At a public event in our downtown area, families were mulling around on a Sunday afternoon. It was a hot, August day and people stopped to look at booths where hand-made jewelry was displayed, or to buy a cool drink or allow their preschool children to participate in art crafts. Waiting for a ballet number to begin on an outside stage, I rested on a bench and just watched the people pass.
People watching has always been one of my favorite activities. In my late teens I even spent entire college football games (Notre Dame no less) watching not the plays on the field but the people in the stands, who I thought were much more interesting. But I digress.
As I watched people pass that Sunday, something I had noticed for years was underscored greatly: many mothers don’t dress like grown women. I saw many moms that day, who were clearly into middle age- dressing like teens, and immodest teens at that. A great deal of the mothers I saw wore skimpy halter tops, tight, low-rise Capri jeans, or short shorts and shirts with plunging necklines. It was very unattractive on a lot of levels, to say in the least.
I’m not trying to be judgmental. That afternoon was hot and clearly called for comfort in attire. However, I do think it’s fair to suggest that many women in our modern society somewhere along the way have crossed the line from comfort to classlessness. We’re not acting our age, and we are showing too much to too many.
I would venture to say the problem of middle aged women dressing like immodest teens is much deeper than a simple analysis that women are trying to maintain their youth and want to be stylish. We have forgotten our dignity as children of God. We have forgotten that our carelessness with adornment of our bodies can tempt men to sin. We have forgotten that we are setters- of- example for the next generation. When grown women fail to demonstrate dignified femininity, what hope do our daughters have of embodying it themselves? What will eventually happen to a society where women don’t show bodily respect to themselves and others? What will happen to the culture?
This immodesty is bad enough in a secular place- the public square- downtown, but to witness this in a church, at Mass where Catholics should know better, is discouraging. And yet, it is also very common. Many times I’ve been inadvertently seated in a pew behind a female with bra straps showing or a shirt unbuttoned one button too far and showing too much. Tight skirts that don’t even come to the knee are other violations I’ve noticed without even trying. If this is distracting to me, a happily married middle aged woman, I can only imagine the temptation it is for healthy young man who happens to sit behind or next to this sight. What should be an hour of grace becomes an hour of visual temptation. It’s not fair to others for women to dress this way for Mass.
Why Dress Modestly
We must dress modestly because it properly reflects us as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. It is an issue of respect. 1 Corinthians 10:24 states “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.” Being modest means helping our neighbor avoid temptation because we respect him too as a child of God.
Sister Lucia, one of the visionaries at Fatima, said this about modesty (an excerpt from “Calls” from the Message of Fatima, Secretariado dos Pastorinhos, Fatima; distributed by Ravengate Press). Note that the people did not dress in a prudish fashion. They wore proper clothes but they did so modestly and respectfully.
…As soon as the children (in our village) reached the age of seven, they began to take their share in the running of the house by being taught how to look after the flocks. Like the Patriarchs and Kings of old, nearly every family had its little flock of gentle sheep which the children led out to graze in the green fields belonging to their parents. The flock helped considerably towards the maintenance of the family: milk and cheese, lambs to replace sheep that have grown old, or for sale on the market; wool which the women of the house used to spin, dye and then weave, in order to use it, later, to make warm colored shawls for the winter, … or round blue serge skirts with wide red stripes to adorn the Sunday clothes worn by the girls. Gold earrings reaching down to their shoulders, glistening medals hung round their necks, a scarf over their shoulders and a cool hat covering their heads decorated with gold beads and colored feathers completed their adornment.
Would that the clothes people wear in our own day had even a touch of the modesty, the respect for human dignity, displayed by those worn by the village women of those days! It will be good for us to recall here what Sacred Scripture has to say on this subject: “The Lord God made clothes out of skins for the man and his wife, and they put them on.” (Gen. 3:21)
Why did God clothe the first two human beings if, before that, they were naked? Scripture itself tells us the answer:
Then Lord God gave the man this admonition, “You may eat indeed of all trees in the garden. Nevertheless of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die”… The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye… she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loin cloths…. But the Lord God called to the man. “Where are you?” he asked. “I heard the sound of you in the garden,” he replied, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” “Who told you that you were naked?” he asked. “Have you been eating of the tree I forbade you to eat?” The man replied, “It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God… said to the man, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat … accursed be the soil because of you…. It shall yield you brambles and thistles… With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” The Lord God made clothes out of skins for the man and his wife, and they put them on (Gen 2:16-17; 3:6-21).
