Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Modesty, Femininity, Clothes, Blah Blah

Today I was in the Human Life International office in Rome, and it is lined with books in both Italian and English. There are bookcases all along the walls, and they are seven book-storeys high. They cover dogmatic theology, moral theology and life issues. Father Cessario stands, in book form, next to Charlie Curran, which I cannot really imagine happening in real, non-book, life.

So which book, out of all these riches, did I choose to read while drinking my tea, eh?

It was the one on modest dressing.

What is with us Catholics and modest dressing? If Father Z introduces the topic on his blog, the combox goes wild. Safe in anonymity, the boys hasten to tell the girls what to wear, and the girls get creeped out, even if they already dress the way the boys suggest. And very rarely do the girls tell the boys how they should dress, which is, of course, like George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Ah, George Peppard. Blonde men were born to wear sharp grey suit jackets, they really were. Paul Varjak (aka "Fred Baby") could also rock a cardigan, white shirt and straight tie combo. Really, if men cry over the tight and vulgar trampy outfits women wear today, what about OUR womanly feelings before the male slobs who people the streets? Not even Doc Golightly wore a baseball cap downtown. UGH!

Anyway, I think most of us are fascinated with clothes because clothes are in themselves fascinating. Whatever "Slutwalkers" might say, clothes send messages about their wearers, and always always have. I have among my belongings (in Edinburgh) an incredibly feminist and Marxist book written in the early 1990s, and it is called The Language of Clothes. It's written in angry jargon, but it agrees that clothes send coded messages. And it mentions that marvellous book that came out in the 1980s that, after a heck of a lot of scientific research, concluded that the best outfit for professional women was a grey suit with a knee-length skirt and sensible shoes, i.e. a female version of what successful men wear to the office. But OH NO (continues this feminist book), this was IGNORED. Instead of encouraging women to wear clothes that said "I'm a serious professional", the fashion industry encouraged women to wear to the office clothes that said "I put my sex life before absolutely everything."

The modest clothing book I read today was dotted with exclamation points and rhetorical questions like, "Have you seen what's on TV these days?" I could spend a delightful hour making fun of it, but I won't. No doubt young women need encouragement to wear pretty, feminine and modest clothes, so as not to be swept along miserably with "what everyone else is doing." And I did enjoy its quotations from various popes. The early 20th century popes had no problem dissing women's fashions, even in 1910. Sadly, the authoress does not explain exactly what was wrong with women's dress in 1910. However, she does mention that subsequent popes did not like women's trousers.

(The authoress wrote "pants", but you should all know that at least 70 million English speakers use this word only for underpants. Never ever ever refer to your pants in England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. The fact that some American churches bear signs reading "Women must not wear pants in church" throws British Catholics into hysterics.)

Padre Pio apparently really, really hated women's trousers. According to one story, he refused absolution to an Italian-Canadian woman on the grounds that she sold women's trousers in her clothing store. She could have absolution only if she got rid of them and then came back, and if she just went to an easier priest for absolution instead, Padre Pio WOULD KNOW. So the Italian-Canadian woman went home and got rid of the garments so hated by Padre Pio. This, by the way, was in 1963. Imagine what Padre Pio would make of your leggings, you minx!

Padre Pio didn't want you in the confessional unless you were wearing a skirt, and that skirt had to fall at least 8 inches below your knee. This worried me because I am short, so when I got back to Hilary's, I got her measuring tape to see how long that was. Happily, that is still above my ankles. It was also above where the green linen skirt I am wearing today falls, so I could have sailed right into Padre Pio's confessional. (But it is alarming to think what he might have said to ME!)

It is worth noting that, despite his abject hatred of short skirts and trousers, that Padre Pio is one of Italy's most beloved saints. There's a church a half mile away from where I sit that is incredibly ugly and with the ugliest furnishings except for the statue of Padre Pio, which is itself very nice. The elderly ladies with whom I went to Mass yesterday at the chapel just around the corner from Hilary would not have gotten into P. Pio's confessional, however, as mostly they wore thin dresses that fell above their knees.

