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While the annual wedding issue of Family Foundations is often one of the most enjoyable ones to put together, it also brings the completely unenjoyable search for photos of wedding dresses that do not offend anyone.

After many years of doing this, I’m still batting zero on this one, because every issue has prompted at least one email, phone call or letter about a supposedly immodest dress.

This year – after numerous consultations with staff, board members (including clergy), couples in our target audience (20- and 30-somethings) – we took a deep breath and chose a cover photo in which the bride is wearing a strapless gown. As we do not have the funds to spend hundreds of dollars to create our own photo or to use stock photography, we have relied on images graciously shared with us by our members.

We put out the call to our volunteers to send in photos for us to consider, and tapped a few other sources. While we did get a few images with dresses that were not strapless, by far the majority of them were.

Our ideal image for the cover is a beautiful snapshot that captures the unique joy of the moment, that initial wonder and awe of the couple over actually now being man and wife.

This year’s image (right) clearly does that, and I love the warm interaction between this couple. (Editor’s Note: Paul and Regina met on CatholicMatch and shared their courtship story via video here. We asked Regina to write about her decision to wear a strapless wedding dress, and her response is here.) 

But I am sure we will draw the criticism of some readers who believe such a dress is always and without exception immodest. From what I can tell, such readers seem to be a small minority. The vast majority of those we consulted – nearly 95 percent – did not believe there was anything wrong with the dress on our cover bride.

 

A unique perspective this year

Out of all of the years I have helped produce this annual issue, I am in a unique position this year because my own daughter recently wed and … yes, she too wore a strapless gown. Part of me is surprised by this, as I told myself for years that no daughter of mine would do such a thing. But I also found my thoughts subtlety changing in ways I didn’t anticipate.

For the record, we raised our daughter to dress modestly, and only rarely had to step in and direct her to other clothing choices. I do remember taking a stand against strapless dresses for dances in high school, as we didn’t think that was appropriate, and we sort of settled into the guideline that if an outfit needed anything other than a standard bra (i.e., strapless, halter, etc.) it was to be avoided. She is now 26-years-old, and I am regularly impressed at how polished, classy, and nicely she dresses. Going beyond clothes, in her mannerisms and the way she carries and expresses herself, Michelle is respectful, mature and refined. This is not an immodest girl.

Despite this, she saw no reason to rule out all strapless gowns and doesn’t view them as automatically immodest. She tried on several styles, and her goal was finding a dress in which she felt beautiful, period.

I watched her put on dress after dress, and to be honest I thought she looked great in every one, but the minute she put on the one she ultimately chose, there was an immediate reaction. She just glowed, and turned right to me with a cautious smile and wanted to know if I thought Mike would like it. Not, will this impress my guests…or does this make me look thin…but, will I look beautiful to Mike?

There is much not to like about the TLC show “Say Yes to the Dress,” but if you’ve ever watched it you have seen that almost every bride has an emotional reaction to the dress that they ultimately select. So I was a little surprised to see this actually happen with Michelle. Once she had that dress on, that was it. She fell in love with it because she felt beautiful wearing it. She felt lovely. Feminine. Womanly.

Like a bride.

It occurred to me that while I didn’t want her wearing strapless dresses as an unattached teenager, I surprisingly did not feel the same way as she dressed for her groom. As a teen we warned her about the sometimes unintended messages her clothing choices could send, but as a bride, I saw her dress reveal her femininity and womanliness in what seemed to me to be all the right contexts.

We have been very proud of how Mike and Michelle have handled their relationship, and were more than ready to see them finally become husband and wife. A wedding does, after all, celebrate all the goodness of marital love; dare I say it, even sexuality as God designed it.

 

Art exhibit insights

Because the whole question of what constitutes a modest wedding dress comes up every year as we compile our January-February issue, I was very intrigued last year when the Cincinnati Museum of Art featured an exhibit of wedding dresses through the years. I found it fascinating because, while I hear the complaints about today’s trend of strapless wedding gowns, after seeing this exhibit I think those who view strapless gowns as immodest wouldn’t necessarily be happy about dresses from decades ago either.

