Modesty: A Roman Catholic Perspective

Reflections on the Question of Modesty

by Kristine Cranley


I’ll never forget my shock when in college a friend admitted to me that he found it difficult when women wore white shirts to Mass because you could often see one’s bra straps through them. I had never thought to check! I thanked him for the information, and thanked God I wasn’t wearing a white shirt at that moment!

Or when my own brother discretely told me that my smashing new white pants were … well … see through. “When girls wear white pants” he informed me authoritatively, “guys check”.

Or, perhaps most embarrassing of all, the time a man asked me to stop wearing ‘midriff shirts’ to Mass. I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what a midriff shirt was. (I have since googled it and am quite certain that I have never owned a midriff shirt, but my pants that fateful day had been a little loose and fallen below my shirt line, and he had noticed).

Too loose. Too tight. Too low. Too high. Who teaches us about these things anymore?

I thank God for the men who have been courageous enough to share with me the ways my clothing has affected them. Certainly we are all responsible for guarding our eyes from what might cause us to sin. And yet I’m confident that most of you ladies reading this desire to help our brothers in Christ to live purity of heart, just as we are grateful when they help us to do the same. But how are we to learn to love each other well in this regard?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly would have preferred to have been enlightened by another woman beforehand rather than having been ‘called out’ on my midriff infraction. When did women stop handing on this information to one another? In my naïveté I have made a number of unknowing, yet no less embarrassing, errors in my judgment on clothing. I have met countless other women who recount to me similar experiences. Hence, as the Texas heat descends upon us this summer, and the ending of the school year finally allows us the luxury of shopping for our summer wardrobes, I wanted to offer you a few thoughts on modesty of dress, in hopes that some of my embarrassing moments will spare you of your own!

Grace Kelly's Catholic Wedding Dress During Mass

Catholic weddings are performed as part of Mass, so traditionally there are have been strict modesty guidelines for Catholic brides, but as you can see, modesty can be simply breathtaking.

Why Modesty?

First of all, I want to assert that the reason we dress modestly is NOT because our feminine bodies are bad or ugly or intrinsically ‘occasions of sin’. Simultaneously, it is NOT because all men think about is sex, or that they are incapable of looking at us without lust. Rather modesty involves speaking the truth with our bodies. While women are generally aroused through emotional warmth or physical touch, men are aroused through visual stimuli. Whether we intend to or not, revealing too much of our bodies sends a message that we are sexually available to them. As one young man recently explained to a group of women here at St. Mary’s, “there are two steps to having sex. Taking off one’s clothes and actually having sex. If someone is already half undressed, it’s difficult for one’s mind not to go to the second step”.

But meanwhile, the world seems ‘hell-bent’ on destroying in women a proper sense of what is and is not modest. Has not modern day fashion slowly desensitized us to exposing almost every part of our body that can possibly be exposed? One style may show off more and more of the leg, another the chest, the navel, the back, etc., so that slowly we’ve become increasingly comfortable with having any or every part of our bodies revealed to the public. Is it possible to wear any less clothing than a string bikini? Even being clad in solely our undergarments would cover more than many swimsuits do nowadays.

It is true that norms of modesty do shift somewhat from culture to culture. There have been cultures where women have never worn shirts and therefore their being topless was not considered sexually suggestive for the men in their society. But question of importance for us today is what message do our outfits, in our present culture and day, send to the men we are blessed to know and love?

Gorgeous Modest Dress

Dressing modestly can be both a blessing to both us and to all others

Survey Says

Personally, I have found the responses given on the ‘modesty survey’ extremely enlightening in this regard. This survey anonymously interviewed men seeking to live chastity on their views regarding women’s clothing. Their answers were astounding. The following is a sample of some of the survey questions, followed by the men’s responses (emphasis original):