(It was the Novus Ordo, I hasten to add, not because I think the Novus Ordo encourages short skirts, but because I don't want anyone to think the Trids of Lazio trundle off to Mass in short skirts. They don't. The females ones wear lovely dresses or flowing skirts, and sometimes mantillas or smart hats.)

The authoress blames Coco Chanel for the downward spiral in women's clothing, and to give the authoress credit she doesn't mention that darling Coco slept with a Nazi, too. Special mention is made of the bikini which, it might surprise you to know, Annette Funicello never wore in any of those beach movies. She sometimes wore two-pieces, but it was actually in her contract that she would never be made to wear a bikini.

Do you know, once when I was teetering on the edge of a serious exercise addiction and weighed only 117 pounds, I tried on a bikini in a store called Bikini Village. But I didn't buy it. I just could not imagine appearing in public like that. I just couldn't. Wearing full vampire makeup on the subway, sure. Bikini, never.

My scariest purchase recently was an ankle-length denim skirt. It was scary because TLM-loving Catholic women are getting a reputation in Catholic circles for dowdiness, and particular mention is made by critics of ankle-length denim skirts. However, like denim jeans, denim skirts do go with almost anything and they wear well. They're tough and strong and can be dressed up or dressed down as you like. You can even wear them to pubs to watch football matches.

Frankly, I'm not interested in wearing trousers or jeans any more. I just like skirts and dresses better.

Well, sound off in the combox. Why are so many of us so fascinated with women's clothing?


Gomer said...

If I were Padre Pio, I would refuse absolution to men who wear cutoff shorts in public. Or t-shirts. Or untucked shirts. Or jazzy trainers instead of real shoes. (Don't even mention flip-flops -- WWJD does not apply to sartorial matters.) The men would have a much harder time than the women.

I thought of this when you mentioned the minxes: http://reactionaryvoice.blogspot.com/2007/12/one-night-in-viv.html

Anonymous said...

"Why are so many of us so fascinated with women's clothing?"

Why? Because girls are inside of them, of course.

Silly question.

MaryJane said...

(Without sounding like a teenybopper,) LOL Jon, that's awesome!

Simcha Fisher has written a lot about this issue on her personal blog and over at NCR. It's similar to why people who are hyped up about chastity are always talking about sex... like another way of getting at the "forbidden" issue from a legitimate perspective. I think people in the (orthodox) Catholic world spend MUCH more time thinking about this than anyone in the rest of the world, because there are connected issues that we ought not spend too much time thinking about. At least, that's one reason. I like Jon's idea better, though.

Anne said...

Would the book in question be Dressing with Dignity, perchance? One of the worst books I have ever read, bar none.

Seraphic said...

That would be telling.

Hee hee!

Jam said...

Why are so many of us so fascinated with women's clothing?

Ah yes. This is the question that feminism has been concerned with since the so-called "second wave": why are women always the problematic ones? Why are women Other? Of course everyone on the traditional/conservative side of things Knows that Really what feminism is about is Bringing Down Civilization, but if, in charity, we try to understand "second wave" feminism (aka women's lib) this is really the question at the root of it all. And it is true that women's behavior (as women) is almost always a topic of conversation and concern in a way that men's (as men) is not. Of course, deprived of the ability to answer such questions by reference to Reality, that is, by reference to the divine, the women's lib feminists and their successors have gone terribly off the rails but the question is essentially there.

Anyway. Personally, I own one pair of trousers for emergency purposes only. This started in college. Having grown up in Catholic schools (i.e. with a uniform) and terribly unpopular I had basically no idea how to dress when I got to college. (Really. This is the sort of thing that makes my mom wonder if I didn't hang out on the milder end of the autism scale as a kid, but I digress.) One day I was putting on my baggy men's t-shirt and baggy carpenter jeans in my dorm room when I was overwhelmed with misery. I hated, hated, HATED the way I looked and I knew that was wrong and bad. So I put on the one outfit I knew I liked wearing and looked good in, which was a dressy skirt and sweater. Fastforward many years and here I am, wearing skirts because I like them and I like buying them and I have even come to not mind being that weirdo who only wears skirts. It really has nothing to do with morality or modesty except perhaps in the most distant way, that I myself am a moral person and therefore strive not to do immoral things. Although I am probably more immodest in skirts because I like to put my feet up but am also somewhat thoughtless about it sometimes... oops.