The exhibit featured dresses from just about every decade back to the mid 1800s, and while many of them were a bit more covered than today’s strapless styles, gowns have long been designed to highlight the woman’s femininity. There were dresses from the 1920s and 1930s that completely covered the woman, but with material that was extremely clingy and revealing, precisely to accentuate the womanly figure. Dresses from the era of England’s Queen Victoria followed her preference for a very low-cut bodice with the bosom practically spilling out. Then there was the trend of shortening the hem to show the ankle, precisely because it was considered alluring.

Something else that intrigued me was the tendency to decorate wedding gowns with orange blossoms, which symbolized fertility. And I began to view wedding gowns in a broader context than the narrow confines of what some consider modest.

And then there was the wedding last year of Prince William and Kate Middleton, whose gown was probably the most anticipated wedding dress since that of William’s mother, Princess Diana. It was indeed lovely, but then I saw it: a blog post by a conservative Catholic women who praised Kate for her modest dress, given its covered shoulders, long sleeves, and traditional feel. She triumphantly expressed that she hoped this dress would helped bring sense back into current wedding gown styles.

Really, I thought?!

Even though this supposedly modest dress was worn by a woman who had been living with William out of wedlock for years? It really struck me then that a conservatively styled dress is not necessarily the magic bullet that some would want us to believe, and that true modesty involves much, much more than hemlines and the cut of a bodice.

I realize there is a range of opinions on this, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

Written by Ann Gunlach

 

This essay was originally published by the Couple to Couple League on “The Art of Natural Family Planning” blog. It is republished here with permission.

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17 Comments

  1. Myriam-344031 May 1, 2012

    Hi everybody,
    First of all these two ladies look beautiful in their strapless wedding dresses.
    I don’t see anything wrong with that and the long beautiful veils cover them.
    I have a dream that when I get married I will wear a beautiful strapless wedding dress and long veil like them.
    I think the most important is that it’s the bride’s day (usually we dream of this day since we are little girls) and that they look very happy.

    • Elizabeth H. May 2, 2012

      “I think the most important is that it’s the bride’s day . . . .and that they look very happy.”

      I can definitely sympathize with wanting to be a glowing bride. But shouldn’t a wedding reflect the goals of married life? Is it really all about the bride? Or is it about spouses sacrificing themselves, a daily commitment to putting your partner first, and being a good servant/host to your well-wishing guests?

  2. Caitlin M. May 2, 2012

    I agree with your points and think this is an insightful article. I also agree that the cut of dress is not the only important factor in determining someone’s modesty and that living together before marriage clearly is well beyond “immodest”. However, I would like to say that one thing I found distasteful around Kate Middleton’s wedding was how many people took shots at her about living with William beforehand. Not that it’s ok. But shouldn’t we be glad when a couple who have been living in sin decide to legitimize their relationship? Just saying, if a wedding day isn’t a day for judging a woman on her dress, I don’t really think it’s the day for judging her on her other moral failings either, but rather a day to hope for a new start in a more blessed state of being.

  3. Nicole-189087 May 2, 2012

    It sounds like there is a lot of rationalization going on. First, I must say the brides do, in fact, look beautiful. That’s not the question. This is about what is appropriate in the eyes of God and His Church. I could rationalize that I have long hair that covers my shoulders, so would it be appropriate for me to wear a “tube top” in Church? Not likely. Many people will say a strapless bridal dress is appropriate, but some also say shorts, halter tops, strapless sundresses and flip flops are appropriate for Mass – as long as people are attending Mass, isn’t that what matters? I don’t agree. I believe that you should arrive at the altar to meet your groom, and your Lord, in appropriate attire. And if you find a strapless gown appropriate, then wear a lace cover-up for the Church. If you were meeting the Queen of England, I’m doubtful you would show up in something that would not be respectful of her title. As such, due respect should be afforded our Lord on the Altar. After all, He is our King.

