Principle 1 : Modesty
Catholic women ought to be the model of purity. Today however, it is almost impossible to identify a devout Catholic woman from a completely secular person. One of the ways good women used to separate themselves from women of ill-repute was their choice of dress. It used to be commonly accepted in Christian countries that a dress, however fashionable or pretty could not be considered tasteful if it did not pay due respect to the virtue of chastity. Now, pride has led us to think that we can ignore centuries of tradition and the church’s many exhortations to give due regard to purity. This leads us to indulge our lust, which in the field of women’s dress usually manifests itself as an attempt to make oneself the object of male attention. Even the nobility, whose role it should be to preserve tradition and set the standards of good taste has fallen into bad habits in this regard.
There is a legitimate role for human sexuality when it is ordered to the stable and loving production of children and to the bonding of spouses. Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica states that ‘a woman may use means to please her husband, lest through despising her he fall into adultery.’ One may dress however one pleases for the sole and private enjoyment of one’s husband. Attempting to arouse the interest of every passing man and the jealousy of every passing women however, should not be the effect achieved by one’s dress. With a proper understanding of the merits of modest dress, it should not be hard to forgo the dubious pleasures of revealing dress and retreat with relief into the embrace of chastity.
As well as the obvious virtue of not being a subject of temptation for men struggling with impure thoughts, modesty reduces anxiety in the wearer. It frees us from having to worry about where our clothes are sitting, or purchasing specialty bras to wear with low cut outfits, or the state of our body hair. If one is dressed modestly there need be no anxiety over meeting an older relative in an unexpected situation. Additionally, when in public in scanty attire, we can exercise no control over who chooses to take up the offer to enjoy the spectacle we have mad of ourselves. Very often it will not be the person we wished to pay us attention.
Modest dress provides a good example to the more impressionable people around us. While many women today are used to dressing in a way which would be considered scandalous by historical standards, when confronted with children most people will concede that there are limits to acceptable dress.
Many women naturally feel some anxiety over exposing large portions of their bodies for public viewing, but feel compelled by the prevailing social norms to do so. After all, one does not want to look uptight. Furthermore, as much modern clothing is completely devoid of detail or interest, we become used to thinking that beauty in dress comes from the body beneath it, rather than from the clothing. Thus modest attire is automatically thought of as a baggy version of the same, and therefore drab and boring. This need not be the case however, and in fact it shows a lack of refinement to permit oneself to be so presented.
Other writers have thoroughly covered the very good reasons for modesty in dress. If you would like to read more about the merits of modest and feminine dress, and something of the history of women’s dress Colleen Hammond’s Dressing with Dignity is recommended. This series will concentrate upon rendering modest dress beautiful as well as functional. When done well modest dress is far more beautiful than immodest dress. Modest dress will draw attention to your face, and cause onlookers to take in the totality of you as an artwork, rather than focus on atomised parts of your body.
The limits within which we will be working are very reasonable. There are no binding rules set down in canon law on what constitutes modest dress for women. There have been a number of non-binding statements made by the Vatican over the years which can help us to know what is adequate. The clearest and easiest to follow statement was made by Basilio Cardinal Pompili, the Cardinal-Vicar to Pope Pius XI in Rome in a bulletin to other clergy urging them to encourage women to dress modestly.
He stated that ‘a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat; which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper.’ The substance of this quote is still supported today by the dress code for visiting the Vatican and attending a papal audience.
Ideally we would follow these instructions exactly, but given the state of the clothing market, we may occasionally have to approximate. In concession to the impossibility of market conditions, shorter sleeves are currently being accepted by the Vatican, as listed on their dress code for visitors. Therefore, if you are struggling to find nice clothes which fit these guidelines, perhaps do not worry about the sleeve length for now. It is still necessary that women’s shoulders be covered, and this remains the convention in some social situations outside of the Catholic Church. Debrett’s, a long-running London social etiquette publication continues to list covered shoulders as a requirement for church weddings. Thus it is good practice to observe these guidelines regardless of your religion.
Consider the confidence in knowing that one’s dress is appropriate even to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica, or see the Pope. The more mundane tasks which might give us pause to wonder about the appropriateness of our wardrobe, such as going to court, dealing with a policeman or attending a job interview cannot worry us if we know that the Vatican considers our dress perfectly appropriate.
As an additional note, it is still important to observe the substance of these guidelines even if one does not believe that one’s body is causing lust in onlookers. The first definition for ‘modest’ in the Oxford Dictionary of English is ‘Unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements’. Thus when we dress modestly we are being humble in our estimation of our own attractiveness, and not assuming that other people desire to see our bodies. For example, the flesh we see exposed on this plus sized model is unlikely to tempt men into lustful thoughts. Even assuming the model does not care to encourage other men and women on the path of virtue, she has still made a grave error in her immodest assumption that the public desires to see her in a bikini. If we follow the Vatican guidelines, we will never make ourselves a laughing stock the way these poor women have.
It is also important never to be offended by what other women are wearing. All of us have dressed immodestly in the past. Women who dress seductively have not had the benefit of a sensible teaching on modesty, and they are harming themselves. Many women who make a point of looking available are very lost and do not need our wrath, but a better example to follow. It is never graceful to be angry, or to think ourselves more righteous than someone else. Also, we should be so confident that we are doing the right thing that nothing anyone around us can do will cause us to become agitated or defensive.
As we have grown up separated from our traditional understanding of the beautiful, many of our first attempts to rectify our wardrobe can be rather fumbling. Therefore the next article will begin to set out some principles to follow to ensure our modest dress does not become frumpy. Many examples will be given both to demonstrate the truth of the principles and for inspiration. Occasionally the images used may feature sleeves slightly shorter than elbow length, or may specify some small alteration which would be required by the wearer to truly fit the modesty guidelines. There should be no sacrifice of aesthetics because the good is transcendentally beautiful, and the bad is not.
 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 169, article 2.
 Basilio Cardinal Pompili, Bulletin of the Roman Clergy, Oct 1928, as cited in Colleen Hammond, Dressing With Dignity, 2005.
 Rome Saint Peter’s Basilica Dress Code, The Culture Bite, http://www.theculturebite.com/2010/10/23/rome-day-5/rome-st-peters-basilica-dresscode/ (accessed 3/11/16).
 Debrette’s, Bridal Style & Dress Codes, https://www.debretts.com/weddings/bride-style-dress-codes/ (accessed 10/3/17).