3 Doctors of the Church on the Virtue of Modesty in Dress

What we wear portrays something to others about who we are and what we are doing.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Summer is here with its longer, hotter days, and right on cue is the annual discussion of modest dress. In Mass or at the pool, we are all called to dress modestly, in a way appropriate to the circumstances and our state in life.

I have heard about modesty from the time I was able to dress myself. I heard many “chastity” talks throughout my teenage years which emphasized covering my body for the sake of protecting myself and young men who would see me, which always left me feeling alarmed and put out by my unintentional, lust-inducing abilities. Only when I learned about modesty as a virtue did I find a reasonable, satisfactory answer as to what it really means to dress modestly.

To understand modesty in dress as a virtue, as opposed to other forms of modesty, I turned to three Doctors of the Church — St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori. They helped me see that the moral act of dressing oneself should not be guided by fear of being objectified but by well-formed reason. The way to evaluate the moral act of dressing oneself, as in all moral theology, is to look at the act itself, the person’s intention and the circumstances surrounding the act.

Let’s start with the basics. St. Thomas Aquinas understood modesty to be part of the virtue of temperance (see Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 160), which is the virtue that helps us moderate our desires. Temperance helps us to not over-indulge our desires and to act according to reason. For example, we use it to not eat too much or too little and to help us fast on fast days and eat celebratory foods moderately on feast days. Humility is a type of interior modesty—we must be honest with ourselves that we are limited creatures in need of God.

When St. Thomas Aquinas talks about modesty in dress, he explains it as being honest in our outward apparel. This applies to men and women, boys and girls. What we wear portrays something to others about who we are and what we are doing. St. Thomas cites St. Ambrose explaining that “the body should be bedecked naturally and without affectation, with simplicity, with negligence rather than nicety, not with costly and dazzling apparel, but with ordinary clothes, so that nothing be lacking to honesty and necessity, yet nothing be added to increase its beauty” (ST, II-II, Q. 169, Art. 1). The way we dress should be decorously beautiful.

St. Francis de Sales has a similar explanation when he talks about propriety in dress, and he emphasizes that appearing clean and orderly is respectful of oneself and others:

Study to be neat, and let nothing about you be slovenly or disorderly. It is an affront to those with whom you associate to be unsuitably dressed, but avoid all conceits, vanities, finery, and affectation. Adhere as far as possible to modesty and simplicity, which doubtless are the best ornaments of beauty and the best atonement for its deficiency. (Introduction to the Devout Life, III.25)

The interesting point here is that modest dress is for both men and women and should emphasize the beauty God gave them. If we put a nice frame around an artistic photo or incredible painting, how much more care should we put into how we attire our God-given bodies.

If modestly is a form of temperance, then one is immodest in dress when one dresses immoderately. St. Thomas explains that one way of lacking moderation in dress it by not dressing according to the customs of our society and in accord with our state in life. (ST, II-II, Q. 169, Art. 1). St. Francis de Sales also talks about following the customs of our culture—it is modest to dress fashionably and not make a show of ourselves by dressing in a way that stands out. He explains, “As to the material and fashion of clothes, propriety in these respects depends upon various circumstances, such as time, age, rank, those with whom you associate; and it varies with different occasions” (Devout Life, III.25). What we wear should fit with what we are doing. For example, I would not wear my gardening boots and muddy jeans to Easter Mass nor would I work in the garden in my Easter dress. We should dress in appropriate clothes for where we are and what we are doing. To do differently would be to dress dishonestly and therefore be immodest.

St. Thomas explains that it is also immodest to have an inordinate attachment to what we wear. Inordinate would mean that we care more about our clothing than things that should be more important than our clothes. Examples of this are if we spend more money than we should on clothes, we focus excessively on the comfort of our clothes regardless of whether or not they fit the circumstances (pajamas are more comfortable than dress clothes), and if we spend too much time thinking about and giving attention to how we are dressed and how we look. We might be overly concerned about whether our clothing is fashionable. Or we swing in the opposite direction and be completely lazy about how we dress. Here we might not care enough about whether or not it is in good taste and only care about comfort. It is a courtesy to others to dress appropriately, bathe, and have kempt, clean hair. We are to have humility in how we dress — not seeking to overdress or underdress, but being content to dress according to our means, and not longing for more than we have or need.