    • Elizabeth H. May 2, 2012

      Just to illustrate your point. This is hilarious.

      http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/2012/02/21/strapless/

    • Allison-565208 May 2, 2012

      I agree with Nicole – LOTS of rationalization going on here…

      The majority of guys would say that any strapless dress is immodest. Period.

      See the following link where 1,600 Christian men were surveyed about women’s dress and what does or doesn’t lead them to sin:
      http://www.therebelution.com/modestysurvey/browse

      • Jonathan D. May 3, 2012

        Amen Nicole and Allison!

        82.7% of Christian men would not agree that a strapless dress is modest, and the fact that it’s at a wedding makes NO difference. Actually, weddings are usually worse.
        http://www.therebelution.com/modestysurvey/browse_99

        This article wouldn’t have been written unless someone was looking to justify her dress. That should speak loudly enough alone.

        The Truth is that modesty begins in the heart, but is REFLECTED in your clothing. So when Ann says, “true modesty involves much, much more than hemlines and the cut of a bodice.” That’s only HALF true. It’s heart AND hemlines, not heart OR hemlines.

        If 1323 out of 1600 Christian men wouldn’t say that your dress is modest… then just imagine what the AVERAGE male population would say…

  4. Elizabeth H. May 2, 2012

    I agree with the author that modesty is too nuanced to be defined by a neckline litmus test. (Obviously, some dresses with sleeves are more revealing than some strapless dresses, etc.). But I don’t think mere skin exposure is the real issue here. It’s more a dignity (or dare I say professionalism?) issue. If I am getting married in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, that should have ramifications for my outfit. I have modest shorts and a t-shirt, but I wouldn’t wear them to meet the president or the pope. I wouldn’t wear a strapless outfit to a job interview. For the same reasons I won’t wear anything strapless before the altar.

    I had a friend who NEVER wore even a tank-top without a tee underneath. But she married in a strapless gown. I couldn’t understand that. But I digress . . .

    P.S. Even with “modest” strapless dresses, ladies still end up looking naked in head-shots or when standing behind a podium. Can’t get around that.

  5. Elizabeth H. May 2, 2012

    P.S. 2: Just another observation: A stark color contrast naturally draws the eye. Strapless dresses don’t highlight the face so much as draw the gaze to the bosom line because of the contrast between the fabric and skin colors.

  6. Jean S. May 3, 2012

    My friend wore a little lace coat over her strapless wedding gown (which made it look similar to Kate Middleton’s), in reverence at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; then she took the coat off for the wedding dinner.

  7. Marcia C. May 22, 2012

    I watched “Say Yes to the Dress” on TLC about a year ago. The bride was getting married in church in Italy. She told the bridal consultant ,”The dress can’t be strapless, in fact it must have sleeves”. They found a beautiful dress that had a little capped sleeve lace shrug. The bride’s mother said,”i told you it is not impossible to find a modest dress. If more women would ask for them,the designers would make more.”
    I watched a priest on TV said that he gives couples seeking to have a church wedding a booklet as to what modest in clothing means, no dancing down the aisle,what types of music can be played in church, so there at no surprises on the day that should be the day of your life.
    Ever hear the song “We Are Standing on Holy Ground”? Where else can you be any closer to God than in His House He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and we should all take an example from ore fellow Christians of the African American race. They wear their very best to go to praise the Lord. No shorts, halters, jeans or t-shirts there, none at the Evangelicals churches either. Why can’t we Catholics do the same?

  8. Theresa S. June 13, 2012

    Beautiful comments! Where are our standards? What about prayerfully discerning how Jesus and Mary would like us to dress? I read in Family Foundations a beautiful article years ago from a woman who’s loving husband educated her on what turns a guy on: bare limbs. It helped me to have humility and recognize the truth and cover my shoulders ever since (for the record, I don’t dress frumpy!). I tell my own precious 4 daughters and 3 sons: there are parts of our bodies that only God and your spouse should see. We can’t look to Hollywood or Queen Victoria for modesty standards. “Dressing with Modesty” by Colleen Hammond is well-researched book that has changed my life, and many others, for the better in helping us to live for God and others even in the way we dress. God love you all!