Seraphic Spouse said...

Yes, I never consider women "Other", so when I say "we" on this blog, I mostly mean women. So Jon's explanation doesn't really work. Women are very interested in clothes, and as most do not have a sexual interest in women, the question remains unanswered.

Andrea said...

I never have considered clothes all that much. Except that I must wear them and it would be great if I could look good without spending too much. The rules (absorbed from my mom) are that clothes must be classic, classy, last longer than a season and appropriate for the circumstance (bathing suits for the beach, not for rollerblading in the city, work-appropriate clothes at work etc).

I can honestly say I have never, ever for one second considered that pants/slacks/trousers were unbecoming, unfeminine or immodest! I find it funny to even read about that.

JC said...

It is indeed creepy to receive unsolicited advice from men about modest and feminine dress, although I find it hard to articulate why and it seems unfair to the men, who probably do mean well.

Thinking about it, I wonder if it's because positive advice often sounds like "Here's some advice about how women should dress to please me" - whereas negative advice about what clothing causes men problems is more like "Here's how to help others avoid sin".

Lena said...

Thanks for the tip about using the word pants in the UK.

margaret said...

I like the trousers Katharine Hepburn wears in some of her early films, the ones that almost look like a long skirt. However I suspect one has to be tall and slender like Katharine to have a chance in them.
I too would like the answer to your question. I once wrote about modest clothes and a well-known blogger linked to me resulting in 198 comments. I was horrified beyond description and took the post down!

JenB said...

I am fascinated because it is important to me that I project what I hope to project.

That is, I am a confident, striving for holiness woman.

I also think that because God made us beautiful, we should never downplay it. I think being dowdy is just as prideful as dressing to impress everybody: It's rooted in fear, maybe even shame.

I do not think I need to be a size 4 nor do I think I need to dress up to my neck. A wise older woman once told a group of us much younger women "Modest yet attractive". So, I'm not going to wear something that is "modest" if I look awful in it. I'm also not going to go to the grocery store without doing my hair and make up because God made me beautiful and I want people to see this beauty wherever I go-because it is rooted in God, not me.

I wear jeans, but almost always with a cute frilly top and fun snappy shoes. I get annoyed at my friends that slug around in t-shirts and throw their hair up and say "oh, no one is looking anyway". Yeah, now they aren't! I like to dress for Mass, wearing my "Sunday best" because I want to honor the day and Jesus. I dress appropriately for work so that the men-and women-around me take me seriously.

I think we are fascinated by our dress because we know we are being judged by how we look. The answer, I think, is to work towards freedom and not live in fear. Yes, men are visual and yes God made us beautiful. Don't hide it and don't over do it. Celebrate the beauty God has made in you!

Clare said...

I like wearing floral skirts and a-line dresses because I look good in them; and because I like it when the men I meet throughout my day flirt with me.

For my college classes I generally wear a knee length skirt and cardigan. Academia is often informal, but I still want to dress like a grown-up.

I generally know when I'm being a little daring, or downright provocative. I limit the first to and appropriate occasions, and avoid the second altogether. I like sidelong glances and appreciative banter, not broad stares and lewd come-ons.

Dominic said...

One incredibly incongruous site I recall seeing in one of the Orthodox Cathedrals in Kyiv/Kiev, Ukraine, a few years ago, was a couple of teenage girls, who were each going to great and careful efforts to put on a veil to absolutely cover their hair, while both of them were wearing some of the skimpiest (I mean, really, really, short) skirts imaginable. But such is the Russian-speaking world (oh that will be a contentious statement to Ukrainian nationalists..)

