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This is the Fourth installment of a five-part series on modesty. Check back each day to read the latest. Click on the Catholic Church Tab and scroll down to see the other Articles of the series.

In that third post on this series of modesty, I considered the influence of fashion on women’s choices of dress, particularly liberating the concept of beauty. It isn’t helpful to issue people a series of “no’s” without any particular “yes’s” and it isn’t appealing. If it isn’t helpful and it isn’t appealing, it isn’t good evangelization.

Free yourself from a repressive (as in “this is the only standard of beauty”), profit-driven (carefully crafted to associate for product buying), objectifying (see the 2002 film, Killing Me Softly), and engage a new concept of beauty that includes attainable ideas, driven by genuine cultural values. I don’t know what your values or culture are, but if Christian, there are some pretty good concepts laid out. I’ll speak from that perspective.

Women are beautiful. Unlike birds, women are more beautiful than men. It is fitting then, that women should dress more ornately then men. In the view of integral complementarity posited by John Paul II, women have a particular feminine genius to acknowledge and care for the person. She can apply this care in her dress by considering how her clothing affects her and others in the room. This might mean she dresses with more coverage, or more athletically (caring for children), or more ornately (dressing to the nines for her wedding), or in a way that she knows is particularly attractive to her husband. She can use her style of dress to please herself or as a gift to others. She has that power.

Model wearing structured camel coat and white dress

The masculine genius is that of leadership and protection. A man may express this through his manner of dress by “dressing for the job” so to speak. Power suits, sturdy work clothes. He does not dress as a slob, a bum, or a gangster. He shows respect by covering his underwear, he shows good taste by wearing a shirt in public (not going bare chested and not wearing just an undershirt). He is ready for action through the practicality and cleanness of his dress.

Attire is a mere expression of these things. It’s important, but it isn’t that important. Conversations about modesty that have to do with sin do not mean “stop being attractive,” but do mean “don’t lead the other in temptation.” Some have argued satirically that this means men should not wear suits because they look so handsome. But I think it is rare that a woman would mentally undress a man when she finds him handsome in a suit. Women can dress very attractively without dressing suggestively. Suits are not suggestive.

Cologne and perfume ads are suggestive.

Modesty is subjective because it is related to virtue, en medio stat viritus, and some people don’t like that because it does not provide clean codes of conduct. When codes are applied, people get angry because then cute little 5-year old’s aren’t allowed to wear spaghetti straps but that is only because the rule is meant to be applied to a developed six grader.

I hope I’ve shown a balanced perspective in these articles. If you’ll grant me that, I hope you’ll allow me to propose some guidelines for appropriate public dress. Repeat for emphasis: this has to do with how people dress in public. Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners.” Modest dress is a form of being polite in society. Not everyone who is immodest provides a sexual temptation for others, so this is actually more about showing respect.

– Undergarments should be hidden, this applies to men and women. No boxers, no thongs, no bras. Bra straps are part of bras. Black bras showing through white t-shirts means your bra is showing.

– Don’t show your pecs: this means cleavage or going shirtless. This is difficult for women with larger busts, and I recognize that. Worth attempting though. If you don’t wear as shirt in public because you’re exercising or doing yard work, it makes it awkward for other people. Or really exciting for teenagers, depending on who you are. Play it safe. Wear a shirt.

– Don’t show the entire length of your legs in public: length varies by person, the fingertip thing can be helpful. Don’t wear mini-skirts that are shorter than your finger tips reach. Men, don’t wear tight bike shorts without a looser cover for them. Men or women, don’t wear super-short shorts.

– If it looks like underwear and covers like underwear, I think it’s underwear and should have some cover up in public square. A lot of people disagree with me on this. I don’t think itsy-bitsy bikinis are appropriate. I get the whole racing, aerodynamic stuff for Olympic athletes but I’m still not for it. At a public beach or pool, would it kill men to wear a shirt? I know I sound like a prude now, but let’s just ask: what motivates the style? Real women report dreading swimsuit shopping. Why? Does it make them feel good to feel so bad? Why do it then? Call me crazy, but I’m think this style of swimwear overcomes a lot of modern problems:

– Check out a what to wear to whatever occasion guide like this one from Real Simple.

dress code chart

It may seem petty if you’ve always been carefree, but it does show respect for your host or the establishment to consider it. The importance of this to people varies by region and climate.

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