A Catholic Approach to Fashion: Part 1 (Guest Post)

A Catholic Approach to Fashion: Part 1 (Guest Post)

modest clothing


Where to go for hairy scary guidelines on what to wear

The furore in July over Tracey Rowland’s comments on clothes which she alleges are commonly worn by traditionalists in the pew shows that the debate over what Catholics should wear is waxing fierce. Even people with no interest in clothes should be concerned about this, as it is clearly both a stick to beat trads with and a rallying point for the hard-core, depending on who is considering it. Even amongst committed traditionalists it is the subject of bitter disagreement. Much as we might prefer to focus our energies on seemingly more important issues such as questions of Catholic ethics, the strength of feeling felt on these issues shows that it is worthy of being taken seriously. Indeed, we must do so, since this is a question to which Catholics who earnestly desire to live rightly are urgently seeking an answer.

Slightly more reasonable instructions here

There are two books which many Catholics may come across which deal with the subject of dress. The first, Immodesty: Satan’s Virtue by Rita Davidson comes from a tough SSPX perspective. It is not very well written, and that interferes with its main thesis, which is that modesty is an absolute requirement for Catholics, and this should be interpreted very strictly. No trousers for women, no low necklines, skirts ankle length and hair preferably long.

The second, much better put together, is Dressing with Dignity by Colleen Hammond. She is more shrewd than Rita Davidson and much more careful in her manner of expressing herself throughout the book. However, in the final chapter where she attempts to give her readers some practical advice on how to apply her ideas, her philosophy basically collapses into the Satan’s Virtue one, and she ends up giving similar guidelines, though perhaps not quite so strict: necklines no more than two fingers below the base of the throat, skirts to cover knees even when the wearer is seated and so on.

There is a argument underlying these books which needs to be brought out into the light for examination. It is that since modesty is an obligation on everyone at all times (since the Fall), then fulfilling this obligation must be done in the same way for everyone at all times. In other words, it must involve ticking the same boxes, about exactly what is covered, regardless of social or cultural context. What is immodest in one social and cultural context is immodest in all. What would have seemed immodest to Our Lady, should be avoided by us today. The cultural changes of the last century do not lower the requirements. And – the logical conclusion of this attitude – what would be immodest at a funeral Mass would be immodest on the beach.

 modest clothing
What happens when Catholics wear uniform

This creates the dilemma that I have seen in numerous discussion forums when the subject is being debated. The more hard-core traditionalists want to draw up rules for what they call a “Mary-like” dress, and these are often as exigent as Rita Davidson’s. Others acknowledge the difficulty of applying rules unilaterally, especially in the context of enormous historical and cultural variation. They point out, for example, that St Clare of Assisi going barefoot was not immodest for her, though it would have shocked people in other eras. To the more rigorist, this looks dangerously like saying that the obligation of modesty is itself varying according to the cultural norms of the day. And what happens if, as today, the cultural norms are depraved? Furthermore, they challenge their opponents to specify exactly what they would allow. At best this means that each person ends up with his own rulebook.

Balenciaga Jacket and skirt suit, 1957

I have enormous sympathy with everyone involved in this struggle. It’s something which everyone, even the most uninterested, must form an opinion on, as we all have to get dressed each morning. Getting it wrong seems a terrible thing, especially if you read some of the more hair-raising of Padre Pio’s comments on the subject, and yet the Church gives very little practical guidance on the matter, beyond saying that modesty is important.

But that lack of guidance is itself a clue. Attempts to describe a “Mary-like” dress, or to form guidelines about dress, cannot be described as authoritative and should indeed be treated with the utmost caution. For Catholicism is not a uniformed religion. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, quoting St Ambrose, “Dress should not conflict too gaudily with established custom, provided the custom itself is decent.”

This brief quotation suggests that we actually have two questions to bear in mind: the relationship of our dress to current customs, and the judgement of those customs themselves.

 balenciaga pic
The Master: the greatest couturier of the twentieth century

First, the customs of the day provide us with a language in which to express ourselves. We can put on clothes which express grief, a business-like seriousness, or joy: people will be able to tell at a glance which one we are aligning ourselves to today. Again, our clothing can suggest the tom-boy, the geek, the sloven, and the dandy. We can no more ignore what our clothing means to our contemporaries, than what our words mean to our contemporaries. Just as we speak in an ever-evolving vernacular language, so we generally dress in an evolving vernacular clothing.

