to those who disagreed with her as 'cretins', and even said she would like to smack those whom she considers evil puritans upside the head. As she gave no indication of what she thinks is appropriate attire, I have no idea if I would fall into her camp or not. Rather not, I don't much care for people that write professionally and cannot be professional. So speaking as one who has been treated as a pariah for wearing a chapel veil, I can say non-traditionalists, leftists, and sceptics can be pretty darn, mean people, too.

Regarding the third query--the suspicion of self-righteousness which is so often attached to the woman purporting to dress with dignity. This case simply varies according to the individual, for a woman who adopts modesty hardly need be a Pharisee. There are few dictums more tedious from the 'tolerant' crowd than 'do not judge,' especially when it is used to promote abdication of one's judgement. Those that employ it are often either absent-mindedly or deliberately equivocating. Consider the definition of 'judge':

  • To form an opinion or estimation of after careful consideration: judge heights; judging character.
  • a. Law: To hear and decide on in a court of law; try: judge a case. b. Obsolete: To pass sentence on; condemn. c. To act as one appointed to decide the winners of: judge an essay contest.
  • To determine or declare after consideration or deliberation.
  • Informal To have as an opinion or assumption; suppose: I judge you're right.
  • Bible: To govern; rule. Used of an ancient Israelite leader.

One can carry out the first definition of judging without sinning. It is the sense which is ironically listed as 'obsolete' that is referred to in that favoured proverb of the sceptic. If one sees someone regularly steal, then one has seen a thief. Such a rational pronouncement is not only allowed, it is logically unavoidable. However, one does not have the further right to pronounce on the state of that person's soul and certainly no right to say that he is better than that soul.

So it is true that a modest woman may not have as much charitable love in her heart as a woman who happens to be revealing her cleavage in church. Perhaps the former has had a more thorough upbringing, which makes her aware of the harm immodesty does, whereas the other lady has not the slightest notion. We cannot then say which lady is the better person, but at least the woman with more clothes on is in no danger of injuring the priest's peace of mind at Holy Communion. That, too, is a form of charity that cannot be ignored.

Working back to the second question, which is often hurled at Catholics in particular, namely: doesn't stress on modesty and chastity only indicate that one is obsessed with sex? This question is more difficult than it would appear. People that express outrage over an obscene billboard sometimes need to be reminded not to describe it in detail. Those giving talks on chastity ought to not to go into things so explicitly that they create an occasion of sin.

As St. Ignatius observed, lust is the once vice which one cannot dissect, but one must flee. However, many souls, usually teenagers, think they can rationalize an inclination and push it away by discussing it. Such may be true of pride, envy, anger, covetousness, sloth, and gluttony, but it is not true of lust. Thus, the admixture of devotion to chastity and morbid fascination with sin cannot last long. One inclination will win out. Girls that talked too much of how alluring their bodies could be in certain garments are either wearing short shorts and bikinis now, or they have learned to dwell on higher things.

That said, teachers, parents, and independent women do have a duty to consider how to avoid occasions of sin and to help others do so. Men have a straightforward duty. As fathers, they shake their heads when their daughters want to buy or wear something that will compromise them. As priests, they may sermonize generally or simply tell the bridesmaid with the shoulderless gown that inside the church, a bolero is required. As men, they can just say, 'Please don't wear those jeans again.' There is no need for men to become hyperaware of women's clothing to promote dignity in dress.

Women however sometimes need to understand the reasons why certain things are not allowed, especially when in of themselves, they do not reveal much. This is where clothing history and understanding the motivation of fashion designers is important, and writers such as Colleen Hammond are very helpful in presenting a lucid account of how the modern age's standards came to be, which parts are not acceptable, why, and what to do about it. Such a rational approach hardly indicates an unhealthy fixation.

Coming back to the first question, have the failures of those promoting modesty discredited modesty? Hardly. The only times that people who love holiness fail is when they concentrate on hating evil instead. While it is necessary to hate evil in some particular cases, it is poisonous to absorb into one's general outlook. It will undoubtedly breed Manichaeism or other forms of injurious dualism.

Whichever virtue or virtuous act is promoted, it must be done for love of the thing. If this love is kept in mind, then no scandal shall arise. Let this then be the thought of those who would promote modesty:

Considering your chaste conversation with fear. Whose adorning let it not be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel: But the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and a meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God. For after this manner heretofore the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves... (I Peter 3:2-5)

True beauty from within will bloom without.


Catriona said...

I liked the first link, Rachela. ;) I will have check out Collen Hammond. Although she sounds familiar, I'm not sure I remember anything from that little book, or if it's the one I'm remembering. I have found the easiest way to maintain modesty is to think in terms of Charity towards the guys I love. Growing up with all the boys and seeing the struggle firsthand, has made me acutely aware of modesty or the lack thereof. I know what things looks nice versus what things look hot. No matter if the latter holds up to any objective measurement standards. "Hot" is going to trouble those trying to maintain chastity.
I'm sure I have standards that would cause some to cry "prude!" However, since it is the peace of mind of a man or men I love at stake, it's a small price for any woman. Sorry to hear about your friend's experience.
I always enjoy reading your posts. They get me thinking! Miss you!

Jacobitess said...

Haha, I thought you'd love the first link! Don't spend too much money just because those sleeves are to die for! Miss you, too!

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