On Catholic Dress: Sexuality, Status, Modesty and True Humility

On Catholic Dress: Sexuality, Status, Modesty and True Humility June 25, 2014

Back in February I had a post on modesty and dress, which I analyzed through the feminist lens of the “male gaze.”  This is a subject we have discussed regularly on Vox Nova (see here, here, here, and here).  I my last post there were a few interesting questions left open, in particular a suggestion in a follow up post at Gaudete Theology linking modesty and humility.   However, for one reason or another I never went back to this.

As one of the regular contributors to Vox Nova, I monitor our blog email address.  (There is a connection, please be patient!)  This includes going through our junk mail, as over the years we have ended up on a wide variety of mailing lists.   One in particular is the  “E-pistola” mailing list from the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).  I have no idea how we got on this list, and I very rarely look at it.  However, from time to time an article catches my attention:  a few days ago it was one entitled “How Catholics Ought to Dress.”  My presumption before reading it was that the author would conflate mores from one specific time and place with timeless truths.  Or to quote Shaw:  the author would “think that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature” (Caesar and Cleopatra,  Act II).

To a certain extend this was true, but there were a couple arguments I thought it was worth addressing.  Moreover, there was an aside, almost an off-hand comment, that got me thinking about the the link between modesty and humility.  So be forewarned:  this post is long, and changes directions about 2/3 of the way through.

The bulk  of the argument was directed towards women:

An even further consideration for men and women is to dress properly according to their nature, or respectively, according to their masculinity or femininity….For the ladies, to dress like a man (such as wearing pants) is improper and contradicts a woman’s God-given femininity….Therefore, so-called “woman’s pants” (usually worn out of pleasure or commodity) are not the proper garb of a Catholic (or Marian-like) girl or lady, either in the parish, domestic or social life.

For the life of me, I still cannot see how wearing pants, any kind of pants, is an affront to “a woman’s God-given femininity”.    One could, perhaps, make the argument that given a certain social milieu, the act of wearing men’s pants might be an act of rebellion against gender roles that crosses a line into denying womanhood on a metaphysical level.  However, this is and pretty much always has been a strawman argument, despite the author’s ominous warnings about “proponents of unisex clothing.” (I don’t know any, do you?)  Does such a warning apply to Gap jeans worn because they are fashionable?  No.  Women’s pants, as a socially constructed category, are women’s:  by their design and marketing society clearly perceives them as such.  Women who wear them are not trying to communicate their rejection of their femininity, nor are trapped in a social order that rejects gender differences.  Definitions of what constitutes “feminine” have shifted, and to cling to previous mores as though they were part of natural law is pointless.

To challenge this argument on a deeper level,  let’s invert it:  is it improper and would it contradict a man’s God-given masculinity to wear a skirt, even a so-called “man’s skirt”?  For example, to make this personal:photo1

(personal photo of author.)

Yes, I am wearing a kilt.  (It is along story, suffice it to say I like it.  The picture was taken by one of my students who begged me to wear it to class.)  A kilt is, by definition, a man’s skirt.    I do not feel less masculine wearing a kilt, and indeed, the socially constructed meaning of a kilt (thank you Braveheart!) makes it a statement of hyper-masculinity:  only “real men” wear kilts.   This construction of masculinity is equally problematic, but that is the subject of another post.   The fact remains that no one, including the traditionalists of SSPX, see this as in any way a betrayal of masculinity.  Indeed, a quick Google search produced a fair number of conservatives arguing that kilts (and cassocks!) are not skirts and therefore do not violate any prohibition against cross-dressing.

So why this fundamental asymmetry? Again it could be argued that men and women are different, and different rules need to apply.   I agree that men and women are different.  However, I am suspicious of any argument that start with this premise but then proceed to draw universalist conclusions that support a social order that is at its heart, unchristian, since it is an order that defines men as normative and dominant, and women as marginal and subordinate.

To be fair to the authors, they do suggest standards of modest dress for men as well as for women.  However, the argument is shorter, less passionate, and completely obscure:

For men, [modesty] means they should not wear tight-fitting clothes or in general, go shirtless in public (and especially for fathers, even around the home in front of their children).

Can someone help me out here?  In certain specific contexts this might make limited sense, but as a general rule I cannot make any sense of this.  What kind of lasting harm have I done to my children by going shirtless around the house?  My wife and I often joke about our efforts to “warp” our children, but this was never part of the plan.  And what does this have to do with masculine identity?

The author of this article makes one other argument that, though not well developed, I think is important and worth exploring further:

[A] quick rule of thumb is to dress in a dignified manner that will evoke respect. For in addition to providing an edifying example, our dress also defines who we are in society. Thus the appropriateness of a mother’s or father’s dress (particularly in the privacy of home life) can positively or negatively impact the formation of their children—this important aspect is not only contingent upon the modesty of the clothes worn by the parents, but even by their quality, that is, dressing shabbily versus well within one’s means.

I think this is an important point:  there is more to modest dress than prurience.   As I argued before, dress is communication, and with it we communicate a great deal more than sexuality.  By our appearance we attempt to define our position in society and our relationships with others.    I see this with my students on a daily basis.  For the women, it is usually obvious, but even the men, who claim to not care how they look, spend a great deal of effort in cultivating and shaping their “casual” look.  Consider, for instance, the young men who spend twenty minutes and use expensive hair care products to look as though they just got out of bed and ran a hand through their hair.    I do it myself:  part of wearing a kilt is a deliberate choice to “play dress up” and to self-consciously position myself in various ways among social norms. 

