Friday, January 16, 2015

Modesty and Pudicy

E. B. Strauss
Last Summer I published a series of posts by a guest contributor, Queen of Puddings, on this blog, to which I added some commentary of my own. You can see all the posts under the label 'fashion'.

Our central concern was beauty as the goal of thinking about clothing, as opposed to either a puritanical focus on modesty, to the exclusion of all other considerations, or the modern cult of ugliness. A closely related issue is the relationship between changing social mores on clothing, and the objective demands of natural law. This causes a lot of trouble to those who want to think about these things seriously, and especially when they try to take inspiration from the saints. What we find with the saints is that at differing times they followed wildly different standards of appropriate dress: the bare feet of St Clare of Assisi, for example, would have caused scandal to the saints of 19th century Europe. How is this supposed to help us discern where the limits of purity come in the area, for example, of beach wear?

The answer is that the saints observed the customs of their own day, when these were not completely decadent. When we encounter customs which are completely decadent, we may have to do better than what is regarded as 'normal' by our contemporaries. But in doing this we shouldn't fixate on the customs of any particular earlier era. We have to make a distinction between what is required by purity as a virtue, and how that requirement is expressed in a particular culture.

I found the following discussion useful, in a collection of essays edited by the much admired Jesuit Philip Caraman. It is part of a personal appreciation of St Maria Goretti written by E.B Strauss, a Catholic at the pinnacle of the psychiatric profession of his day, who died in 1961 (obituary). The essays were published in book form in 1953, but had previously appeared one by one in a periodical, The Month; when he says 'today' he means about 1950; he was born in 1894.

From Saints and Ourselves: Personal Studies, First Series (1953) ed Philip Caraman SJ, pp154-6
St Maria Goretti

Perhaps it would be desirable at this stage to analyse the concept of purity a little more closely. What is usually understood by the word 'modesty' certainly enters into it, but modesty itself requires to be further broken down. Its two major components may be termed pudor and modestia. Pudor is essentially relative, i.e., dependent on time, place and pattern of culture. In itself it possesses no moral significance. It is no offence against pudor for women in this and other countries to wear a Bikini bathing dress, whereas in Portugal it is regarded as 'impudic' for a male over twelve to wear bathing slips on the beach. When I was a boy, a women's dress that came above the ankles was considered shocking; the male Dinkas of the Sudan are completely nude and are aware of no embarrassment. It is one of the mistakes associated with prudishness and puritanism to regard pudor and modestia as identical. It is likely that those who make a cult of nudism fall into the same error.

[The prude thinks that people of other times or cultures cannot be observing modestia because they aren't observing the prude's own standards of pudor; the nudist thinks that, since the rules of pudor is culturally relative and not a moral absolute, they can be discarded without a thought for modestia.]

Modestia, on the other hand, incorporates a moral value and is therefore rooted in the human situation.

Neverthless, it is on the whole true to say that those who from one motive or another refuse to conform to the 'pudic' patterns accepted by the community in which they live are likely to be lacking in modestia. It must not be forgotten, however, that there are many people in whom the social quality of pudor is deeply ingrained but who are poorly endowed with modestia, which is 'the heart of the matter'.

If pudor represents the material aspects of one of the chief components of purity, at the social level at any rate, modestia provides the form in the scholastic sense. Forms do not of their very nature lend themselves to verbal analysis or description. …Nevertheless, it may be pointed out that modestia (or true modesty) is a quality which depends on a passionately intense desire for personal integrity: integrity of body, mind, and spirit. It is in the sexual situation that the right (and duty) to preserve the integrity of one’s own body is most apparent. Incidentally, bodily integrity can also be violated by gluttony and other bodily excesses; and, interestingly enough, the acceptance of low sexual standards represents a kind of emotional greediness.

The point of looking at the clothes of the Spanish
Catholic designer Balenciaga is that he didn't
confine himself to a specifiable look, and clothes
which are this well designed will never be
described as frumpy, despite being modest.
I have said in a post in the fashion series that 'modestia' is perhaps misleading here, since if you look up discussions of modestia in dress in Aquinas (for example) you will find him talking about the importance of modesty in the sense of not showing off, not in the sense of purity. All the same, Strauss is right that the virtue of purity, as manifested in dress and behaviour, is commonly expressed in relation to the standards of the day, but is not exhausted by those standards. These standards make possible the expression of a range of attitudes, between modesty (in all its senses), extravagance, various kinds of negligence, sensuality, and sexual availability. The language is there, and we need to take care what we say in that language. Today, our problem is that negligence to the point of ugliness, on the one hand, and sexual availability, on the other, are regarded as identical with being 'with it', and anyone not displaying these messages though their clothing is at risk of being condemned as being frumpy or fogeyish. (This was the point that Prof Rowland so woefully failed to grasp in her unpleasant attack on Traditional Catholic women.)

The take-away message is that we can express a Catholic attitude in our clothing in relation to the standards of clothing of today, and not only in relation to the standards of clothing of fifty years ago. Our rejection of the message conveyed by a great deal of modern clothes can be conveyed by clothes which might have seemed rather daring to a previous generation, because we aren't addressing a previous generation, we are addressing our contemporaries. Which is not to say that classic and vintage fashions may not be the most convenient source of inspiration for us today, since they don't look too strange to our contemporaries and are easily available. The point is simply that it is a matter of inspiration, not slavery.

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  1. Maybe its just me but I am confused :(

    In regards to dress, can't one just say cover up what usually causes sexual temptation? I know someone could say "certain indigenous peoples don't cover up certain areas we consider tempting". But how do we know that they ever thought about a need to dress modestly in the first place? Maybe their culture was decadent in that respect too?

    1. I don't know exactly what Strauss thought about the Dinkas, his point was just that their understanding of pudicy was different from ours. Maybe it is too low.

      But there is certainly more to understanding clothing than 'covering up'. See the original posts.