Conversations in Modesty: My Personal Approach to Fashion

As an unofficial extra to my series on modesty, here is my personal development in finding my style. Please click the Catholic Church Tab and scroll down to see the official series.

I am not a fashion expert. I only recently dived into the world of dressing on-trend (I bought a blush colored belt, people).

When I was in 5th grade I wore my bangs in a sort of poof in front of one eye because I imagined I looked like this:

I didn’t. I found that out in 6th grade, and 7th, and 8th, and all throughout high school.

In high school, I wore t-shirts from church functions and bought a navy corduroy pea coat. It looks a long time for I discovered how to shop for myself. I eventually started to develop a sort of classic timeless style. I wore black boots, boot cut jeans (but I preferred khakis or trousers to jeans), and my peacoat in the winter. I wore sweaters and really liked that little band of midriff showing above my low-rise jeans.

Serving with NET Ministries, the use of the undershirt was praised for preventing one’s stomach or lower back from showing in public. I found undershirts made for a smoother look overall, like how people use Spanx now but much more comfortable. I enjoyed not worrying about my shirt coming up. I enjoyed not feeling that chill on my lower back or worrying about my pants going too low when I sat.

After NET I continued to seek out a clean, classic style shopping at places like GAP. I enjoyed dressing in ways that made my boyfriend happy. The more feminine the better, in his eyes. A typical Californian, with lots of colors, at least in the warmer months.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI kept it simple: no makeup, always wearing my crucifix. Verbal affirmation from my first and only boyfriend boosted my confidence. I liked how I looked. I felt beautiful. I watched more and more old movies and became less and less influenced by the modern requirements of beauty. In the 2000’s I didn’t even know I was supposed to have stick straight hair. I liked it au natural.

DIGITAL CAMERAEast coast life after marriage challenged my carefree attitude. We struggled financially and I pressured myself to measure up in public. Schoolmates dressed professionally for our graduate classes (unthinkable on the West Coast). I wanted to look more polished on a regular basis. With an introduction to Clinique skincare, I found myself with a free gift bag full of makeup. Time to play.

So at this time, fashion began to become to me what home decor and furniture design were. I enjoyed reading about the styles, watching them change, picking up on the references. Since I was in and out of pregnancy so there was little I could do. It was actually the recovery after my first child that left me without clothes that fit and got me shopping again for a whole new wardrobe.

With the whole new wardrobe came a whole new style. Looser, more flexible clothing became invaluable because it meant I could move up and down in size without needing a new set of shirts. I wanted to dress like a 30-something adult. It felt good to free myself of the more restrictive styles of high school and college. I searched for pieces that would keep me polished but comfortable.

As a nursing mother, I struggled to find modest, attractive clothing. They all looked like this. Not bad by itself, but a whole closet full is over doing it.


If you add a few cup sizes that shirt gets very difficult to wear. Other than nursing convenience, I do believe modesty is much more attainable now than in the 2000’s when everything was spaghetti strapped and super tight/sleek/not for women with curves. The shift dress brought in whole new necklines. Every skirt hem is out there and on trend. It’s a good time in fashion.

I appreciated the features from Real Simple, 15 items to make a zillion outfits:

I don’t obsess over it, but I enjoy it. It makes me feel good when I’ve been up several times a night and feel exhausted, to look in the mirror and see some addition that makes me look sophisticated, well-coordinated, or bright-eyed. I also discovered that my hair takes less maintenance if I invest in a good haircut with a style and I blow dry it. Each morning is my time to invest in myself in a peaceful setting, dressing carefully, adding make-up, and every morning I walk out to show my husband how beautiful I feel.

IMG_5802I believe that how we dress does have an influence on our behavior. If dressing up, a person is less likely to act like he or she is having a lazy day. Likewise if one is on a picnic, dressing too stiffly will inhibit his or her fun, skirts and wind and all that. My daughter asks why I wear makeup. “Because I think it’s fun,” I tell her. I don’t tell her when I experience the temptation to dislike my looks. We have fun conversations about how everyone looks different (she has Italian skin and I do not). If I treat myself well it will help her to treat herself well.

