MERIDEN, Conn.—The “modest” fall fashion show emerged from a crisis at a nuclear missile base.

On a Monday evening in early August, a group of central Connecticut women met for a weekly discussion group. Talk turned to the issue of Lt. Ryan C. Berry's request that he not be assigned to an Air Force underground nuclear missile silo capsule with a female officer for around-the-clock shifts. Berry, who is a Catholic, a husband and a father, morally objected to this kind of duty at North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base. He felt that mixing the sexes in the silo's cramped quarters could be an occasion of sin.

The women began reflecting on “some of the virtues Berry was displaying, including modesty,” said Karen Polce, the mother of five.

They began to see a larger issue in the nation at large: a crisis of women's modesty. Then, they decided to do something about it.

An article in the Aug. 26 edition of The Wall Street Journal, for example, noted that even in conservative businesses, employees are wearing the kinds of outfits that not long ago would have been consigned to Saturday night. Women are showing up at the office in tube tops, micro-minis and stiletto heels. Men are wearing tight trousers and deeply cut tank tops to work.

Outside the office, the clothing, or lack of clothing, can get even wilder. Teen-agers across the country are choosing ensembles that, objectively, resemble the outfits prostitutes would wear if they were trolling for clients. Leather and chains are no longer reserved exclusively for bikers or fetishists; some of the most prominent couturiers are showing them in their fall lineups.

The Connecticut women said fashion trends could insidiously affect their self-image and attitude toward modesty.

“We asked,” said Polce, “ ‘what message are we giving to the world about our self-image as Christian women as opposed to a self-image that's based on our sexual parts? An image that seems to be based on the Barbie doll?’”

That kind of sexualized appearance has a consequence far beyond fashion disasters, as Mary Beth Bonacci, an internationally noted Catholic author and lecturer on teen chastity, points out.

“When people display or call attention to sexual body parts,” she notes, “it demeans them, because it calls attention to the parts instead of the whole person. It makes it much easier for them to be viewed as sexual objects.”

Having a sense of modesty will prevent that objectification, so it's important to understand what modesty is.

Modesty is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that “protects the mystery of persons and their love” (No. 2522), says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It “protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden” (No. 2521).

What should remain hidden can vary across time and cultures.

“Modesty is a tricky virtue,” says Bonacci, who heads Real Love Productions, “because it's culturally and socially conditioned. The goal of modesty is to avoid providing sexual temptation to the opposite sex, and that changes from culture to culture.”

“Everywhere, however,” says the Catechism, “modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man” (No. 2524).

The Catechism goes on to add that teaching modesty to children and adolescents “means awakening in them respect for the human person” (No. 2524).

Modeling Modesty

That teaching was very much a concern of the Connecticut women.

“We wanted to learn how to teach our own children at home about modesty,” explains April Beingessner, the mother of three.

Margaret Cannuli, the mother of six and the group's leader, suggested that there must be something the women could do apostolically to help children better understand and practice modesty.

After a brain-storming session, says Karen Polce, the women came up with the idea of holding a fashion show.

“The idea was electrifying,” recalls Cannuli. “Every woman there immediately took ownership of the idea. We don't recognize how we can put other people in the occasion of sin by how we dress and present ourselves.”

The women also wanted to teach the girls that dressing modestly doesn't mean dressing dowdily. People can be both modest and attractively garbed.

The 11-member team dubbed their fashion-show concept “A Modest Proposal: An Evening of Fashion & Fun Tailored to Suit the Feminine Mystique” and scheduled it for the evening of Sept. 27.

“The show started small,” notes Lisa Williams, the mother of one, “but Father LaPlante said to go bigger.”

Father Roland M. LaPlante, the pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Meriden, was highly supportive when parishioner Karen Polce asked him about holding a fashion show there. He offered the team the use of the parish center, the help of parish employees and some important dramatic advice: Include a bridesmaid dress and a wedding gown in the runway line-up.

Father LaPlante mentioned these outfits because he has seen many recent brides and bridesmaids wearing revealing dresses during weddings.

“A lot of the brides I see lately are not dressed appropriately for church,” he says. “Most of the brides are wearing backless gowns, which I don't think is appropriate in the sanctuary.”

Karen Polce, who had never attended a fashion show, was responsible for selecting the show's other outfits as well as hiring and training the models.

She approached stores at the nearby Meriden mall and asked if she could borrow clothes for a special kind of fashion show. Most merchants were highly receptive.

Polce found many of her nine models through the parish religious-education program. They ranged in age from 11 to 16, and included her daughter Alycia, 15. The neophyte models enthusiastically participated in the two-day effort it took to select the show's fashionable but appropriately modest garments.

The evening program, organized by Beingessner, blended fashion, fundraising and formative discussion of the meaning of modesty.

“The turnout was better than we expected,” said Williams, noting that tables and chairs had to be found at the last minute to accommodate the crowd.

She said she has heard a lot of feedback from members of the audience, who bid on fashion-related silent auction items, watched the girls emerge from a trellis and walk down the runway and then answered questions about what modesty means.

“I've only gotten positive feedback,” she said, and noted that she has been told that the show has had a “ripple effect” in the attitudes toward modesty of the women and girls who were there.

Modesty Means …

The models seem to have a solid grasp of what sartorial modesty is.

“Modesty means looking nice and attractive, and not tacky,” says Sarah Kayczor, 16.

“Looking nice, but not going too overboard,” adds Kaitlin David, 11.

“Being you own person in a way that is not gaudy, not flashy, and not trying to draw attention to yourself,” concludes Christina Jardine, 15.

Bonacci, who lives in Arizona, said that a “fashion show” sounded like a good way to introduce modesty to teens.

“Some people confuse modesty with unattractiveness,” says Mary Beth Bonacci. “Our bodies are gifts from God. We should dress to emphasize the person and not the part. We should honor our bodies.”

She goes on to warn against practicing a sort of latter-day Manichaeism with regard to the body and fashion. This ancient heresy basically said the spirit is good and the body bad; therefore, the body should be neglected or even punished.

The Church, on the contrary, teaches that both body and soul are gifts from God, and should be treated with proper consideration.

“We need to honor God with looking attractive,” says Bonacci.

Loretta G. Seyer is the editor of Catholic Faith & Family.