Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Catholic Approach to Fashion: Part 1 (Guest Post)

Where to go for hairy scary guidelines on what to wear
The furore in July over Tracey Rowland’s comments on clothes which she alleges are commonly worn by traditionalists in the pew shows that the debate over what Catholics should wear is waxing fierce. Even people with no interest in clothes should be concerned about this, as it is clearly both a stick to beat trads with and a rallying point for the hard-core, depending on who is considering it. Even amongst committed traditionalists it is the subject of bitter disagreement. Much as we might prefer to focus our energies on seemingly more important issues such as questions of Catholic ethics, the strength of feeling felt on these issues shows that it is worthy of being taken seriously. Indeed, we must do so, since this is a question to which Catholics who earnestly desire to live rightly are urgently seeking an answer.

Slightly more reasonable instructions here
There are two books which many Catholics may come across which deal with the subject of dress. The first, Immodesty: Satan's Virtue by Rita Davidson comes from a tough SSPX perspective. It is not very well written, and that interferes with its main thesis, which is that modesty is an absolute requirement for Catholics, and this should be interpreted very strictly. No trousers for women, no low necklines, skirts ankle length and hair preferably long.

The second, much better put together, is Dressing with Dignity by Colleen Hammond. She is more shrewd than Rita Davidson and much more careful in her manner of expressing herself throughout the book. However, in the final chapter where she attempts to give her readers some practical advice on how to apply her ideas, her philosophy basically collapses into the Satan's Virtue one, and she ends up giving similar guidelines, though perhaps not quite so strict: necklines no more than two fingers below the base of the throat, skirts to cover knees even when the wearer is seated and so on.

There is a argument underlying these books which needs to be brought out into the light for examination. It is that since modesty is an obligation on everyone at all times (since the Fall), then fulfilling this obligation must be done in the same way for everyone at all times. In other words, it must involve ticking the same boxes, about exactly what is covered, regardless of social or cultural context. What is immodest in one social and cultural context is immodest in all. What would have seemed immodest to Our Lady, should be avoided by us today. The cultural changes of the last century do not lower the requirements. And - the logical conclusion of this attitude - what would be immodest at a funeral Mass would be immodest on the beach.

What happens when Catholics wear uniform
This creates the dilemma that I have seen in numerous discussion forums when the subject is being debated. The more hard-core traditionalists want to draw up rules for what they call a "Mary-like" dress, and these are often as exigent as Rita Davidson's. Others acknowledge the difficulty of applying rules unilaterally, especially in the context of enormous historical and cultural variation. They point out, for example, that St Clare of Assisi going barefoot was not immodest for her, though it would have shocked people in other eras. To the more rigorist, this looks dangerously like saying that the obligation of modesty is itself varying according to the cultural norms of the day. And what happens if, as today, the cultural norms are depraved? Furthermore, they challenge their opponents to specify exactly what they would allow. At best this means that each person ends up with his own rulebook.
Balenciaga Jacket and skirt suit, 1957

I have enormous sympathy with everyone involved in this struggle. It's something which everyone, even the most uninterested, must form an opinion on, as we all have to get dressed each morning. Getting it wrong seems a terrible thing, especially if you read some of the more hair-raising of Padre Pio's comments on the subject, and yet the Church gives very little practical guidance on the matter, beyond saying that modesty is important.

But that lack of guidance is itself a clue. Attempts to describe a "Mary-like" dress, or to form guidelines about dress, cannot be described as authoritative and should indeed be treated with the utmost caution. For Catholicism is not a uniformed religion. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, quoting St Ambrose, "Dress should not conflict too gaudily with established custom, provided the custom itself is decent."

This brief quotation suggests that we actually have two questions to bear in mind: the relationship of our dress to current customs, and the judgement of those customs themselves.

The Master: the greatest couturier of the twentieth century

First, the customs of the day provide us with a language in which to express ourselves. We can put on clothes which express grief, a business-like seriousness, or joy: people will be able to tell at a glance which one we are aligning ourselves to today. Again, our clothing can suggest the tom-boy, the geek, the sloven, and the dandy. We can no more ignore what our clothing means to our contemporaries, than what our words mean to our contemporaries. Just as we speak in an ever-evolving vernacular language, so we generally dress in an evolving vernacular clothing.

The second question is: do the standards of dress of our time conform to the timeless requirements of morality? By wearing clothes which are unusually un-revealing for our time, we may be making a statement about modesty to our contemporaries, but that does not guarantee in itself that we have gone far enough. There are absolute requirements of modesty, which are related to certain unchanging aspects of human nature. To take the extreme case, Naturism - complete nakedness - could never be acceptable, however much it might be culturally established in a particular time and place.