  9. Rhonda B. June 14, 2012

    My daughter wore a strapless wedding dress but at the Church, during the wedding Mass, she wore a lace jacket with capped sleeves – she and it looked absolutely beautiful!

  10. Leah-75135 June 15, 2012

    How do we find out about submitting a wedding photo for consideration in next year’s wedding issue of Family Foundations?

  11. Melissa-401579 December 4, 2013

    A priest explained to me that having a veil with a strapless dress was contradictory. A veil is a covering that is supposed to show the woman as a mystery…he also said that this was in the context of the holy mass ceremony. Wearing a jacket over it during mass is an option. After mass at the reception is fine to have strapless and celebrate as you wish. But the idea is to remember the modesty of the mass and how God should be made visible through the bride and groom who actually become the sacraments during the wedding. We tend to make the wedding too much about the bride and the dress, and a runway show… and in a catholic mass, it’s always about Christ first. I personally hate seeing the wedding photos with the shoulders exposed and the dress cut off in the picture. The bride looks naked. No one wants to see your cleavage or shoulders or you back at mass… save it for the reception and the honeymoon.

  12. Joan-529855 January 4, 2014

    Just got back from a CATHOLIC wedding in which the bride wore a strapless gown, AGAIN!! My daughter works at a venue that has multiple weddings each weekend and she said so many times that strapless gown ends up showing way more than the bride intended. I have a friend who is a wedding photographer and she ABHORES strapless gowns….way too many wardrobe malfunctions.
    My daughters friends are mostly LDS and they are not allowed to “bare” there shoulders. The dresses these girls wear are so darling!! My daughter wore a strapless gown to prom because we seriously couldn’t find anything else, but she wore a jacket over it. The following year we started our search for a prom dress a earlier, not to be disappointed, and we found GORGEOUS dresses online and through mail order.
    I agree with the priest that said the strapless dress is contradictory.
    I was really hoping that Kate Middleton had set a new standard and we would FINALLY see the return of modest wedding gowns. Don’t even get me started on the immodesty of the dresses on the TEN bridesmaids. They looked more like TEN prostitutes!! Again, my daughter was a bridesmaid for a LDS wedding and she wore the cutest skirt with top. She didn’t have to worry about bending over either.

  13. Maria-724478 February 3, 2014

    Oh good grief…some of these comments are ridiculous. “Rationalization”? The author was “justifying a dress”? SMH…when you start paying for a bride’s gown and wedding, you are then entitled to input on her choice of gown. A bride should choose a dress in which she feels feminine and comfortable, and one that adheres to the guidelines set by the parish in which she will be married…as long as her Church deems it acceptable, and she feels that she’s concealed appropriately, everyone else’s opinion is irrelevant. You don’t like strapless dresses? Fine, DON’T WEAR ONE–but don’t judge another woman who chooses to do so. Honestly, it’s interesting to me that these gowns are being denounced for drawing attention to the bosom area–yet none of the brides in these photographs are revealing any type of cleavage or bosom at all. These “rules” determining which necklines are “appropriate” and “respectful” enough for God are matters of man-made opinion rather than directly scripture-based…in actuality, devout Catholics DO attend Mass with their shoulders visible in other (warmer climate) parts of the world, it is considered perfectly acceptable in many places. To date, I have yet to encounter a man claiming he was lured into impurity and sin by the sight of an upper arm…perhaps all that judgmental and self-righteous energy could be better used by investing it into praying for these brides in their new marriages, asking the Lord to bless them with long, healthy and faith-centered unions. And for the record, YES I am a bride-to-be; and NO, I did not choose a strapless dress for my nuptials, I personally preferred a more conservative neckline. But I certainly would never go around judging other brides’ preferences or labeling them as “immodest” or “disrespectful” to our Lord.

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