1890, a young teacher named Fay Fuller scandalized Tacoma,
Washington society by climbing Mount Tacoma. They didn't object to the climb itself so
much as to what she wore for the ascent — a long skirt with ankle-length
bloomers underneath, which was apparently considered brazenly immodest at the
time. In the early 20th
century, a young George Burns used to stand on a street corner with his
friends, hoping to catch a glimpse of women's ankles as they stepped onto the
how do we judge things like this? When
the norm was that women's skirts covered the ankles, were the women with
mid-shin hemlines dressed immodestly?
What about the first woman who exposed an elbow in polite society?
fundamental question is this: is there one standard for what exactly
constitutes modest dress, applicable to every woman in every generation? Or is it possible that, while the need for
modesty remains eternally, the exact description of modest attire can vary
between cultures and between generations?
voting for the latter.
know there are plenty of people who disagree with me – people who believe that
since morality is not subjective, therefore the concrete description of modest
clothing couldn't possibly change either.
I admire those people for their commitment to honoring Christ through
modest attire. But I respectfully
disagree with them on this point.
my problem: take the way a hyper-modest 21st century woman might
dress. Her hemline would most certainly
fall below her knee. But would it reach
the floor? Her shoulders would be
covered. But what about her elbows? Her wrists?
Very few people (outside the Muslim world) today would argue that a
woman's ankles must be covered in order to conform to the universal standards
of Christian modesty. And yet, that
hyper-modest woman with her exposed ankles would have caused a major commotion
in the 19th century. Would a
woman have been morally justified prancing around church in a shin-length skirt
– even though it was considered wildly scandalous – because it was within the
"unchanging standards of Christian modesty"?
I doubt the clergy of the time would have thought so.
JPII is my "go-to" guy on issues of modesty.
And, in Love and Responsibility, he says about modesty, "The principle is simple and obvious, but its
application in specific cases depends upon the individual, the milieu, the
society." JPII's "obvious" principle, as
we discussed last time, is this: "What is truly immodest in dress is that which
frankly contributes to the deliberate displacement of the true value of the
person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person
as to a ‘possible means of obtaining sexual enjoyment' and not ‘a possible
object of love by reason of his or her personal value.'"
yes, the application of the principle can vary.
Men who were never exposed to female ankles were apparently more
inclined to react sexually to those ankles then are men who are frequently
exposed to a whole lot of other female parts.
And thus it could conceivably have been construed as genuinely immodest
behavior to expose those ankles at the time for the purpose of scandalizing
those present. In different societies,
different men are accustomed to seeing different levels of female exposure. So the principle doesn't change, but the
concrete application does.
that JPII also said that differentiation can exist between cultures and even
between individuals. Let's face it –
flat chicks can look perfectly modest in clothing that would be wildly immodest
on our better-endowed sisters.
standards of modesty can also vary by occasion.
Don't believe me? Picture a very
modest woman's bathing suit. It's a one
piece with a little skirt and a high neckline.
Not turning a single head at the beach.
But now imagine wearing that same bathing suit to church. Feeling a little out of place? Of course you would. Even JPII says " . . .there is nothing
immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it
in the street or when out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of
modesty." (Note: I'm not
saying that all bathing suits are modest.
Only that even a modest bathing suit could be considered immodest in
if there's no list of approved clothing we can refer to, how do we know when
we're dressed modestly?
first of all there's your gut. Not
whether it's hanging out or not (although we're all grateful when it
doesn't.) What does your gut tell you
when you look in the mirror? Where is
the attention drawn? To your person or
your parts? Is your true value "frankly
displaced" by the display of your sexual value?
think about the setting you'll be in.
How will everyone else be dressed?
Does what you're wearing expose more than what is expected in that
situation? (Think "bathing suit in
Third, when in
doubt, I've always been in favor of consulting good men. They should preferably not be men you're dating (because of the greater likelihood of the
"frank displacement.") They should be
men of high moral character. Brothers
can be helpful, as can good guy friends.
reminded that, in saying that the specifics of modesty may change between
generations and between individuals, I'm not in any way dismissing or minimizing
the need for modesty. At Fatima, Our Lady said "Certain fashions will be
introduced that will offend our Lord very much." We don't have to look too far to see what she
was talking about. Women "show off their
assets" because they like the attention, because they think it makes them more
attractive to men.
But, in my
experience, good men may be momentarily distracted by a blatant display of body
parts. But the women who intrigue them,
the women they want to get to know, the women they want to love and marry and
protect – they're the women who aren't "letting it all hang out." They're the women who are concealing the
blatant sexual values – in order to reveal the deeper, interpersonal values.
I'd rather be
one of those women.