The second question is: do the standards of dress of our time conform to the timeless requirements of morality? By wearing clothes which are unusually un-revealing for our time, we may be making a statement about modesty to our contemporaries, but that does not guarantee in itself that we have gone far enough. There are absolute requirements of modesty, which are related to certain unchanging aspects of human nature. To take the extreme case, Naturism – complete nakedness – could never be acceptable, however much it might be culturally established in a particular time and place.

 balenciaga_evening dress
Balenciaga ballgown and stole, c 1952

Sometimes the two issues have been distinguished by saying that the second is about modesty, the first about pudicy. Pudicy is related to a sense of shame: of how one is seen by others, of respectability. The standards of pudicy are culturally variable; the minimum standards of modesty are undemanding, but unchanging. Our Lady would have been ashamed to appear in public without a veil: the standards of pudicy in her society were far more demanding than of later centuries, and we needn’t try to follow hers.

What we find today, however, is not only a lowering of the standards of pudicy, but a conscious rejection of the notion of pudicy itself: of shame and respectability. Clothes which suggest sexual availability are no longer the preserve of prostitutes. Women are told that to be shameless is to be free. There are still standards of dress, of a kind, but as well as having the opportunity to make a statement, through our clothes, of an appropriate pudicy, we are under social pressure to make a statement of sexual liberation. If we refuse to do that, there will be people, under the influence of the modern ideology, who will accuse us of being hide-bound and old-fashioned. While we need not seek out such labels, we should be prepared to suffer them when necessary.

 better wedding dress
Balenciaga wedding dress

This brings us neatly to the nub of the problem, which is that we are living in a culture in which – to revert to the normal terminology – immodest dress is not only permitted but encouraged. Today, Catholics have to go beyond the ordinary Western standard of decency; we have to establish our own rough and ready one. This means that there is great difficulty in finding appropriate clothes. It has also resulted in what I think is an excessive focus, by serious-minded Catholics, on the modesty of clothes, when this is far from being the only consideration of importance when choosing what to wear.

For the reasons set out above it should be clear that starting by drawing up detailed rules for what to wear is a blind alley which we should avoid. How, then, should we approach the question? What we need to know is how a truly Catholic person, steeped in the Faith, but also with a profound knowledge and understanding of clothes, preferably from before the sexual revolution, would approach the question of dress. We are extraordinarily, indeed, I believe, Providentially, fortunate in having the ideal model for this. The greatest couturier of the golden age of couture, that is to say roughly the middle of the twentieth century, known universally as ‘the Master’, was a Spanish Catholic, born in 1898 and brought up in the era before the Revolution, who left his place of work twice each day to visit the Blessed Sacrament. His name was Cristobal Balenciaga, and in his remarkable output we can find the starting point for an understanding of how to dress. Not, to reiterate, that we necessarily want to ape his clothes (although there are worse things), but to understand his attitude.

Jacket, 1957

The first thing one notices, studying his creations, is the extraordinary breadth of vision. Clothes for every occasion, and for many different types of women – there is no classifying his clothes with a single adjective. There is no apparent rule for hemlines, for instance: some gowns sweep the floor with magnificent trains while some suits are above the knee. The more one studies the clothes, however, the more one does notice certain patterns. The wedding dresses, for example, are much more modestly cut that the ball gowns. They have sleeves and high necklines, and are easily distinguished from the evening gowns which are often cut quite low, and are sleeveless. A suit with a short skirt will not have a low neckline. A low neckline on a cocktail gown will be complemented with a longer skirt, or sleeves. I do not think that Balenciaga necessarily considered these things consciously, and again we need to avoid the temptation to draw up rules based on his creations. However, I think that he took it for granted that modesty was an intrinsic part of any beautiful garment, and as he was completely focused on creating beauty his gowns were naturally not immodest.

This should be the starting point for anyone trying to understand the principles behind good dress. Of
course our clothes should be modest, but we need to shift the spotlight away from modesty and on to beauty as the first consideration of what is appropriate. Neither Tracey Rowland nor any other officious VII implementing busybody is going to criticise credibly a beautiful dress in the right setting, whether it was made this season or forty years ago. Or at least if they did they would be a laughing stock.

We are fortunate in that, although the time we are living in is decadent in its dress, we are also seeing an extraordinary revivification of interest in the fashions of the last seventy to eighty years. This is in part a gift of the recession, and a most unexpected boon. Tired of disposable fashion, people are turning to the more durable clothes of the past. As a result, vintage boutiques are booming, and also vintage-style dressmakers such as this. This means that not only is it becoming easier to get hold of the more elegant fashions of the past, but it is possible to wear them without attracting unwanted notice or comment.

 day dress 1955-6
Evening dress, 1962

Put like that it sounds simple, but I know as well as anyone how hard it is to find beautiful clothes. However, as a battle-hardened shopper, I can give you some pointers, which will be the subject of another post.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s