In article 2 of question 169 of the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas delves into the discussion of “the adornment of women” where he looks at how men and women can intentionally or unintentionally lead each other into lust. He first cites St. Paul’s letter to Timothy emphasizing moderation in dress: “Women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire, but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). This follows from what he tells both men and women previously—our dress should match our state in life.

After this he talks about how a woman’s apparel may provoke an unguarded man to lust. However, it is no sin on her part if she does not desire to give lustful pleasure to men. Again, her intention behind what she wears is important. Further whether a woman is married or not changes how she should approach her clothing.

The Angelic Doctor explains:

It is written (1 Corinthians 7:34) that the woman ‘that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband.’ Wherefore if a married woman adorn herself in order to please her husband she can do this without sin. (ST, II-II, Q. 169, Art. 2)

I was once at a dinner where an Austrian priest told a story about his mother. She and her husband were out with some friends, and one of the asked her how she could justify wearing a dress that had a low-cut neckline as she was the mother of a priest. She looked her friend in the eye and explained, “This is what my husband likes.” When a woman is married, it is modest and right for her to dress in order to show her husband her love for him and her attachment to his affection. The same way a husband should dress in a way to please his wife or else he is being immodest.

St. Francis de Sales shares this opinion and goes further saying, “The wife may adorn herself to please her husband, and it is lawful for maidens to desire to be pleasing in the eyes of their friends.” (Devout Life, III.25)

St. Thomas also talks about unmarried women and ends with a point about men:

But those women who have no husband nor wish to have one, or who are in a state of life inconsistent with marriage, cannot without sin desire to give lustful pleasure to those men who see them, because this is to incite them to sin. And if indeed they adorn themselves with this intention of provoking others to lust, they sin mortally; whereas if they do so from frivolity, or from vanity for the sake of ostentation, it is not always mortal, but sometimes venial. And the same applies to men in this respect. (ST, II-II, Q. 169, Art. 2)

Intention matters. It is certainly sinful to purposely lead someone lust or to desire to give lustful pleasure to another person. This is where men and women need to be careful about dress.

St. Alphonsus Ligouri looks at this idea more specifically than St. Thomas especially in regard to how local custom in dress changes what one might consider modest dress. St. Alphonsus talks about the morality of a woman “ornamenting herself” and “uncovering her breasts,” which was a fashion in his time. He explains that if a woman is dressing according to local custom and she does not know of anyone in particular whom she might lead to lustfulness and further has no intention to lead anyone to lust the way she dresses, then she is not sinning.

If a woman thinks that some people in general will be scandalized by her, but she doesn’t think that someone in particular will be scandalized by her, and she doesn’t intend their lustfulness, nor would she be pleased by their lustfulness (though she would be pleased by being praised for being beautiful), then she is not bound to abstain from ornamentation, even superfluous ornamentation such as makeup or uncovering her breasts if that’s the local custom, and it wouldn’t be a mortal sin for her to do these things. However, it is a mortal sin if the uncovering of the breasts or the ornamentation were shameful in itself and were directed to provoking lust. (Moral Theology, Book 2, Treatise 3, On Charity, Chapter 2. 55)

This passage can be applied to a lot of more modern changes in dress for American women, such as the wearing of pants or more revealing swimsuits. We need to look at whether these forms of dress fit with our local customs and what our intentions are in wearing them. In the same way men and women should also evaluate the increasing sloppiness in dress and whether that custom is appropriate or fitting with the Catholic Traditions understanding of modesty. It is nearly impossible to make hard, fast rules about what is modest when local customs and circumstances are always in flux. But a reasoned application of all of these principles to each situation should help one make a moral decision about what to wear.

For St. Alphonsus, St. Thomas and St. Francis de Sales, fashion and local custom guide acceptable, modest dress for men and women. A woman may dress in a way that in other cultures may be understood as immodest in her own society as long as she has no intention to provoke lust. Men should think about this as well, as to whether the way they dress provokes lust. And beyond preventing lust in other people, we are all called to take care in how we dress—consider what is appropriate and fits with our customs. We should not stand out but fit into our society in a beautiful, decorous manner. And don’t forget, St. Francis’ emphasis on being clean: “As far as possible you should avoid all dirt or untidiness” (Devout Life, III.25). Perhaps it shows God more reverence for a woman to wear a nice sleeveless blouse to Mass rather than a screen-print T-shirt and it is more modest for a man to wear a collared shirt than a shirt supporting a sports team.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.