Conversations in Modesty: Room with a view

This is the Fourth installment of a five-part series on modesty. Check back each day to read the latest. Click on the Catholic Church Tab and scroll down to see the other Articles of the series.

In that third post on this series of modesty, I considered the influence of fashion on women’s choices of dress, particularly liberating the concept of beauty. It isn’t helpful to issue people a series of “no’s” without any particular “yes’s” and it isn’t appealing. If it isn’t helpful and it isn’t appealing, it isn’t good evangelization.

Free yourself from a repressive (as in “this is the only standard of beauty”), profit-driven (carefully crafted to associate for product buying), objectifying (see the 2002 film, Killing Me Softly), and engage a new concept of beauty that includes attainable ideas, driven by genuine cultural values. I don’t know what your values or culture are, but if Christian, there are some pretty good concepts laid out. I’ll speak from that perspective.

Women are beautiful. Unlike birds, women are more beautiful than men. It is fitting then, that women should dress more ornately then men. In the view of integral complementarity posited by John Paul II, women have a particular feminine genius to acknowledge and care for the person. She can apply this care in her dress by considering how her clothing affects her and others in the room. This might mean she dresses with more coverage, or more athletically (caring for children), or more ornately (dressing to the nines for her wedding), or in a way that she knows is particularly attractive to her husband. She can use her style of dress to please herself or as a gift to others. She has that power.

The masculine genius is that of leadership and protection. A man may express this through his manner of dress by “dressing for the job” so to speak. Power suits, sturdy work clothes. He does not dress as a slob, a bum, or a gangster. He shows respect by covering his underwear, he shows good taste by wearing a shirt in public (not going bare chested and not wearing just an undershirt). He is ready for action through the practicality and cleanness of his dress.

Attire is a mere expression of these things. It’s important, but it isn’t that important. Conversations about modesty that have to do with sin do not mean “stop being attractive,” but do mean “don’t lead the other in temptation.” Some have argued satirically that this means men should not wear suits because they look so handsome. But I think it is rare that a woman would mentally undress a man when she finds him handsome in a suit. Women can dress very attractively without dressing suggestively. Suits are not suggestive.

Cologne and perfume ads are suggestive.

Modesty is subjective because it is related to virtue, en medio stat viritus, and some people don’t like that because it does not provide clean codes of conduct. When codes are applied, people get angry because then cute little 5-year old’s aren’t allowed to wear spaghetti straps but that is only because the rule is meant to be applied to a developed six grader.

I hope I’ve shown a balanced perspective in these articles. If you’ll grant me that, I hope you’ll allow me to propose some guidelines for appropriate public dress. Repeat for emphasis: this has to do with how people dress in public. Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners.” Modest dress is a form of being polite in society. Not everyone who is immodest provides a sexual temptation for others, so this is actually more about showing respect.

– Undergarments should be hidden, this applies to men and women. No boxers, no thongs, no bras. Bra straps are part of bras. Black bras showing through white t-shirts means your bra is showing.

– Don’t show your pecs: this means cleavage or going shirtless. This is difficult for women with larger busts, and I recognize that. Worth attempting though. If you don’t wear as shirt in public because you’re exercising or doing yard work, it makes it awkward for other people. Or really exciting for teenagers, depending on who you are. Play it safe. Wear a shirt.

– Don’t show the entire length of your legs in public: length varies by person, the fingertip thing can be helpful. Don’t wear mini-skirts that are shorter than your finger tips reach. Men, don’t wear tight bike shorts without a looser cover for them. Men or women, don’t wear super-short shorts.

– If it looks like underwear and covers like underwear, I think it’s underwear and should have some cover up in public square. A lot of people disagree with me on this. I don’t think itsy-bitsy bikinis are appropriate. I get the whole racing, aerodynamic stuff for Olympic athletes but I’m still not for it. At a public beach or pool, would it kill men to wear a shirt? I know I sound like a prude now, but let’s just ask: what motivates the style? Real women report dreading swimsuit shopping. Why? Does it make them feel good to feel so bad? Why do it then? Call me crazy, but I’m think this style of swimwear overcomes a lot of modern problems:

– Check out a what to wear to whatever occasion guide like this one from Real Simple.