Our task, as Catholics, is to position ourselves, to “define who we are in society”  with our dress.  And, ideally, our paramount concern should be to identify ourselves as Christians.     There can be no hard and fast rules of any specificity: like any language, clothing and dress are multivalent and continually evolving.  Twenty years ago, if I saw a young man in Carhartts and a flannel shirt, the question was whether he was a blue-collar construction worker, or a middle-class youth affecting the grunge look.   Today I asked my son if anyone still wore grunge, and he looked at me with derision.  In the same way, there are no timeless rules for “christian dress”, or even universal rules for religious habits.

However, I think that as Catholics, while we must speak within the current social milieu, we should maintain a critical and self-conscious stance regarding the values that society regards as normative.  We should not automatically accept the prevailing definitions even if we choose to accept them:  indeed, at times we should contest them, either by ignoring them or subverting them.  Here I part company with the author of the article under discussion.  While he insists that women challenge certain prevailing standards of dress (at least if they involve pants) he seems to uncritically accept the other standards.  Thus he writes “dress in a dignified manner that will evoke respect”, and one should not dress “shabbily” but rather “well within one’s means.”  Whose respect?  Respect for what?   Were I to wear a suit from Armani or Savile Row (expensive, but not exorbitant for a senior faculty member at an exclusive liberal arts college) I would command at least superficial respect because I am positioning myself as economically successful, a professional who is a member of the upper middle class (and of the upper class, at least by courtesy).   I would be dressing within my means and positioning  myself by my economic class.

However, I do not think that this is an appropriate message to communicate.  Scripture is clear that this is not how we are to judge people:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)

If we are not to apply these worldly standards to others, then it also follows that we should not evoke these standards for ourselves.  In the past, when I quoted this passage, someone came back with Matthew 22:11-13 on the man thrown out of the wedding for his inappropriate dress.  Given the nature of the parable, I take this as symbolic and not prescribing specific rules of dress.   James, on the other hand, is dealing with concrete social interactions.

At this point it is worth looking at the example of the two Francis’s.  Francis of Assisi must have understood on a deep level the meaning of clothes as communication.  His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and the latest fashions would have passed daily through his shop and his son’s hands.  Upon embracing the gospel life, Francis made this manifest in his dress.  He stripped himself of the finery he wore (positioning himself among the urban elite) and dressed (or rather, was dressed by an alarmed bishop)  in the rough tunic of a peasant gardener.   He continued this practice, commanding his brothers:

And let those who have already promised obedience have one tunic with a capuche and if they wish to have it, another without a capuche. And those who are driven by necessity can wear footwear. And let all the friars wear cheep clothing and they can patch these with sack-cloth and other pieces with the blessing of God. (Later Rule, Chapter 2)

Nor was this restricted to his friars:  the laity were also supposed to communicate their identity as brothers and sisters of penance by dressing in ways which communicated this fact to others.  From the Rule of 1221, the earliest known rule for what would become the Secular Franciscan Order:

The men belonging to this brotherhood shall dress in humble, undyed cloth, the price of which is not to exceed six Ravenna soldi an ell, unless for evident and necessary cause a temporary dispensation be given. And breadth and thinness of the cloth are to be considered in said price. (Chapter 1)

For both religious and laity, St. Francis wanted them to use the message of their dress to challenge the prevailing social norms.

Consider also the dress of Pope Francis:  a simple, white cassock, plain black shoes, a modest pectoral cross.  Gone is the elaborate dress and pomp which used to define the papacy:  Francis, by his dress, communicates that while he is not poor, his intention is to live a simple life in the midst of the antique splendor of the papacy.  In dressing this way,  I suspect that Pope Francis scandalized the papal chamberlains—he certainly upset more than a few conservative Catholics who insist that the Pope has to dress in a certain way.  But he clearly understands that his dress communicates the gospel message more effectively.

As a Secular Franciscan, I have made a deliberate choice to not dress so as to earn respect, or at least not the kind of respect society ordinarily associates with clothes.  I have chosen to dress shabbily and not within my (considerable) means.  I buy what the Salvation Army thrift store has to offer.   In this regard, what the world wants me to say, I refuse, for the most part, to speak.     I claim no special holiness for doing so, and I try not to look down on others who have made different choices.  As Francis himself said to his brothers:

I admonish and exhort them, not to despise nor judge men, whom they see clothed with soft and colored clothes, using dainty food and drink, but rather let each one judge and despise his very self. (Later Rule, Chapter 2)

However, what I do want my fellow Catholics to do is to not simply dress the way the world expect you to.  Challenge and interrogate the assumptions implicit in clothing standards.  You may upset some people.   My sister regularly excoriates me for not dressing professionally, an angry student occasionally makes a comment about me being an “aging hippie” on a class evaluation,  and one of the reasons advanced for my removal from diaconate formation was that my casual dress was inappropriate for a representative of the Church.  (The example of St. Francis seems to have been lost on them.)   And you will have to compromise:  whatever the ideal, we live in a complex and sin tainted world.  Or, to put it bluntly, if your boss says you have to wear a tie, prudence dictates you wear one.   But in whatever circumstance, do not simply go along with the world.   Do not use dress to preen and call attention to yourself and your sociio-economic standing.   Jesus called on his followers to be plain spoken,

But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.  (Mt 5:34-37)

In the same way, to the best of your ability let your dress speak simply and from the heart.

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