While I suppose Oscar Wilde's statement that only superficial people do not judge by appearances does have a degree of, not simply paradoxical, truth about it, I do think the way that *certain* traddy groups (no names, no pack-drill, definitely no reference to the N7 postal district of London) seem to obsess unduly with telling women/girls how to dress is indeed creepy, and focussing not on essentials, as well as being more than a little bit patronising and/or insulting to the female readers of their bulletins.

If I said "ah, but modesty, like elegance, comes from within, and outward appearance is but a reflection of that", some would look askance at me, and call me rude names. I can live with that.

But I am reminded somewhat of the (possibly fictitious or exaggerated) story about an Anglican cleric (back when they were all male, of course), a few decades back, who was supposed to have said "the more experience I have of cosmetics, the more distasteful I find them". i.e. There is sometimes a time to be silent.

Maggie said...

Betty Beguiles writes about this kind of stuff all the time.

The pants question, or for our British friends, trousers question, was never something that came up in my life until I heard about all the hullabaloo on the Catholic blogosphere. It kind of freaked me out at first- yes I prefer skirts, but sometimes (in winter, when cleaning, when babysitting young children, when at a sporting event, when at a large youth conference, etc etc etc) pants just make more sense. And it made me nervous that so many Catholics - male or female - made it morality issue, insinuating, either explicitly or implicitly, that it is sinful to wear trousers, or at least a near occasion of sin, and only a vapid hussy would dare to do so.

It freaked me out not because of the opinion itself - I know there are a few fringe groups/sects that insist trousers on women are evil - but because those vehemently anti-trousers opinions were coming from the kind of men who, other than their hatred of women's trousers, seemed like decent, hard-working, devout, articulate, fully-embracing-Church-teaching fellows that I might someday like to marry. The impression I received from the Great Pants Debates was that there are only a few choices when it comes to choosing a Catholic spouse:
1) choose a man who is 100% supportive of Church teaching, but might be a bit crazy in his hatred for women's trousers and *require* his wife to wear skirts all the time (as many men admitted in the comboxes)
*shudder* or
2) choose a man who is more liberal in his tolerance of women wearing trousers, but is also liberal in his embrace (or non-embrace) of orthodox Catholic teaching.

What a terrible pair of extremes! I know that's not the norm for most men but... ugh....

Perhaps though, the reason the Anti-Trousers crowd is so angry is because they conflate the actual wearing of women's trousers with the sexual revolution that made such fashions the norm. If that's the case, I can understand their desire to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak; if the era of women's lib - and with it the widespread acceptance of women wearing trousers - brought us going dutch and the Pill and legal abortion and hook-ups and no-fault divorce and all the rest, then women's trousers are rolled in the same category and might be considered just as terrible.

I don't have anything against wearing trousers, especially if they are well made and well cut and flatter my figure, but I don't hesitate to admit that I feel more attractive and feminine in dresses and skirts.

Little Mary said...

I think we're scared of either a) not having men and our social groups attracted to us because we are wearing dowdy clothes or b) being possibly ostracized by our social group for wearing too provacative of outfits...

What you wear says so much about what crowd you are with and who you want to be...

I think women have more social groups they want to be in then men and more anxiety about it then men do...

Joannie said...

Re: the "trousers" vs "pants" advice -- my British friend failed to warn me of that prior to my two-week visit. Luckily one of her (female) friends stopped me from telling one of their male friends that I liked his red pants! The three of us gals laughed all night -- and he never found out my almost-slip! : )

Mormorador said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mrs Doyle said...

Just to lighten the conversation somewhat - I happened to have a little giggle to an ex Pius X priest about the notorious 'two finger rule'.
When confronted with the same rule, an irreverent Irish Pius X priest he knew exclaimed: 'I'll show 'em two fingers!' [insert imagination here].

I just think it's creepy when men seem to have strong opinions of women's clothes, we don't do that to them (although we probably should).
Seems to me that a response like that is usually driven by feeling threatened in some way - they might actually feel attracted to women (perish the thought). Maybe some women who take their clothes to extremes also feel ashamed about their bodies because they might stir feelings of attractiveness in men?

To answer Seraphic's question - why are we so fascinated about women's clothing? Maybe because what a woman wears says a lot about what she thinks of herself, and what she wishes others to think about her?

