Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Catholic Approach to Fashion: Part 2

Traditional religious uniform: but it ain't Catholic
In my previous post I explained what I thought should be the starting point for the well-formed Catholic's approach to dress: that is, that rather than concentrating on modesty at the expense of any other consideration, we need to put beauty first, and modesty will naturally follow: I am talking, of course, of the judgments of people who value modesty. I may publish another post on the Catholic attitude to beauty, but it is enough here to recognise that beauty is no side-issue in an authentic Catholic approach to anything: liturgy, music, prayer. Too often, unfortunately, putting modesty in clothing first means sacrificing beauty and elegance, and the result of this should never be called Catholic clothing when beauty is so central to the Catholic life. 

Additionally, we should avoid drawing up rules which dictate that Catholics should all dress in a certain way. Never in the past have Catholics been required to wear any kind of uniform or dress identifying them with their religion. Insofar as we need to dress at variance with the culture that we live in, we should do so as unobtrusively as possible. Above all, and on a personal level, we should feel free (within the generous parameters which I have suggested in these two posts) to dress in a way which suits each one of us, to adopt an individual style and to enjoy choosing and wearing our clothes as much as possible.

Now let's have a look at the nitty gritty. What do these sentiments actually mean when choosing clothes? Well, I think it helps to ask yourself a few questions each time you need a new garment. First:

What occasion is this outfit intended for? 

Red ruffled evening gown by Balenciaga.
It's beautiful: but don't wear it to work

This is an obvious one, of course, but it's amazing how many people don't bother with it. Don't wear a cocktail dress to work! Don't wear work clothes to Mass! Don't wear evening clothes in the day! These guidelines, though they seem obvious, are actually being increasingly ignored by cutting-edge fashionistas, who revel in deconstructing outfits by taking them out of their proper setting. This was most ludicrously exemplified by Alexander McQueen's denim ballgown, and is a fascinating example of postmodernism at work, literally taking shape in the creation of innappropriate clothes. Sadly, this influence is now also very visible in mainstream dress; we have now lost an understanding of clothes and their time and place, without any style or sense of avant-garde to offset it. The thoughtful dresser, however, knows that part of appearing correctly (and therefore modestly) dressed is having on the right outfit for the occasion.

Will I be wearing this outfit in the evening?
Evening wear is quite distinct from daywear. High heels which can look rather risqué during the day will add style and dignity to an evening dress; ditto low necklines. And of course you can get away with a lot more sparkle in the evening: unleash those Swarovski crystals! But beware of scattering them too freely over your Mass going shawl, because it will look rather tawdry, and as for putting them on your work clothes, well, I'm sure I don't need to tell you how that's going to come across to your boss.

How old am I?
Yes, mutton dressed as lamb really looks this bad
Another obvious one, but in some ways the hardest of all. I think it's most difficult for young people, who so easily find themselves dressing like their mothers twenty years too early. And it's much harder to give guidelines for this, because often it's the detail that makes all the difference - the frumpy handbag which wrecks an outfit, or the superb belt that lifts a dress out of the humdrum. So pay careful attention to the small things, and ask yourself what sort of person you can visualise wearing the outfit. Practically speaking, I think it's important to avoid both shapeless garments, and also clingy ones. Aim for clothes which outline your silhouette in a way appropriate to your age: young women should avoid too much emphasis on the bust, for example, and a more mature, curvy figure will probably look best in something that skims the body rather than hugs it.

What gender am I?
The unfortunate and soon, I hope, to be buried forever fashion for men's clothes for women persists. Avoid anything mannish, unless you are a man of course. I'm not going to say you should never wear trousers, but if you do make sure everything else you have on compensates for the absence of femininity in that garment. Be aware that the eyes of men looking at a woman wearing trousers will aim straight at her crotch, so make sure you have a long smock or tunic reaching well over that sensitive area. And as for the trouser suit, invention of the devil and the notorious Yves Saint Laurent, let it be anathema.

What era am I living in?
Timeless style from Balenciaga
Lovely as Edwardian and Victorian clothes are, they are unwearable today, unfortunately. Although if you're ever lucky enough to be invited to a really grand party, you might get away with it in the evening. Or at a fancy dress party. We live in the 21st century and sadly we're stuck with it. However, owing to the credit crunch, we are seeing an extraordinary re-awakening of interest in vintage clothes, and this can extend as far back as the nineteen-twenties, hence the resuscitation by Vogue of its old patterns. I can't recommend their Vintage and Retro lines highly enough - if you make clothes (or know someone who can do it for you), it's definitely worth the investment! And there are plenty of vintage boutiques online where you can pick things up for anything from £5 to £5000. If your pockets are really well-lined, you can even get vintage Balenciaga.

What statement am I making? 
Dress, though it may be strikingly beautiful, should not aim to attract too much notice. Avoid anything too attention-grabbing, because otherwise unfortunately you'll only attract the wrong sort of attention. Aim for understated elegance - if you succeed, you'll find it can be quite breathtaking enough. 

