Under the Sun: C.S. Lewis, Swimsuits, and Social Propriety

Each week in “Under the Sun,” Jonathan Sircy examines the history of a cultural practice that’s generating buzz at CaPC.

“Everything is relative–girls weren’t wearing thongs or getting bikini waxes, but they were coming to school in knee-length skirts, wearing lipstick and smoking.” Joshua Zeitz, author of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern; man.

“[W]hile the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes.” – C.S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity; also a man.

“And my least favorite [question]—what do I wear to the pool?” – Faith Newport from “The Body Beautiful

In the above quotations, Zeitz and Lewis set parameters for a Christian discussion of swimsuit fashion. On the one hand, history shows us that fashion standards did not emerge fully-formed from the head of Ralph Lauren. On the other we have the changeless benchmark of God’s holiness, in particular the demand for chastity. Zeitz observes that today’s thong-wearing, bikini-waxing woman is analogous to yesterday’s knee-length skirt donning, red lipstick-applying gal. Propriety hasn’t gone away; one version of it has. It’s for this reason, Lewis admonishes us, that we should not collapse chastity and propriety.

Chastity regulates how Christians practice sex. God’s standards here, Lewis contends, do not change. Propriety, conversely, monitors the culture’s standard of what non-sexual acts (dressing, speaking) inappropriately signify “sex.” Chastity is the actual book; propriety is only its cover. The two don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another. Problem solved?

Not quite.

The first problem is that even if I know the history of a cultural practice—if I correctly classify a problem as “propriety” rather than “chastity”—my decisions about how to look and what to wear don’t suddenly get easier. Two examples…

“I now know that until the 1920s, tans were associated with working-class occupations and were accordingly outré. But then Coco Chanel gets a tan on a yacht and, all of a sudden, bronze skin is high fashion. That makes my decision about whether or not to hit up the TANtalize Emporium with my pals so much easier!”

Or, “I just discovered that fashion trends are so dubious in their origins that Brian Hyland’s insipid dittyItsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ spurred a U.S. buying craze for the, until then, verboten two-piece get up. That means I don’t have to feel body-issue shame when confronted with various stages of undress at the neighborhood pool or my actual buying options at Target when I’m looking for a suit!”

Chastity is no easier. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ expands the definition of adultery to include lust. The standard is not just external actions; it’s the internal attitude towards those actions. But even that seems manageable compared to the charge of loving your neighbor as yourself, i.e. respecting the fact that your neighbor, too, must keep themselves internally free from lust. Desire is hardly uniform (e.g. James Mercer’s “Just a glimpse of an ankle and I / react like it’s 1805”). How can someone preemptively quell someone else’s desire?

And we’re back to Zeitz and Lewis. Propriety represents a culture’s historically-variable attempt to curb inappropriate desire. Its final arbiter is the community. Chastity’s final arbiter, on the other hand, is God. This doesn’t mean chastity is divorced from the community. Rather, my relationship to the community depends upon calibrating my relationship to God. I ask that God forgive my swimsuit fashion faux pas, even as I forgive the person who commits a swimsuit fashion faux pas against me.

In his Mere Christianity chapter on chastity, Lewis argues for tolerance on the issue of modesty. Just as the older generation should not condemn a younger, more permissive demographic, neither should the younger crowd dismiss the older generation as Puritanical prudes. In short, I need to remember that the gospel puts the kibosh on my bid to earn, award, or deduct style points.

About Jonathan Sircy
  • Jess Lee Ada

    “How can someone preemptively quell someone else’s desire?”
    Perhaps it’s because i have just finished The Great Gatsby for the fifth time, but this line struck me a beautiful and full of mystery today.


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