Seraphic said...

Maggie, I wouldn't worry about what men think quite so much. They certainly do not fall into a Orthodox-but-Hates-Trousers/Loves-Trousers-Secularist dichotomy. I don't think I've heard any man in my TLM community condemn trousers or any piece of clothing in particular. There are much more important things to think about.

My ex-husband-long-since-annulled absolutely hated jeans and wouldn't "let" me wear them. I think young women should beware of young men who are control freaks, and laying down the law about what a woman should wear could be evidence that a young man is one of them. However, there is quite a distance between a control freak and a guy who just likes girls to look pretty. Trousers do not make all girls look pretty. Ditto blue jeans on the plump.

Incidentally, I don't let men boss me around on my blog, either, so be prepared to have your comments scrubbed if you don't mind your manners, boys.

some guy on the street said...

(delete what you like! it's your salon, after all; but now I have to delete the reply points that don't make sense out of context)

Some meditations:

* Inasmuch as Aunty addresses fellow women... it is dangerous to generalize too much, but I get the impression that discussing everything is one of the ordinary ways women socialize; also, that society (as an activity and not an amalgam) is one of the key things discussed; and that what people wear --- fellow women particularly --- as a partaking of society is thus a fruitful subject of conversation.

* I'm afraid I spent most of my day with shirt un-tucked; it's terribly hot and humid, in comparison with the usual local weather, you see. And the shirt, clearly cut with this possibility in mind, doesn't curve too noticeably at the hem. I'm more inclined to complain of men with long ties unjacketed, or with trousers unfitted.

* Some created things are just too good to think about too much; the thing when imagined is a distraction from the real Supreme Good and a poor substitute of the real thing, or --- worse --- potentially an attempt to steal it, if to it we have no right.

leonine said...

Jon's answer is pretty funny, and I think actually a good answer for why men think about women's clothes.

Maybe women think so much about clothes because we know how much we judge and are judged on appearance? I used to resent that, and sometimes I still do, but I'm more resigned to it now.

I'm a firm believer in dressing for the situation. What I wear to teach, what I wear to the gym, what I wear to the library, what I wear to church, what I wear to the barn, what I wear around home: all these are different (although there's overlap between teaching/church and gym/barn, for instance). I cannot imagine living a life which did not sometimes require -- or at least strongly suggest -- trousers. My life is too active and my climate too snowy for such a blanket prohibition.

Also, I heartily dislike being told what to do. "You look beautiful in that dress" is totally different than "Because you are a woman, you should not wear trousers."

Seraphic said...

Oh indeed!

By the way, I should mention that I edit to keep the combox safe for women who don't thrill to combox battles. When I was at the *OTHER* Vatican Blognic, I spoke about the importance of policing one's own combox. Magazines and newspapers don't publish all anonymous letters, and neither do I.

Anonymous men who get nasty because they think they can aren't my projected audience, and I will do what I can to discourage them. I've run across too many men who think the whole point to theology (conversation, etc) is to abuse people who don't think exactly like them.

If anyone has a serious problem with what I write, I suggest they write to me care of the Toronto Catholic Register and sign their own name. That's what brave, normal, mature people do.

Magdalena said...

Maybe a little off-topic:
Slutwalk has come to Germany. How sad!

healthily sanguine said...

Anecdote that is TOO topical not to share: A few weeks ago I wore khaki pants and a blouse to my parish's weekly (not-Sunday) Tridentine Mass. After Mass, an older gentleman I did not recognize approached me and said, "Would you accept an admonition from me?" and tried to hand me a piece of paper. Taken aback, I said, "Well, I don't know you, but I'd be happy to talk to you." But he declined saying, "I just want to give you this admonition. It's about your DRESS" (emphasis his) and again tried to get me to take the paper. I most certainly would not! I wear pants when I feel like it, when I need to for work/practical reasons, and really not that often; I suppose they do look a bit incongruous with my chapel veil, though. :) So there you go, pants and anonymous letters . . .

Seraphic said...