Does this outfit fit me?
Essential to looking good on any occasion. Even something that seems to fit will often benefit from a little adjustment by a dressmaker, who will know exactly where the shoulders and cuffs on your jacket should sit. Much cheaper than made-to-measure, but often the same result. By contrast, too big garments will almost inevitably look frumpy or at least slovenly, and too small can be too revealing and unflattering, as well as being uncomfortable.

How am I going to accessorise this?
Spot the difference: who got their ready-to-wear
Missoni coat adjusted?
Accessories can make or break an ensemble, so take trouble either to choose things that match existing shoes, handbags, coats etc. or splash out and buy the extras as well. Be aware that it isn't only dresses that can look too low-cut - shoes, also, can look immodest, particularly if they are too high. And handbags have a fatal tendency to spoil elegant dresses and suits, too. I know, the pitfalls are endless, but this is telling it like it is.

Is this outfit beautiful?
The most important question of all. Does the colour suit you? Does the dress or ensemble have clear, elegant lines? Is it made of natural fibres, and is it pleasant to touch? It should be making no statement other than one of elegance, perhaps drawing subtle attention to some particular aspect of face or form but no more. Clothes should set you off, not eclipse you, so avoid anything too striking.

Just as Catholics are told to form their consciences, in order to develop a more acute sense of sin, so we need to form our sense of what to wear. It's not easy, and to many I know it will seem like a waste of time. But clothes are a part of our lives, like it or not, and it must be done. I think that by studying the fashions of bygone times, it is possible to regain an understanding of beauty in dress, and the many, many ways in which it manifests itself. It would be so easy if we could all simply don a head-to-foot bin bag each morning, but in this as in so many other things, as Catholics we are asked to follow a more challenging path: to obey the laws of God without withdrawing from the world. Bossy as my directions above may seem, they are in reality only a set of suggestions, a contribution to a constantly evolving situation. I hope, though, that as Catholics we can try and take control of at least some part of the debate, and feel confident that we do not need to dress like Puritans to be real Catholics.


  1. Dr. Shaw,

    I understand you want to analyze this issue in-depth but I am not sure it is a successful analysis if you do not take in to account problems with your assumptions.

    Lets take the starting premise "we must start with beauty" that you base your entire methodology/plan to dress modestly.

    Beauty is a bad starting point because what is beautiful is not always appropriate. You should see that your starting premise is an error by looking at the trivial example I highlighted before of the nude form. The nude form of the human being is beautiful (objectively speaking and subjectively speaking). But it would be inappropriate for a person to display it.

    That rule that one does not expose oneself completely comes first. NOT after. So your methodology is already starting with an erroneous basis. I pointed this out to you in your last post but you don't seem to address that.

    Now let me show you why I think you haven't thought much about the ins and outs of your own methodology and have therefore not seen that your method reduces to the same method of having to have rules like the above.

    You write the following in your post

    <<"What statement am I making?

    Dress, though it may be strikingly beautiful, should not aim to attract too much notice. Avoid anything too attention-grabbing, because otherwise unfortunately you'll only attract the wrong sort of attention. Aim for understated elegance - if you succeed, you'll find it can be quite breathtaking enough.">>

    What you do not seem to have realized is that "how do I not draw too much attention to myself" is based on cultural values which are rules. When you drop your neck line more than the cultural standard, that draws attention. When you raise your skirt higher than the cultural standard, that draws attention.

    So essentially, any woman or man will have to turn to the culturally established rules to decide what 'draws inappropriate attention to themselves'.

    I love reading your posts but I feel that in this issue you are trying to avoid the idea of rules and standards so much and be "different" that you haven't realized your method reduces to the same thing at the end.

    Also, another problem I had with your post was the first image and the caption that it isn't Catholic. Why is it NOT Catholic? A Catholic could wear that if they wanted to. One does not need to go to that level of coverage to maintain modesty but there is nothing inappropriate in that dress for a Catholic who chooses it as a fashion.

    1. I agree completely, modesty should never be relative to the World's standards.

      My comment relates to the first image pictured - of the young lady in veil and lilac dress.

      The woman is wearing a loose fitting dress and a headcovering. Last I checked, so was a) the Blessed Virgin Mary b) most images of female saints. Oh, and in case you don't know, as clearly Dr Shaw does not, many church Fathers and male saints actually EXHORTED women to cover their heads. Not just with a flimsy transparent chapel veil only in church, but all the time, with an opaque covering. For many centuries, women covered their head ALL the time. The Judeo-Christian religion has a much longer history of women wearing a veil, which, again, Dr Shaw, appears to have ignored. Muslims did not invent putting a scarf on their head!! Dr Shaw would do well to research the history and rationale of why nuns and saints wore veils.

      In fact, if this image was in different colour, such as black or navy (the word 'hijab' refers to Islamic modesty in dress, not just the headscarf, requires that the clothing is normally only in dull or earth tones), it would look highly similar to a nuns habit!!

      If this woman was not wearing the headscarf, and this dress was on sale, I am sure that many English women would buy it to wear to mass! I certainly would! It meets St Padre Pio guidelines for female dress - over 8 inches below the knee, arms covered, no more than 2 inches below the collarbone etc. What? You haven't heard of St Padre Pio guidelines and you think modest dresses are only for muslims? You have been reading too much of Dr Shaw's blog !!