This sacred text shows us that God covered the bodies that had stripped themselves, through sin, of the garment of grace. For this reason, we must all clothe ourselves decently, modestly and with dignity. Those who appear indecently dressed are an incentive to sin, and so are responsible not only for their own sins but also for those that others may commit because of them. Reflect that fashion, if it is indecent — and we see that the world unfortunately follows it as if it were a law — is a trick of the devil, a clever trap in which the devil catches souls, in the same way as hunters catch game in the woods and fields.
God did not give us clothing as an adornment in order to feed our human vanity and frivolity. No! He gave it to us as a protection against sin, as a sign of penance for sin committed, and a punishment for it, as well as to remind us or the laws of God which we are obliged to obey… [i]
Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about modesty:
CCC 2522 “Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.”
What would happen if Catholic women led the way in discretion of dress? I would hazard to say it could start a revolution of culture. We must dress modestly to properly reflect God’s image in us.
How to Dress Modestly
Dressing modestly does not mean one has to dress like a prude. It means covering what should be covered, and not drawing unnecessary attention to one’s body parts. What we value we protect and conceal. We should think about this in terms of dress. Modesty can, and indeed should be attractive. It reflects the dignity of the human person and its essence knows the right attire for the right situation.
Certainly, there is no hard and fast rule or firm blueprint for dressing that covers every situation and attire appropriate for it. Each of our individual styles in clothing can reflect our unique selves and personalities, but here are my thoughts as a starting block for discussion, and some general guidelines for women who want to start taking charge of choosing the right thing to wear at the right time and place. I by no means claim that these are firm “rules” but offer them as my own personal guidelines which happen to fit our family’s style and personality. Talk to your family and come up with your own unique “code”.
My girls wear skirts or dresses to Mass of modest length- generally this is to the knee or barely above while standing. Yes, even on Saturday night. Daily Mass attendance might call for less formal attire, but no less modest. Our girls have a selection of inexpensive cotton blend dresses with a touch of lycra for stretch. They can play in them and wear them for Mass, and generally, they are less expensive than buying a shirt and jeans or shirt and shorts combo anyway.
For any Mass there should be no see-through material and I like that sleeveless or spaghetti straps are covered with a simple cotton sweater (each of our six girls has one or two simple white button sweaters just for this purpose). Church is a formal place, a holy ground. Maximum coverage is considerate and respectful. I don’t feel there is a need to impose only ¾ length or long sleeves as some people do. I think short and capped sleeves are fine, but I feel that sleeveless dresses in church are most appropriate only for children. I might add that in the vestibule of church or outside on the steps, the sweaters may be removed. It is simply the church itself where our Lord is physically present, and definitely on the altar if we are lectors or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist where strictest modesty and formality is adhered to.
Although I prefer dresses and skirts on females in our family, dress pants are certainly appropriate for Mass, especially when coupled with a pretty blouse or sweater in an attractive color. There is some leeway here for preferences in cut, color and comfort. Generally, Mass clothes should be more formal than everyday wear and should conceal more than reveal. Find your personal style.
Shoes may be open-toed in the summer but beachwear, such as flip flops, is not recommended, although this is arguably the least of the offenses if one has to choose. Jewelry, if worn, should be tasteful, non-jangly (too distracting and noisy) and not interfere with the purpose of attending Mass (if you have a toddler who likes to pull on bright shiny things, large silver hoops may not be your best bet in earrings).
Where do we find appropriate Mass clothes for girls? Many department stores such as Kohls, Macy’s J.C. Penney’s provide a wide selection of dresses, both formal and casual. This mom particularly likes to rummage through the Ann Taylor sale rack for herself. Appropriate wear can also be found in thrift shops and second hand stores. Sometimes families with daughters of different ages and sizes pass church dresses around at minimal cost/expense. Often, these clothes don’t wear through for years. As a rule of thumb, little girls have a little more flexibility when considering modesty in a particular dress. For example, on a hot day in church with no air conditioning a sundress with spaghetti straps is not only appropriate but sensible for a five year old. The same dress on her mother might be a bit too revealing, but in this case sleeveless for mom would be warranted. Common sense is the rule of thumb and a lot of it is a judgment call. Most of the time, however, the situation will be pretty clear-cut, especially if one has thought through her philosophy ahead of time.