OH NO! That's terrible. Listen, you should start carrying around pre-printed admonitions yourself, for old men like this. It should say, "I AM DECADES YOUNGER THAN YOU AND YET I TAKE THE TROUBLE TO GO TO TRID MASS. DON'T GET UP MY NOSE, GRAMPS."

theobromophile said...

Well, women get their backs up when men get too concerned about our clothes because (a) it reeks of being a chauvinistic control freak (e.g. Seraphic's ex-husband), (b) it's easy for them to say, and (c) it seems to put the entire burden of chastity upon US. IMHO, chastity is a partnership between the sexes, each helping the other and pulling their own load, so to speak. (When men do not do this, you are left with the burqa.)

Hum... I own a few bikinis, but bought them to wear under wet suits and rash guards. Bikinis stay put, whereas tankinis tend to get pulled up (not modest at all!) while surfing. I'm too tall for one-pieces.

Surprised that it hasn't been mentioned: one of the reason for our fascination with clothes comes from trying to find ones that fit us and flatter us. Going clothes shopping, even if one isn't trying to "send a message," can be a nightmare. Then we have to put on clothes every day, some of which don't fit when we gain a bit of weight, some of which look weird if our hair is flat that day, etc.

Anonymous said...

I like to be modest without being dowdy, so wear long skirts with godets and filmy things, scarves, but tone it down with a severely cut jacket for when I want to look professional. Works. And men do treat me differently - I wear jeans too and nobody has ever held a door for me or flirted in a grocery line when I look like I'm on the way to scrub a toilet.

But don't tell me I can't wear trousers up here. I don't know how the original nuns did it before we became a state. I saw some historical pictures of them in long wool skirts actually smiling. Brrrrr.

Isabella of the north

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Maybe one of the reasons that skirts vs. pants, and other topics related to modesty, are so volatile is that in Catholicism it is impossible to lay down a strict checklist of what constitutes modest dress. Modesty really does depend on the time period and the culture and the intention.

But so many people crave a check list. That's why they want definite pronouncements about the length of sleeve, length of skirt, how deep the neckline should be, whether women can wear trousers, etc.

The church expects us to make prudential judgements based on the norms of our time and place. Yay!

But I also think that it is good to just accept dress codes from lawful authority for particular places. For instance, our parish, which has a weekly Trid Mass, has a sign outside the front door outlining proper dress. It allows both trousers and skirts for women, but prohibits sleeveless clothing. Personally, I don't think that lack of a sleeve violates modesty. But I would always wear clothing with at least short sleeves when attending out of respect for the pastor's authority. And also in support of basic civilization. Because if I decide to flout the rules, I'm supporting the others who flout them by baring their midriffs. So ladies wear a pretty, light shawl with their strappy sundresses and everyone is happy.

(I suspect that the no sleeveless rule was put in place to rule out spaghetti straps without having to get into ruling on how thin a strap can be before it violates standards. Unfortunately, women who wear spaghetti straps around here have a tendency to show their underwear (i.e. bra straps). I don't know if visible bra straps disturb NCB, but I've always thought it looks slovenly.

Meredith said...

Well, for one thing, dressing beautifully is not easy and really does take a lot of thought and research. That's why there are fashion blogs! (I am a fan of fashion blogs.) And really, women want to be beautiful and know that the right efforts (lovely dress, hair done, eye makeup) can be downright transfiguring. I remember being a tiny little girl and exclaiming "Black shooooes! Black shooooes!" when I got to wear my black patent Mary Janes to church. And getting to pick out my First Communion dress, and how radiant and loved I felt wearing it.

Emma said...

I'm glad someone mentioned Simcha. She had a post where she talked about how a man criticized her for not being submissive to her husband. She asked him, "How do you know I'm not submissive to my husband?" The man said, "Because you're wearing jeans." She then went on to talk about how her husband likes the way she looks in jeans, and wants her to wear jeans. So she created a card for husbands to fill out saying, "I N, hereby give permission for my wife N to wear jeans," and a line for his signature. She advises all women on her blog to get print out this card and carry it on their person at all times.