      Dr Shaw also appears to have ignored that it is only the western atheist/ secular Christian tradition which has no history of women covering their heads. Orthodox Jews, Sikhs, Buddhist nuns, Indian cultures, and many Christian denominations also cover their head AND MANY CATHOLICS.

      Due to a combination of modernism, racism, and Islamophobia, the female veil worn by the Blessed Virgin mary, many great female saints, and as exhorted by many male saints and Fathers has now become the preserve of Islam, a stereotype which Dr Shaw approves of and is promulgating. This is a grave shame.

      Look at these images:

      Muslim? Or Christian:

      Compare: Blessed Virgin Mary

      with Hijabi

      Childrens biblical costume? Or wannabe arab:


      My view is, if women wish to wear long loose dresses and cover their hair in imitation of this ancient, laudable Christian custom, then they should not be put off by Dr Shaw's racist stereotypes, that a woman is somehow approving of Islam if she actually dresses in accordance with the standards of our saints. May the Lord have mercy on his soul.

    2. Let us not look to the world, or indeed Dr Shaw for guidance.

      12 January 1930

    3. And some further comments on Christian headcovering:

      Clement of Alexandria, AD 190-"Let the woman observe this, further. Let her be entirely covered, unless she happens to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled." [Clement, The Instructor 3.12]

      Hippolytus, 200 AD-"And let all the women have their heads covered with an opaque cloth, not with a veil of thin linen, for this is not a true covering." [Hippolytus Apostolic Tradition]

      Tertullian, 200 AD-"Throughout Greece, and certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of churches keep their virgins covered. In fact, this practice is followed in certain places beneath this African sky. So let no one ascribe this custom merely to the Gentile customs of the Greeks and barbarians.

      Moreover, I will put forth as models those churches that were founded by either apostles or apostolic men. . . . The Corinthians themselves understood him to speak in this manner. For to this very day the Corinthians veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, the disciples of the apostles confirmed."


      "I also admonish you second group of women, who are married, not to outgrow the discipline of the veil. Not even for a moment of an hour. Because you can't avoid wearing a veil, you should not find some other way to nullify it. That is, by going about neither covered nor bare. For some women do not veil their heads, but rather bind them up with turbans and woollen bands. It's true that they are protected in front. But where the head properly lies, they are bare.

      Others cover only the area of the brain with small linen coifs that do not even quite reach the ears.... They should know that the entire head constitutes the woman. Its limits and boundaries reach as far as the place where the robe begins. The region of the veil is co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when it is unbound. In this way, the neck too is encircled.

      The pagan women of Arabia will be your judges. For they cover not only the head, but the face also. . . . But how severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve, who remain uncovered even during the recital of the Psalms and at any mention of the name of God? For even when they are about to spend time in prayer itself, they only place a fringe, tuft [of cloth], or any thread whatever on the crown of their heads. And they think that they are covered!" [Tertullian, The Veiling of Virgins The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4 pp. 27-29,33]

      Let us not forget that the bible tells us that a womans hair is her glory and she should be covered while praying lest she dishonour herself (1 Cor 1 - 20), and yet we are to pray always (1 Thessalonians 5:17), so a Christian woman should ideally always be veiled - especially vowed women, religious and nuns!!

  2. Oh and I think it's worth adding, "looking beautiful" is not part of the Catholic moral law. A person who doesn't wear "elegant" or "beautiful" attire, or never figures out how to dress to impress your sentiments of beauty can still become a great saint. In fact, "dressing beautifully and elegantly" does not even merit heaven.

    On the other hand, dressing immodestly can lead to the loss of souls. The striving for fashions and "beauty" can lead one to worldliness and loss of ones own soul.

    So I really do think that you have got everything backwards by making your starting goal "beauty" rather than standards or rules on how to dress modestly. When you say that one has to look at the past to decipher how to dress beautifully, you are actually incorrect. One does not need to look at the past to know how to dress "beautifully" at all. The reason why one needs to look at the past is to see the rules and standards placed on HOW one expresses ones beauty (which essentially also makes known HOW NOT TO express ones beauty).

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  3. Queen of Puddings, I've appreciated your effort here and especially your comments, Eufrosnia D.
    For an example for young women, I think the Duggar girls dress very nicely. Sometimes it's easier to just see things done nicely on others rather than try to follow fashion rules.

  4. Interesting read. But a Catholic approach to fashion? Reads more like one woman's approach to her own fashion.

    I'll stick to my Doc Martens and MAC make-up, thanks.

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  6. How should a Catholic woman dress? Any way she wants within reasonable modesty. Breasts don't come out at church or anywhere else in the day time. Thighs shouldn't be on display unless they've been fried and belong to chicken, displaying one's backside like a female baboon is NOT pleasing to Heaven and if people feel like they're getting a gynecological view you've gone way too far. Very simple

  7. "Also, another problem I had with your post was the first image and the caption that it isn't Catholic. Why is it NOT Catholic?"

    Well, for one thing: why would you want to dress like a Muslim?

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    2. Sorry - I moved my comment further up the page

  8. Another great post, thank you!

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