Balenciaga ballgown and stole, c 1952
Sometimes the two issues have been distinguished by saying that the second is about modesty, the first about pudicy. Pudicy is related to a sense of shame: of how one is seen by others, of respectability. The standards of pudicy are culturally variable; the minimum standards of modesty are undemanding, but unchanging. Our Lady would have been ashamed to appear in public without a veil: the standards of pudicy in her society were far more demanding than of later centuries, and we needn't try to follow hers.

What we find today, however, is not only a lowering of the standards of pudicy, but a conscious rejection of the notion of pudicy itself: of shame and respectability. Clothes which suggest sexual availability are no longer the preserve of prostitutes. Women are told that to be shameless is to be free. There are still standards of dress, of a kind, but as well as having the opportunity to make a statement, through our clothes, of an appropriate pudicy, we are under social pressure to make a statement of sexual liberation. If we refuse to do that, there will be people, under the influence of the modern ideology, who will accuse us of being hide-bound and old-fashioned. While we need not seek out such labels, we should be prepared to suffer them when necessary.

Balenciaga wedding dress
This brings us neatly to the nub of the problem, which is that we are living in a culture in which - to revert to the normal terminology - immodest dress is not only permitted but encouraged. Today, Catholics have to go beyond the ordinary Western standard of decency; we have to establish our own rough and ready one. This means that there is great difficulty in finding appropriate clothes. It has also resulted in what I think is an excessive focus, by serious-minded Catholics, on the modesty of clothes, when this is far from being the only consideration of importance when choosing what to wear.

For the reasons set out above it should be clear that starting by drawing up detailed rules for what to wear is a blind alley which we should avoid. How, then, should we approach the question? What we need to know is how a truly Catholic person, steeped in the Faith, but also with a profound knowledge and understanding of clothes, preferably from before the sexual revolution, would approach the question of dress. We are extraordinarily, indeed, I believe, Providentially, fortunate in having the ideal model for this. The greatest couturier of the golden age of couture, that is to say roughly the middle of the twentieth century, known universally as 'the Master', was a Spanish Catholic, born in 1898 and brought up in the era before the Revolution, who left his place of work twice each day to visit the Blessed Sacrament. His name was Cristobal Balenciaga, and in his remarkable output we can find the starting point for an understanding of how to dress. Not, to reiterate, that we necessarily want to ape his clothes (although there are worse things), but to understand his attitude.
Jacket, 1957

The first thing one notices, studying his creations, is the extraordinary breadth of vision. Clothes for every occasion, and for many different types of women - there is no classifying his clothes with a single adjective. There is no apparent rule for hemlines, for instance: some gowns sweep the floor with magnificent trains while some suits are above the knee. The more one studies the clothes, however, the more one does notice certain patterns. The wedding dresses, for example, are much more modestly cut that the ball gowns. They have sleeves and high necklines, and are easily distinguished from the evening gowns which are often cut quite low, and are sleeveless. A suit with a short skirt will not have a low neckline. A low neckline on a cocktail gown will be complemented with a longer skirt, or sleeves. I do not think that Balenciaga necessarily considered these things consciously, and again we need to avoid the temptation to draw up rules based on his creations. However, I think that he took it for granted that modesty was an intrinsic part of any beautiful garment, and as he was completely focused on creating beauty his gowns were naturally not immodest.

This should be the starting point for anyone trying to understand the principles behind good dress. Of
course our clothes should be modest, but we need to shift the spotlight away from modesty and on to beauty as the first consideration of what is appropriate. Neither Tracey Rowland nor any other officious VII implementing busybody is going to criticise credibly a beautiful dress in the right setting, whether it was made this season or forty years ago. Or at least if they did they would be a laughing stock.

We are fortunate in that, although the time we are living in is decadent in its dress, we are also seeing an extraordinary revivification of interest in the fashions of the last seventy to eighty years. This is in part a gift of the recession, and a most unexpected boon. Tired of disposable fashion, people are turning to the more durable clothes of the past. As a result, vintage boutiques are booming, and also vintage-style dressmakers such as this. This means that not only is it becoming easier to get hold of the more elegant fashions of the past, but it is possible to wear them without attracting unwanted notice or comment.

Evening dress, 1962
Put like that it sounds simple, but I know as well as anyone how hard it is to find beautiful clothes. However, as a battle-hardened shopper, I can give you some pointers, which will be the subject of another post.


  1. The jacket (circa 1957) appears to be modelled by April Ashley.

  2. I'd just like to point out another very difficult aspect of dress for Catholic women is constantly changing sizes from multiple pregnancies and how quickly our clothes are ruined from being around small children.

  3. Also, this statement...
    "And - the logical conclusion of this attitude - what would be immodest at a funeral Mass would be immodest on the beach."
    ...does not seem to be fair. I think the conclusion is not to go to the beach at all!

    1. I think the point that was being made is that the logical conclusion of the attitude that is cited here is that we cannot go to the beach because it would be immodest to wear things which are traditionally worn at the beach (or we could, but we'd have to wear the same things that are worn at a funeral). I think that this is not what the author of this post is saying. She was just citing that attitude as one which is mistaken.

