I was watching a detective show recently (doesn’t matter which one) featuring a smart, competent, nerves-of-steel female lead. A genuinely likeable character. I was irritated that while the male characters all dressed like the serious business-types they were, there seemed to be a mandatory minimum of exposed flesh for all their female colleagues. It was as if the female characters were being cast for their cleavage.
I like detective shows, so I set aside my feminist indignation and watched anyway. The bad guys captured one of the stars, and now they are following the happily-married male co-lead; they snap a picture of him meeting with his female colleague. “Who’s that?” the bad guys ask their hostage, pointing to the photo.
Hostage doesn’t want to give away the female lead’s identity, so he thinks fast and floats a lie: “She’s a prostitute.”
How on earth could such a lie be expected to succeed? It wasn’t because the two in the photo were doing anything unchaste. Neither character had a reputation for loose morals. It was the clothes.
Aquinas in the World of the Over-Dressed
When Thomas Aquinas writes about modesty, scantily-clad ladies aren’t the main topic. He mentions the lust-situation, but spends more ink on questions of humility: Is the clothing ostentatious? Attention-seeking? The sins of pride and vanity are more a concern than sins of the flesh. You might conclude that this is because modesty has nothing to do with sex; the Catechism says otherwise. Firmly.
I’d propose that Aquinas’ failure to worry to about short skirts and tight pants had something to do with the bit about how short skirts and tight pants weren’t all that fashionable in his day. The immodesty problem in clothing was, in the 1200’s, mostly a question of elaborate displays of wealth.
(And when tight pants did come into style in subsequent years, it was chic young men displaying their masculine glory. Dear Gentlemen: Please. Unless you’re singing soprano, we assume you’re adequately equipped in the manhood department, kindly skip the tights. Sopranos, you skip the tights too. Thanks.)
Modesty concerns far more than clothes, of course. It involves our actions, our words, the things we buy, and the way we live. It can’t be boiled down into little snippets of snark, as if everything hinged on “fitting in” or “avoiding leading others into sin”. It is complex. It is a language.
You Can’t Be Immodest Alone in the Shower
I can commit all kinds of sins locked alone in the bathroom, but immodesty isn’t one of them. Even though immodesty concerns my personal intentions and actions, immodesty can only occur in the context of community. Immodesty requires an audience.
Modesty is the language of virtue. It is the things I do, or don’t do, that communicate my intentions and values. It can involve clothing, certainly; think of how putting on a tuxedo communicates something that putting on a pair of overalls does not. It can also involve my actions: A peck on the cheek communicates something different than a passionate kiss on the lips. There are 10,000 kinds of smiles, some of them friendly, some of them deadly. Am I laughing with you, at you, or in utter disregard of you?
As in any language, we can use modesty to lie. He plays the part of the devoted husband, but he’s sleeping with his secretary.
As in any language, we can say one thing and communicate another. There’s the apocryphal nun so pure she could walk down the street naked in perfect modesty; in real life, we’re far more likely to meet the character at the other end of that spectrum, the one who manages to make Amish look sleazy.
As in any language, the same exact word, action, or gesture can have different meanings in different parts of the world. Think of the astonished nervousness with which American teenagers learn the French word for “arm”. Am I really expected to say that word out loud in class?
When we travel, we play a game of give-and-take with our manners, finding the balance between our native sensibilities and respect for the customs of our hosts. Allowances are made for outsiders, but not always the allowances we hoped. Do I tolerate the brusque manners of that native Chicagoan because I know that up north people act that way without meaning to be rude? Or do I tolerate it because I suspect that despite their other virtues northerners are in fact hopelessly rude — they don’t know how to act, bless their hearts.
Could I Pass the Slander Test?
Let us assume, for a moment, that you and I are virtuous people wishing to behave modestly. Imagine it’s Sunday morning, and we’re sitting at church. Across the aisle, the parish gossip Mrs. Slander spies us with a gleam in her eye. She leans close to the ear of her pewmate Mrs. Nicely, that venerable church lady you know from seven different committees. And she whispers the worst of kind of lies you can imagine. Did you hear what Jennifer and her friend did? Horrid stuff. Things you and I would never do. Sins we’re not even creative enough to imagine, let alone commit.
What is Mrs. Nicely’s reaction? Does she think Mrs. Slander is at it again with her ridiculous stories? Or does she glance our way and think maybe the accusations are believable this time? How well does what she hears match what she’s seen us do?
Modesty doesn’t answer the question are the accusations true? I can behave modestly and yet be guilty of all kinds of horrid sins. (Only up to a point: Sooner or later the bonnet comes off, so to speak, or there is no sin.) Likewise, I can behave immodestly, and yet never cross the line from communicating to doing — I may sin in my immodesty, but without committing the sins my immodesty advertises.
The Language of What Country?
Over the past century, standards of modesty in dress and action with respect to chastity have changed dramatically. We could say the language of chastity has changed — think of ourselves as living through the great vowel shift of western fashion.
Some of that shift had nothing to do with changes in morals — a recent parody piece at the Eye of the Tiber fell flat for me not because it wasn’t true in certain circles two decades ago, but because lately among NFP-using, chastity-teaching Catholic homeschooling moms, this just isn’t the topic. We’re not there anymore, not in my corner of the (formerly?) ultra-conservative evangelical Christian world.
But some of the fashion change does have to do with morals. (With respect to chastity, that is; with respect to ostentation, I’m afraid there’s been very little change these last 100 years — new customs, same old sins.) In light of these dramatic changes, how are we to know what modesty looks like anymore?
I’m reminded of an anecdote from Brother Andrew. As the young man prepares to travel to England for missionary training, his school teacher takes him aside and apologizes. She’d taught him English as best she could, but now she must confess: She’s never actually heard the English language. She had to guess on the pronunciation. Sure enough, he arrives in England and can’t understand a word being said.
I can dabble in a language on my own, but if I wish to master it, I need to learn from a native speaker. If I want to learn the language of modesty, where do I look? To those who are virtuous.