It may seem petty if you’ve always been carefree, but it does show respect for your host or the establishment to consider it. The importance of this to people varies by region and climate.

Conversations in Modesty: Man Asks, Woman Responds

When I was in a high school youth group, we heard many a talk on modesty: what it is, why it matters, etc. Creatively, we separated by gender and a spokesperson from one group spoke to the other group. A young man testified that he was affected by a woman’s immodesty, and apologized for the way he treated women, his attention reinforcing her reasons for immodest dressing.

When I served with the National Evangelization Team (NET), for the first time I heard the concept that modesty is dressing appropriately to one’s sex. It was not focused solely on women or solely on coverage. After NET, I became very zealous over this modesty crusade. I encountered Christian men who were frustrated by the immodesty of women surrounding them. I encountered men who blamed women for making them weak.

I began to question what modesty really is, what it means, how it ought to be applied, and what its goals are. In this post and future posts I’ll share the fruit of my reflection.

Modesty: man asks, woman responds

What happens when a Christian man asks a woman to dress more modestly? She may (A) feel honored that he seeks to respect her or (B) feel offended that he could see her as an object.

In common use, modesty refers to a style of dressing that adequately covers one’s body, in order to give due reverence to one’s body and protect the virtue of the opposite sex by not providing a temptation that could be avoided. Conversations considering this type of modesty usually focus on the role of the woman, claiming men are more visually tempted to lust.

Modesty does relate to sexuality, as we read in Pope St. John Paul II’s massive work, The Theology of the Body. When the first man and woman lost their original innocence through shame, we learn that the man looked at the woman and felt a reaction outside his will. He felt ashamed because it could not be controlled, and wanted to hide it. The woman was looked at by the man and felt his look at her body, distracted from her personhood, so she felt shame and wanted to hide her body. After the conversation with God, in Genesis, we read God made a covering for them in the Garden of Eden. The Bible does not say how much of their bodies were covered.

Adam and Eve - Lucas Cranach the Elder
Adam and Eve – Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1531

That women should dress modesty is important for men. For too many men, the female body is, erroneously, first sexual, and then a person. Some men see a woman dressed immodestly and find it difficult not to view her naked. Men striving to look at her with purity experience the temptation to lust. Widespread pornography can drive a man’s imagination. He, possibly, would have struggled less if he had not been exposed to pornographic images.

All of this may seem absurd and enraging to women. She is angry that he thinks of her as an object. Her objection to dressing modestly is her way of saying, “I am a person no matter what I wear. He should consider me a person no matter what.” She is right to feel that way; no man should view her as an object.

The man and woman end up talking past each other. He is working to overcome a sinful habit of objectifying the woman by looking at her as an object. Men are often oriented towards non-emotional, solution-oriented problem solving. The problem is sin. The solution: remove the temptation. He has perhaps removed pornographic images from his life, but because of the heroin-like nature of the pornography, the images do not go away. Immodest dress acts as a trigger, hinting at particular images he has seen in the past. So, non-emotionally, solution-oriented, he asks her to cover up.

Or it may be more distant than that. He may be merely an organizer of an event and requests a particular dress code for the sake of decorum. He calls it “distracting.”
In both cases, his request may seem to the woman as blaming her for man’s weakness. This view pits men against women, rather than viewing the relationship as one of complementary teamwork, where women and men can help each other in unique ways.

Or the woman may  say, “I don’t dress for men, I dress the way I want to because I want to, not because I care about what men think.” Too often, women are viewed only in relation to men, rather than her own person. This again, makes her an object, and he the subject. Christian men may attempt to plea with women, “if you want to be beautiful to us…” but what she desires when she dresses is to be beautiful to herself, to be an attractive person, likeable and appealing to anyone she meets. Her conception of beauty comes into play. To define her motivation to dress as having to do only with thinking of what men think of her limits her personhood.

Anger and defensiveness ensue. The conversation goes no where.

This is one instance in the conversation on modesty. I’ll be addressing other viewpoints in future posts, but please feel free to comment!

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.