      I think she is saying, and I definitely agree with her, that something can be appropriate for a funeral but not appropriate or practical or comfortable for the beach. Similarly, something can be entirely appropriate for the beach (a swimming costume, for example), but you wouldn't be caught dead (excuse the pun!) in it at a funeral. This applies for exercise too! Correct me if I'm wrong...

      A wonderful post. This is just what I need to read!

  4. The best advice I received as a child was that you do not go to Mass to draw attention to yourself.

  5. Dear Guest-blogger Queen of Puddings and Joe Shaw,

    Thank you for linking to something that I wrote on Padre Pio. But would you be so kind as to change the link to the original blog-post on my blog?

    You might also consider this post, Writing About Padre Pio: How it Influences Real Life.

    It contains an important point: 'Padre Pio told a woman in confession not to sell trousers in her shop...But we don’t know if the trousers that she planned to sell were…ordinary slacks…or hot pants!'

    God bless always

    Mary O'Regan

  6. Anonymous9:11 pm

    The "modestia" that Aquinas is talking about is primarily humility in one's appearance, rather than vainglory, and is not about whether or not the clothes are alluring to the opposite sex... Virtue is in one's intention, not the effects one's acts produce upon others. Nakedness if innocent may be modest and virtuous.
    My point is that this whole question is one of prudence rather than modesty: this might seem like nit-picking, but if "modesty" is subsumed under the heading of sexual sin, rather like the word "immorality" has been, one risks (eventually) impoverishing one's thinking. I should say that I enjoy your approach; but the now almost ubiquitous usage of the word modesty is I think very problematic - it puts the notion of virtue at the mercy of the (male) observer.

  7. Dress has always changed with fashion. Good taste, particularly in church, is what should be observed.

    Above all, ugliness and vulgarity is to be avoided. Tight leotards (or leggings or whatever they are called) with very short mini-skirts, (particularly where the wearer is somewhat over- weight), are out, as is open shirts to the belt and sun-tanned chests, with the blokes.

  8. Great analysis Dr. Shaw!

    If I may make a suggestion, I think the initial problem you have presented is due to the fact that modesty is rooted in culture just as much as the term you described as pudicy is rooted in culture.

    The "rules" on how to dress modestly develop in a culture as it strives to dress in a way that does not tempt others. Since each culture starts with a different dress as its starting point, you have rules that seem to differ in the end product by some margins. But essentially, you do see some agreement for sure between any two cultures that have striven to uphold modesty for sometime in it's society.

    Now the rules are developed through experience of the society. As feedback comes about, the dress rules are altered. This continues iteratively. So in such a culture, trying to find new fashions lead to exploration of new forms of dress based on the old as a basis. The sensibility that has developed in the culture acts as a self-correction of the fashions. The more older the culture, the more refined and even natural the sensibilities will be among its people.

    BUT, in our present Western culture (which is very young to begin with), there is no motive to dress modesty. In fact, it is actually the opposite that is sought. Since sexual pleasure is idolized, many things are designed toward achieving that end. So whether it be the clothes you wear, the way you walk, or even the way you look, they are all designed to be "sexy".

    So there is a break from the old natural development.

    The suggested rules in the books you cited are not actually mistaken in that sense. They are merely an effort to look back at a stage in history when the sensibilities toward modesty were stable and to infer a set of standards as a starting point in our present society. So you could say it is a marker to go back to and to start developing forward from that point.

    Now keeping the above in mind, making your starting point "beauty" might be an error. Because the nude form of the human body is very beautiful too. So how can one even argue that in striving to seek beauty, one may not reveal too much of it? If anything, it may even seem appropriate to reveal much of it.

    Striving to display beauty is the role of fashion design. But fashion design must start with a set of rules as a basis in its design. That basis is informed by culture and does have standards like "don't cut too deep", "not above the knees" and so forth.

    People in the 19th century didn't have trouble dressing modesty because they had developed the sensibilities with their culture. We have problems because we want to start from scratch or just have some other goal as the starting point (beauty, look sexy, save money etc).

  9. Another thing I do want to say, uniformity is not exactly a sin. But, your fear that having rules will lead to uniformity might be misplaced.

    Because you see, the rules offer much room to play around with. In cultures where one does not try to achieve "variation" through dropping the neck line or lowering the skirt length, the variation is achieved by doing a lot of work on the dresses. Some will choose different designs (does the gown hang straight down, puff, frills, shades of different colors, one piece or two piece, belt designs etc), embroider work, different colors.

    The picture you presented in that sense does a bit of injustice. There are much more variations to be had than what you see in that picture within those set of rules.

  10. Dr. Shaw, your blog is a light in the shadow. Thank you for your approach on contemporary questions. It helps me so much.