This past summer, I attended a traditional Latin Mass at a nearby Catholic church near my hometown in North Texas wearing my favorite vintage dress and a lace chapel veil. The dress came just above my knees, had a high neck and sleeves nearly down to my elbows — by all means, a very modest dress.
As I walked in, I noticed that I was the only woman not wearing a dress that came down to my calves. I was alone, sat near the front and was enjoying the liturgy until the priest began his homily.
“Just a reminder,” he began, “we have a strict dress code here at our parish. Dresses must completely cover knees and shoulders. It may not be an occasion of sin for everyone, but you must realize that you may be leading your brothers in Christ to sin by wearing this clothing to Mass.”
The entire time he gave this spiel, he was staring directly at me. His eyes never wavered.
Suddenly I felt other members of the congregation looking at me, and my face turned red with embarrassment. I had always felt like I dressed very modestly — I never felt comfortable wearing short shorts or other extremely revealing clothing — but now I felt completely mortified.
After Mass had ended I made a beeline for the exit, stuffing my veil in my purse and avoiding eye contact with the others leaving the church. The prevailing thought rolling in my head — besides my anger at the priest — was, “If he had been saying that about someone who was new to the Church, that may have been the last time they ever attended Mass. That may have completely obliterated someone’s faith, all for the sake of modesty.”
This experience led me to reflect on what it meant to be modest, and why it is even important to care about modesty. My decisions on what to wear are always at least slightly informed by my sense of modesty, but I never had truly thought through what that meant.
I still believe that modesty — for both men and women — is important. However, I think it’s a little more nuanced than just wearing clothing that covers your knees and shoulders, as modesty exists on a continuum that changes based on what space you occupy. Wearing what you would wear to a party is not at all appropriate for going to church or a business meeting, and neither is wearing pajamas to class. Why is this?
In my opinion, it all comes down to respect. You should want to dress in a way that people respect you and that matches the environment that you are in. You would not choose to wear a bright red dress to a funeral, and this is because the clothing you wear says certain things about you. Without even opening your mouth, your clothing is already speaking to the outside world about your identity, even if you don’t intend it to.
Even though I hold these beliefs, I still struggle with the practical applications of modesty and walking the tight line between wearing clothes that make me feel confident and feeling like I’m being respected by men. So many experiences that I’ve had — such as being scolded by this priest for wearing a dress one inch too short, being catcalled downtown while wearing jeans and a t-shirt or times when I wear a turtleneck and still have issues with men not knowing how properly to make eye contact — have made me wonder what woman must do to be seen as modest. Must I wear a nun’s habit to not be stared at?
Fashions which we see as modest are coming back into style. Long skirts, high-necked tops and classy dresses are everywhere today. As someone who loves vintage styles, I love seeing these old-fashioned ways of dress becoming more popular today. I believe that clothes should not have to show a lot of skin to be beautiful and should emphasize a woman’s looks in a respectful way that makes her feel comfortable and confident.
Even with dressing modestly, though, there will always be people who choose to see your body as more important than your heart and mind. This saddens me, and I honestly still struggle with the value of modesty in how I view myself and others. Even so, I know one thing is true: how we dress is an important way of informing the world of who we are, but it can never replace the value of one’s inner beauty, soul and virtue.