Conversations in Modesty: Fashion Forward

This is the Fourth installment of a five-part series on modesty. For previous articles click here, and here, and here. Check back each day to read the latest.

Continuing these conversations on modesty, let us consider the importance of fashion for women. I have known some who have despised the idea of fashion and its subsequent culture in the name of the Lord. My time serving with NET Ministries introduce a concept of modesty that was not wholly negative. Rather than focusing simply on what not to wear, there was a strong emphasis on the goal of how we, as women, dress. That goal engages the concept of beauty, of femininity, and a modesty which saves the viewing of one’s body for one’s future spouse.

Girl Looking in the Mirror by Alfred Emile Léopold Joseph Victor Stevens

What is beauty? The media presents an extremely narrow view of beauty and this concept changes over time. From the 1920’s boyish figure (made popular by the feminist movement of the time) to the voluptuous 1940’s gal, to the hourglass domestic of the 1950’s, the twiggy 1970’s liberated woman, the stick straight woman from the 2000’s, we’ve seen the gamut in America. If we consider the patterns, we can see the fashions mirror the role of feminism in America. In the 1920’s women fought for social equality, taking greater control of what they could do in public (drinking) and how they approached men, for good or ill (consider seeing The Divorcee, a film staring Norma Shearer, 1930). During the upheavals of the second World War, women experienced a surge of involvement in the work force. Styles, though still skirted, were more masculine, more practical. After the war, fashions demurred as the country sought to return to it’s more stable, predictable way of life and defined roles. In the 1960’s, second-wave feminism fought again for social equality, towards work and sexual liberation. Women’s fashion move beyond dresses and skirts to pants and styles so provocative the 1930’s were put to shame.

Norma Shearer, 1930’s


The Stepford Wives, 1970’s


What does all this mean? Women seek to express themselves in dress and the styles and silhouettes reflect the values of women and the culture at the time. In what way do current values in the culture motivate popular styles?

I argue that as marketing has replaced local community and religion as the driving force of culture, that the fashions and subsequent concept of beauty are primarily driven by profit. When my grandmother was a young mother, she saved a little of her grocery money each month to buy a green coat or a dress she saw in a shop window on the way to work. Now fashions turn over so quickly, this would likely be impossible. In a few months, the object will be gone.

Quick turnover, cheaper quality, endless sales in order to promote greater sales drive a lot of the clothing industry. In order to make products more appealing, super slender models are used, on whom the clothes will hang without difficulty. In advertisements, models are airbrushed and photo-shopped to look more attractive. This, in term, affects the way the consumer sees herself. The goal is to buy this clothing, this make-up, to look good in them, as that woman looks good in them. John B. Watson (famous for his Little Albert experiment) worked in advertising and popularized the use of the seductive woman to sell products. We associate these products with beauty, happiness, pleasure and that method has stuck, shaping the concept of beauty.

Does that mean women should reject it all? No, it does not. Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign seeks to point out the inconsistency many women live with in how they judge their beauty contrasted with how they judge others (Real Beauty Sketches), the process of photo-shopping in ad campaigns (Evolution), and the way women are afraid to call themselves as beautiful (Dove Choose Beautiful).

Healing that concept of beauty will lead to better fashion choices for women. Instead of this:

She can choose this:

or this:

or this:

Aquinas actually makes the point that a person should consider what to wear in a given situation and make the effort to wear it, rather than dismissing it or making a show of his or her detachment from worldly things through visible lack of effort (Summa II-II, 169).

As Christians, we are called in the world, but not of the world. This means spending a bit of time on our appearance. Our bodies communicate a message. Immodest dress communicates: come and get it. Professional dress in an interview communicates: I’m competent and responsible, I care about this. Quiet, modest clothing at a funeral communicates respect for the deceased and the family. Doing one’s hair with some effort (whether simple or elaborate) as a bridesmaid communicates a desire to celebrate and honor the bride. And if one is married, take the time to dress in a way that pleases his or her spouse, as he or she did when they were dating (Aquinas supports this last point).

In the next post, I’ll go out on a limb and write what I believe to be some reasonable standards of modesty as we consider that third goal: saving the view of one’s body for one’s future spouse.

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