Recently a lady called me with a complaint increasingly common in traditionalist Catholic circles. She believes a group of Catholics in their parish community is becoming “puritanical” in clothing and “inflicting” those standards on others. "Could you be more specific?" I asked.
Of course she could, and then we came to the crux of the problem, which was personal, as it often happens with ladies. The daughters of one large family in her parish community are not being allowed to visit her home because her own daughters are wearing inappropriate clothing, judged so by the “puritanical” and “tyrannical” parents.
"What do these families mean by inappropriate clothing?" I inquired.
Elegance and modesty combine in Catholic Queen Astrid and Prince Baudouin in the 1930s
Skirts too short, blouses too tight, was the response. These so-called puritanical standards demanded long skirts and loose blouses. Some ladies and girls were “always” wearing turtlenecks or buttoned up blouses, “even in the summer heat!” she added with emphasis. “Amish-looking” clothing, “frumpy,” she insisted.
I could tell my interlocutor thought I would jump to take her part, because she knows that at times I have criticized the lack of elegance of some traditionalist dress. But I did not.
She was right in one point, since, indeed, I often quote the wise St. Francis of Sales, who stated “I wish that devout persons would always be the better dressed persons in their milieu, but at the same time, the less pompous and affected. As we read in Proverbs, their dress should be characterized by grace, decorum and dignity."
St. Francis went on to counsel that persons should dress in such a way that neither the prudent old persons can ever say “You do too much” (You follow the bad fashions), nor the youth complain, “You do too little” (Intro to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chap. 251). He added, however, that when the two opinions conflict, follow the prudent, not the youth. I have always affirmed this is good practical advice from the Saint renowned for his wisdom.
Good customs give good fruit
The conversation continued. "If you don't agree with what the clothing requirements of these parents," I asked, "why don't you just invite other children to your home?"
She replied that the “puritanically” dressed girls are very nice and upstanding young ladies, sweet, considerate, well-behaved and enjoyable to be around. Their games and entertainment are wholesome and upright, and these girls would be a good influence on her own daughters, who are fairly new to traditional circles.
The clouds started to lift to reveal the full panorama. The girls whose standards of modesty in the home are high and strictly enforced are, in fact, the model children of the parish. They are amiable and sociable, not rebellious and introverted, and have a good influence on others.
My interlocutor registered surprise that I stand behind the parents who have established these high standards. The rules they establish in and outside their homes to maintain good manners and customs should be respected by others, even if they may not agree in totality with them.
The conversation closed cordially, and although I could not make my new acquaintance change her mind, at least I broke the violence of her objection and, I hope, won a right of citizenship for the good girls.
The counsel of a Pope
To give more strength to my stance, I believe it fitting to return to the good counsel of Pope Benedict XV in a Speech to an Italian Womens’ Group in 1919. He warned women about immodesty in dress and customs and he congratulated that particular group of women on their resolve to be “above reproach” in their dress because of the great need to repudiate the “exaggerations of fashion.”
Today, the trend of immodest dress for women has gone far beyond mere “exaggerations.” It has become outright pagan and tribal. If you turn the page back a century to the times of Benedict XV, you will find that ladies buttoned their blouses and wore long sleeves – yes, even in the summer heat! He censured the process of “relaxation” and “dressing for comfort” that was just beginning. Today we have reached what seems to be the end of that process, and I do not think it is excessive when a good reaction sets in and parents want to return to a more disciplined Catholic dress.
Typical vacation safari dress in the 1920s; below, children in their Sunday best - more concern for decorum than comfort
The Pope continued, warning that the new styles of dress are contrary to the natural sense of modesty of women and are harmful to society because “they are a cause of evil.”
Today, the Church authorities – from the nuns and parish priests all the way up to the Pope – to say the least are doing nothing to promote good Catholic standards of dress. Sadly, it is the parents who must carry the full burden of countering the real tyrant of our day, modern fashion. The true enemy to target is not those Catholic parents who are trying to preserve the purity of their daughters, but the Tyrant Fashion that destroys innocence and slaughters the natural modesty in girls.
In cases where Catholic parents may seem to go to one extreme (excessive modesty) to counter the prevailing mode of our days (an almost complete nudity), I support the parents. Any gardener knows that the way to correct a young tree that is bending one direction from the wind is to gently pull it in the opposite direction until it becomes strong enough to stand by itself in the erect position. If, to return to a sense of decency and modesty, at times we see persons who adopt modest clothing that may not reflect the highest style or best taste, then so be it.
With time, I have no doubt grace and the Catholic sense of decorum will prevail and correct any gauche appearance. To summarize, better gauche than indecent.
The opportune warning
Benedict XV went one step further in his counsel to ladies regarding their duty in dress. Not only did he applaud their resolution to be irreproachable in dress, but he insisted that ladies should not “tolerate in their presence any indecency in the mode of dress.”
He counseled them to do exactly what these Catholic families are doing: The parents must speak out and demand the correct standards be met by family members; they also have the right to prevent their children from going places where those patterns are not met. This is the only way the family has today to counter the tyranny of the modern world, which imposes its standards and rules so violently when you enter its hostile terrain.
Posted June 22, 2011