  • Girls can dress attractively without being immodest. 98% agree/strongly agree
    • Age 20 – I actually had a T.A. in one of my classes who was a beautiful woman who dressed modestly, and I had trouble paying attention to anyone but her! Her clothing never caused me to stumble and never once did I have a physical reaction to her. Instead, my heart warmed (maybe even fluttered a few times hehe) and it just made me smile. There’s also a young woman from my home town who I’ve known for some time who has MASTERED this art. She is just gorgeous….wait, I’m rambling…. sorry. But see what I mean? The women who dress modestly AND attractively leave a much longer lasting impression on men.
    • Age 20 – There is a huge difference between being beautiful and being hot. Beauty is being attractive for who the girl is as a person. Hot is being attractive as nothing more than sex appeal.
  • Showing any cleavage is immodest. – 70% agree/strongly agree
    • Age 40-49 – I find it totally distracting. It’s EVERYTHING I can do to keep my eyes on her eyes when cleavage is showing.
    • Age 22 – Why? Why must you? What is your reasoning for doing it? You can be fashionable with out doing it, so why?
    • Age 20 – This is the biggest thing which causes me to fall.
  • Immodest clothing is not a problem (for you) when a girl in your own family wears it. – 21% agree/strongly agree
    • Age 24 – Maybe I am alone in this, but my “Hey! Female skin!” radar doesn’t stop to check DNA first
    • Age 16 – I radically disagree. It does not matter if the girl is my sister or not, it is still an assault on godly beauty, and my chastity. You see, what lust (and the whole industry that is producing all the magazines you see at the grocery store and worse) does, is it takes away the personhood of the object of lust. So then, immodesty in a mind surrendered to evil turns the woman into a thing — it removes personality, true beauty, being made in God’s image, and leaves only a thing that satisfies evil desires. Therefore, because of how destructive lust is it does matter that my sister and my best friend dress modestly.
  • Bending over so that cleavage is visible down the front of the shirt or dress is a stumbling block. 90% agree/strongly agree
    • Age 16 – Um… Yes. That image usually sticks in my head for weeks.
    • Age 21 – I cannot agree stronger. This is a big one for me. It would appear some shirt are MADE to do this. I appreciate it when girls hold there hand to their chest as they bend over. It demonstrates not only a respect for themselves, but also to me.
  • General comments to women
    • Age 24 – Sisters in Christ, you really have no concept of the struggles that guys face on a daily basis. Please, please, please take a higher standard in the ways you dress. True, we men are responsible for our thoughts and actions before the Lord, but it is such a blessing when we know that we can spend time with our sisters in Christ, enjoying their fellowship without having to constantly be on guard against ungodly thoughts brought about by the inappropriate ways they sometimes dress. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul presents believers as the members of one body – we have to work together. Every Christian has a special role to play in the body of Christ. That goal is to bring glory to the Savior through an obedient, unified body of believers – please don’t hurt that unity by dressing in ways that may tempt your brothers in Christ to stumble.
    • Age 26 – In high school, the place of greatest temptation toward lust was my church. Girls wore things to church that they thought were fashionable and dressy, but they would not have passed the dress code at my public high school. Church should NEVER be a guy’s greatest source of temptation, in any way. Please, be especially careful when picking out your dress clothes for church, and make sure they are modest when sitting and kneeling (if you kneel in church), not just standing in front of the mirror. 

In summary: cleavage, tight pants, short shorts, the infamous ‘midriff shirts’, exposed backs or bra straps: all these things compromise the grace-filled beauty of our feminine presence to our brothers in the Lord.

Listening to men about their concerns and struggles has made me more aware of things that wouldn’t naturally occur to me. For instance, remembering to hold my hand on an otherwise modest wide neck shirt when I bow to receive the Eucharist. Making sure I check both the front and the back of my outfits in the mirror, as well as skirt length when I’m sitting. Checking to see if my sleeveless shirts have arm holes that allow one to see in my shirt when I move my arms. Or being aware of keeping my legs crossed or closed when wearing a skirt and sitting across from others.

Does Modesty Compromise Beauty?

It is important to note that dressing modestly doesn’t mean looking sloppy or unfashionable or ‘frumpy’ (do people still use that word or am I dating myself?). When I was leaving the religious community I spent a number of years discerning with, the sisters there gave me strict orders: “not to dress so that people say ‘Oh yeah, she used to be a nun, that’s why she dresses that way’”. It can be a challenge to dress becomingly in this culture whose fashions often militate against modesty, but I have witnessed many women whose modest dress is fashionable and stunning, as befits their dignity as a women. They have also taught me to be much more creative with wonderful accessories like scarves, camis, sweaters, leggings, boots and the like. Along with the magic of transforming an immodest outfit into a modest one, they are also a great way to accentuate one’s unique personality.

Hip Modest Outfit

What do you think? Does modesty necessarily compromise beauty or style?

So how do we know?

Modesty questions aren’t always black and white. How much is too short, too tight, too low, too revealing? What about bathing suits? Which ones and under what circumstances are considered modest? I won’t attempt to answer this definitively. Rather, I believe these questions are best answered in dialogue with our brothers in Christ.

However I will leave you with one adage which you might want to carry with you as you hit the outlet malls this first week of summer: dress in a way that allows them notice the beauty of your face.

And for all you ladies who are going home for the summer, we are certainly going to miss those beautiful, gentle, kind, vibrant faces of yours around here! And equally yours beloved brothers in the Lord! You are in our heartfelt prayers! We miss you already.

This article was originally written by Kristine during her undergraduate studies at Texas A&M and is reprinted with permission of the author. Kristine has continued her studies and is currently pursuing her doctorate at the John Paul II Institute in the field of Theology. Graphics and captions provided by Virtuous Prom.

Interested in learning more about Catholic Modesty or looking for some fashion inspiration? Check out these links