Sacramental Celebrations (First Communions, Weddings, First Confessions, Ordinations)
Most of these events take place within the context of the Mass. They are the most formal of formal. Take your traditional Mass-wear and up it a notch. An exception to this formality guideline is the reception of the sacrament of Penance- dress however you like for this sacrament so long as it is not revealing. St. Padre Pio used to deny confession to women who came to the confessional dressed immodestly. Your own parish priest might not be so harsh, but it is the right thing to be sure you are dressed properly to be seen in public.
Every day wear
In the summer, both shorts and skirts can be modest so long as they are the right length and fit. In the cooler weather, pants can be modest too. As mentioned before, I personally like wearing casual skirts with a single color top on summer days, though I’m not averse to shorts and capris. I will wear sandals in the summer. If I’m cleaning heavily or working in the yard, I’ll don work clothes such as jeans and a t-shirt, but generally I don’t like to go out in that. In the fall and winter, I will both wear a long skirt and top with ballet slippers or boots, or a pair of jeans and a nice shirt. Khakis with a touch of lycra are a favorite of mine in the cool weather. They are just a little dressier than jeans and they make me feel prettier.
Bathing suits are generally not known to be modest, but there is nothing wrong with wearing the right one so long as you keep it at the pool or on the beach. Once my husband witnessed a woman wearing a bathing suit skirt on a plane! Obviously, for a modest woman, that’s a ‘no-no’!
Personally, I like the bathing suits that come with skirts- I don’t have to worry about bending the wrong way when I pick up a child. I know it’s easier to wrap up in a towel and hop in the car when you’re done swimming, but a properly dressed woman should prepare for the swimming outing and have a sundress to throw over her suit if she doesn’t want to change her clothes entirely. Vintage (modest) bathing suit sites on the internet have been popping up and it’s generally not that difficult to find something appropriate in which to swim.
Like I said, some of this is my personal opinion. I hope it has at least given you a few ideas. The important thing is to start thinking about the image of womanhood that you want to portray and find clothes that reflect your dignity as a daughter of God. We dress modestly when we consider the effect our clothes have on others.
Women Lead the Way
Mothers need to regain the lost art of teaching their daughters how to dress appropriately for certain events. One can be modest but dressed inappropriately, and girls need to learn this nuance. A t-shirt and jeans might be totally appropriate for working in a garden or painting a room, or even going out with the girls to a restaurant for much enjoyed “friend time”, but it is less appropriate and can in some instances disrespectful when worn to Mass, if one has nicer clothes. In my opinion it is irreverent to wear jean-cut pants and a t-shirt if one is a lector or Extraordinary minister of the Eucharist on the altar, unless there are some special, extraordinary circumstances ( as when traveling to a foreign land where work clothes are necessary, one’s airplane luggage has not arrived, one truly has no other clothes, etc.) . We are not supposed to be judgmental of others, for sure. And we do not know if the garb that one dons is simply the best he owns or if he just doesn’t care (or know about) propriety, but we should all work hard at demonstrating outward respect to God in His house.
Women have always been civilizers of society. St. Margaret of Scotland, a princess in fact, helped civilize an entire nation. She introduced the “blessing cup”, a prayer after meals to entice the men to stay after eating, as they were accustomed to just getting up and leaving the table whenever they were done. Margaret purchased nice material and wore simple, stylish clothes, which had a great impact on the women in the kingdom, who like many women today, followed the lead of their first lady in deciding their fashion and dress. Margaret used her influence to positively affect girls, and society as whole. We may not be in that great position of power, but we do have influence over a smaller portion of society- at minimum our own daughters and nieces, their friends, and other people we are exposed to daily.
A Call to Modest Action
In sum, without saying a word, by simply showing up and dressing properly and modestly for various events, and especially Mass, we women can be role models for the next generation of women- for our nieces and our daughters and other girls God chooses to place in our paths. We women can rediscover the joy of dressing in attractive ways that outwardly reflect the inward virtues we want to embody. We can dress with style and a sense of purpose and propriety- and with a dignified respect of ourselves, our fellow men and mostly God himself. Let’s encourage each other. Let’s support one another. Let’s invite the world to join us. Let’s be the women our teens will want to emulate. Mamas, let’s dress up!
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