Fashion and Dignity

Spring is here—Alleluia! I’ve been waiting for warmer weather like a little kid waits for Christmas morning, gleefully counting down the days. It happens every year—just when I can’t stand the gloom any longer, the sun comes out for 25 seconds and the temperature shoots up by 10 degrees and my spirits soar. And every year the current fashions slap me right back down to earth again. Whether it’s the uber-short shorts, strapless tops, or painted-on pants, every year I think it can’t get any worse, but I’m wrong. It can get worse—they’re not naked yet! And it makes a gal like me sit back and think about this whole question of modesty in dress.

Last year I read the book Dressing with Dignity by Colleen Hammond, and the book startled me. Over the years I had begun to acquire what I will call “borderline” fashions—bits and bobs of apparel that weren’t exactly immodest, but also didn’t “fit” me quite right. They were slightly too low or high, slightly too tight or too transparent. Not like I was walking around half-naked, mind you, but the clothes weren’t doing me any moral favours. And it’s a slippery slope once you put that toe over the line. Inevitably I was uncomfortable wearing said apparel—that should have been my biggest clue—and I found myself fighting my own conscience to wear the offending pieces (telling myself I paid such-and-such for this item, I better wear it at least once every year, or explaining to myself that it’s not THAT short, etc.). Then when I did wear them, I spent the day in adjustments. Pulling up, pulling down, keeping covered what I preferred to keep hidden, etc. You get the drift. If I had been truly honest with myself from the beginning, I would have just ditched the silly pieces altogether and been much more comfortable.

But I’m not going to lie to you. I like fashion. Okay, I just lied. I LOVE fashion. I have been known to nonchalantly loiter by magazine stands and comb websites to critique the latest styles and add my two cents—in my head of course—and then subtly put the ideas into action. So it’s difficult, when one only has oneself as guide and judge, to swim against the rip tide of the fashion world and keep to a certain standard of chastity in dress. It’s helpful to have a husband to help critique, but even then—the hooch-factor worms it’s way in.

After reading Mrs. Hammond’s book, I began to be more honest and up front with myself in my manner of dressing. I asked myself a few hard questions. If I am serious about living a saintly life, if I am honestly striving to love God fully and follow his will for my life, why am I walking the line of un-chastity in dress? Why am I telling myself over and over that something I’m wearing is okay, when my conscience is telling me otherwise? And why do I tell myself that God doesn’t care about what I wear, when what I wear clearly affects those around me? He must care about that.

God definitely cares about that. A couple months after reading Dressing with Dignity, I found myself on a hot summer evening in the adoration chapel for my weekly hour. I had forgotten about my scheduled time and at the last minute went running out the door wearing whatever I had had on during the day. My apparel came up in my prayer time, and I distinctly became aware of the fact that my attire—a tank top and knee length shorts—was not appropriate for the adoration chapel, nor for church in general. It occurred to me that most churches in Europe would not have allowed me entrance wearing this, and that was enough for me to get serious about it all.

Since whole books have been written on the subject, I won’t sport with your intelligence by doing a thorough analysis of the human body and modesty here—it’s been done much better than I could ever do it. I will merely share with you one of my favourite quotes, which has come up over and over again for me. Alice von Hildebrand said that ever since Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden, “it has been a sign of respectability and distinction to have clothing totally veiling our bodies—especially the female body. Why? Because anything that is precious, mysterious, and sacred is hidden from view. It is veiled.”

We don’t veil our bodies because we’re afraid of them. We veil them because of the great dignity that is contained within them as sacred, precious and mysterious temples of the Holy Spirit. The dignity contained within them is a dignity that is beyond our very selves because this body is a gift to me, on loan as it were while I’m here on earth and given to me by my Heavenly Father. These arms and legs and brain house my immortal soul and I don’t actually have the right to do absolutely anything I want to do with it, but am called rather to take care of it; respecting the body’s needs by providing proper nourishment, hygiene, exercise, and covering. I believe it was St. Francis who, after years of severe penances, bemoaned the fact that he treated his body so harshly.

Yet I think Francis would roll over in his grave if he saw the scraps of cloth that pass for fashion these days and would definitely agree that the body is being disrespected in the wearing of them. So in light of all this, shortly after my adoration chapel revelation I put together a few pointers to help curb my appetites when I was out and about in the world.

  • Pray, ponder and study.

Form your conscience well. Listen to it. Find out what the Church says about modesty, about living the moral life, and then do it. Start with scripture, the Catechism, and Catholic book lists. Check online—there are a hundred and one Catholic fashion bloggers that post interesting articles and links about this topic. Fortunately (or unfortunately—however you view it) the Church doesn’t give you ex-cathedra guidelines about the length of hemlines and necklines. That’s where prayer comes in. At the risk of over-spiritualizing the whole thing, I think prayer is an excellent way to go about re-moralizing your wardrobe. Ask the Lord to enlighten you regarding the articles currently hanging in your closet, as well as the ones you’re interested in buying.h

  • Cull like your life depended on it.

That’s right—throw the crap out. This might hurt—okay, maybe it only hurt me, but I’m much happier now that I don’t have to guilt myself into wearing things I didn’t really want to wear in the first place and shouldn’t have bought.

  • Practice mindful shopping.

While you’re adding new pieces to your wardrobe to replace what you’ve thrown away, be mindful of what you’re bringing in. Pray before you shop for clothes—short prayers like “Lord, please help me to glorify you with my body. Lead me to the fashions you wish me to wear,” or something like that. You might be shocked to find that a good percentage of current fashions are completely un-wearable for those striving for sainthood, but the good news is that they are always changing. Wait a few weeks and see what else comes out. There have also been a number of online stores pop up that cater to the modesty-minded with stylish yet decent numbers. (I just bought me a beauty of a bathing suit online!) Or heck, make your own clothes if you’re so inclined (and talented).

I’m no expert in all this; in fact I am very much a work in progress, but I am working towards a fashionable modesty, and growing closer to the Lord in the meantime. The more I pay attention to dressing modestly and forming my conscience with the dignity of the body in mind, the more that desire to “walk the line” disappears and I am free to be comfortable with my hemlines. It’s not the easiest of jobs to scrutinize everything you own, but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that it’s well worth the time, energy, and attention you take to do it. That, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun to shop for replacements.