Modesty in the 21st Century


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
another setting.) 

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.

Please be
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.



  1. Merrilee M. October 5, 2016 Reply

    Consider the example of Adam and Eve

    After they sinned, they made “coverings” for themselves:

    Genesis 3:7-10
    In the original Hebrew, the word “coverings” is from CHAGORAH, meaning a garment which covers the mid-section. This describes what most men typically wear at a public swimming pool. Note that, despite such coverings, they still felt naked!

    The Lord made “tunics” for them:

    Genesis 3:21
    In the original Hebrew, the word “tunics” is from KETHONETH, a robe or coat-like garment commonly reaching from about the neck to the knees. Evidently, God was not satisfied with the brevity of the coverings they had made. Note how this word is used in the book of Exodus and its context:

    Exodus 28:40-42
    2. Consider general references to nakedness

    Genesis 9:22, 23
    Leviticus 18:6-19, 20:17-21
    Nahum 3:5
    Revelation 3:18

  2. Merrilee M. October 5, 2016 Reply

    If culture dictates morality and what should be the standard for dress, we are on a slippery slope. I think it is better to consult God’s word, for He is our Rock, and His ways are higher than our ways. Ask yourself this question: If God said that in the last days men and women would be living as in the days of Noah, how would our modern dress reflect this departure from true Godliness? I believe we do need to evaluate what God may trying to tell us and getting back to what would glorify Him. Otherwise, you can call it whatever you want, “modesty” “simplicity” or what not, and it is simply the tyrant fashion and culture that is answering you back. Do a study in the Bible on the subject of nakedness and see what comes up. Better to be on God’s side than on the side of Satan and his minions who are the experts on the art of creeping compromise!

  3. Marecil-74677 January 24, 2009 Reply

    My prudent and holy friend told me before how to shop for a dress. Until now I am following her advice and it helps me a lot. How? Always ask oneself this question– If Our Lady is living nowadays, will she wear this dress? If yes, go for it. Our LAdy is the model of everything and I think including fashion 🙂

  4. Diana-286996 September 3, 2008 Reply

    How true! I remember growing up and not worrying about the clothes and trying to look older, but on bright colors and textures 😛 Now kids are worried about the mini skirts, the tiny tops and high heels, makeup, etc.–all things they see on TV, magazines, etc. Sadly, everything is sexualized, poisoning our youth little by little. And we do have responsibility, by buying those clothes ourselves, or prefering/oggling women who do…!
    I know, it's a daily challenge between the potato sack and the now-visible th*ng. But truth be said, you can still look great and modest at the same time 😉

    • Merrilee M. October 5, 2016 Reply

      I agree. Yes, we can be modest and not look like a sack of potatoes. God is a lover of beauty! Just look at the flowers and the sunsets. Culture dictates all too much about what we are wearing, and if you aren’t noticing, the people designing these fashions are not godly people. They have their own hidden agenda to mold society after their own shameless beliefs. If it is God that we are intent to be pleasing, we will be inclined to ask ourselves, “What kind of attention do I really want drawn to myself and what is my bait?” If we want our future husband(s) to drawn to us by the externals alone, then we may find ourselves attracting the wrong kind of man, the kind of man that will leave us for an updated model, but if we would attract by the unconscious inner qualities of grace and virtue alone drawn from Christ living in us, a godly husband can only come by way of God’s leading him to where we are and showing him that we stand out in character. He will say to himself, “Here is a woman that is living after God’s own heart! Here is my soul mate!”

  5. Dan-362770 August 25, 2008 Reply

    You're right Randy. I'm glad to see that you are looking out for your daughter. There is a lot of moral relativism out there, and we can make a difference, as far as helping to persuade one person at a time. 🙂

  6. Randy-312891 August 20, 2008 Reply

    Beautiful article. I'm on the same level as Dan. I have a teenage daughter whose mother happens to think that the way the girls dress is "cute" and another I hear is "all her friends are" What are we sheep??? We are told to pick our battles, this is one I'm willing to fight for. To many moral compasses are pointing the wrong direction.

  7. Dan-362770 August 18, 2008 Reply

    At different youth groups where I volunteer, I tell my kids that if you can see down it, up it, or through it, it isn't appropriate. It is a sad state of affairs when you go to a mall, and all clothes are sold in this fashion. I tell all the young men to not contribute to this problem by objectifying women as well.

  8. Karen-144865 July 22, 2008 Reply

    Wow, it means even more now that we are in the thros of summer. What one sees on the streets & on public transportation! At least the stomachs are covered with lowered knee length hemlines but what is up with those super thin high heels and short skirts? Also, it is against the law in California for guys to wear the boxers and saggy pants. Bout time!

  9. Maria-346479 July 13, 2008 Reply

    Hi Mary ! Is summer !I watched today The Ingalls Family I watched this when Iwas inelementary school but now im grown up as you!and I thought what important is still modesty even though is hard to avoid for some of us in this century! everething can happen! but Ibelieve always will exist modesty in a woman in or out of where we are!so I related with the comments that you also have written!Hope this comment helps for more womens as you and :wave:and me!

  10. Mary-300252 July 8, 2008 Reply

    Hi Mary Beth,
    This is the first of your posts I have read…but thought it was very well expressed… makes me want to read more. I love the flow of your hearts thoughts… expressions of your inner prayers…. filled with common sense! We need more of this!
    God Bless…keep up the good work!

  11. James-141787 July 5, 2008 Reply

    C'mon Marybeth. Do you need to keep writing the same article over and over again? Your comments on surviving the challenges of single life are helpful and welcome. On some of these other topics, like annulments, you can assume we got the message the first time. Let's NOT turn everything into a multi-part series for a change.

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