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Clothing, Culture, and Human Values

At my high school in the late 1960s, the dress code was strict. I don’t mean that the nuns made all sorts of rules. I am talking about the really strict—indeed almost rigid—rules imposed by the girls themselves.

It was the era of the miniskirt. Any girl who wore a skirt less than eighteen inches above her knee was regarded as a freak. She was “hopeless,” a “stodge,” and simply “not in.” At the bus stop in the mornings, girls would roll their skirts over at the waist to get them shorter and shorter until the socially correct length was reached. Sometimes discomfort around the waist was such that another solution had to be found, so a friend would help to stick up the hem with tape.

Did it matter? It mattered terribly. We had one girl in our class who wore a skirt almost down to her knees. Imagine! And she didn’t like pop music, either. She was simply weird, and had few friends. As it happens, I was on quite good terms with her, but I obeyed the strict fashion rules that she flouted daily.

It wasn’t just the length of your skirt. Failure to wear adequate makeup on weekends was a social no-no as well. To be seen at a party—or even at a friend’s house for coffee—without eye makeup was socially impossible. We all spent a great deal of time drawing black lines along the tips of our eyelids and applying huge quantities of mascara.

What did the nuns do? What could they do? I vaguely recall occasional nagging remarks—and a certain amount of teasing, especially on cold mornings—from teachers about the unsuitability of extremely short skirts. It was rumored that some of the older teachers even said our skirts were immodest, which we loved and found hilarious.

Sifting through old photographs, I think we looked awful. I am envious of people who attended school in less crazy times. The fluffy hair and wholesome-jolly-hockey-sticks appearance of girls in the 1940s and ’50s looks terribly dated but somehow more normal than the weird, tiny skirts and dark-ringed eyes of my later generation.

And so to today. Clothing in general, and female clothing in particular, is beginning to be a serious issue for Catholics today. What to wear to Mass? Is there such a thing as “suitable” and “unsuitable” clothing? My mind goes back again to my own teenage years and arguments about wearing silk “hot pants” (remember those?) to church.

Today, the arguments start when children are much younger. Tight, sexy tops—”hanky tops,” with just a scrap of material at the front, a bare midriff, and a spaghetti string around the neck, leaving the back bare—are standard wear at most discos and even for small girls, age seven and older. Lots of glitter and short, tight skirts complete the picture. Even those who pride themselves on saying that there should be no rules whatever about dress are beginning to ask if children are being exploited by a fashion industry that seeks to sexualize them at an early age and hold them captive for economic gain.

Children have a lot of spending power. This is a major difference from thirty years ago, when it was quite normal (indeed, even a source of pride) for a teenage girl to make her own clothes or to adapt old ones or seek out bargains at charity shops. Today, clothing has to be not only of this year’s design but with the right label. I have seen mothers sewing false labels onto bargain teenage clothing, later assuring their daughters that this is indeed the Real Thing.

And as for the panic over trainers, one family who had children visiting from an impoverished part of Eastern Europe found that the youngsters were angry when bought ordinary trainers that were not of the “right” brand name. Even in the Ukraine, the message about what was vitally necessary in the fashion field had hit home.

What can be done about this? Most Catholics, even those who try hard not to sound old-fashioned or prim, have concerns over people going up to receive Communion in beachwear that covers little of their flesh. It is disconcerting to be offered the chalice by a lady in a tight-fitting leopard-skin catsuit (I’m not making this up—it happened to me). We are overdue for a realistic discussion about clothing, fashion, culture, and human values.

It could start with some questions about what to wear in church. We might open things up with the thought that clothing is relevant to what we are doing: What is suitable for the beach may not be suitable for joining others in an act of eucharistic worship. What we wear should not, on such an occasion, be a source of distraction to others or sensual vanity to ourselves. It should not distract people from their prayer. It should not make us spend our time preening ourselves and showing off our suntans.

A further thought might be that our clothes echo our personality, our ideas, our thinking, our values. If we follow fashion rigidly, without thought of whether or not a certain style suits us, we look foolish. If we dress in a way that is silly for our age or for the task we are doing that day, ditto.

If, on the other hand, we have chosen a color and a style that make a statement we need to make, then our clothing could be a delight for ourselves and for others. A dark outfit at a Memorial Day service says, “I am taking the trouble to pay tribute to those who gave their young lives for my country.” A special and smart outfit for a wedding says obvious things about the love and good wishes we send to the bride and groom. And so on.

So what message is given by bare middles, sky-high tight skirts, and (sorry, but it has to be mentioned) visibly miniscule, sexy underwear? What about t-shirts carrying the four-letter slogan of a fashion company that deliberately echoes a sexually explicit crudity? What about tight, sexy t-shirts and bikini tops (worn, alas, even at church events and papal Masses organized for the young)? Many modern fashions spell out a message of sexual availability, all the more emphatic because it seems normal and ordinary—but then, in the Western world today, so is casual sex. The fashion is part of the message: Sex isn’t sacred, it isn’t for keeps, it isn’t for marriage, it’s likely to be a normal part of a relationship begun at a disco. This is a vicious message, and it is wrecking lives. It is cruel and wrong to let it go on.

But we need to remember that most teenagers will have the same reaction my friends and I had a generation ago: an urgent need to be just like everyone else, an absolute assurance that older people are completely out of touch and prudish, a contempt for any criticism that seemed not to take us seriously.

In a realistic discussion about fashion, there is no room for prudery or “Ah, but in my young day. . . .” The only way forward is an authentically Catholic approach: that clothing is not just a matter of covering; it is also an art form with its own statements to make, and it can be a source of beauty and dignity, making its own contribution to culture and history. It could include some understanding that rules have their place. Clothes are important to us, and as Catholics we have a lot to say on the subject: vestments at Mass, the central role played in our lives by the wedding dress, the First Communion outfit, the traditional ceremonial robes of Catholic groups or organizations.

Catholicism has given the world some of its best traditions, including clothing worn for special occasions, folk costumes for feast days, hats and cloaks and gowns and sashes associated with festivals and seasons. To lose sight of this is to lose much—and to foster a good sense of the right use of clothing could be one of the best fruits of a new evangelization.

In order to do this, we have to lead the culture, challenge it creatively, tease it, and draw out what is good and true in people’s desire to adorn themselves. There is room here for a new apostolate. It could include some understanding that rules have their place. A dress code for papal events? (They have one at St. Peter’s, at Assisi, and at other major shrines and churches). And how about a competition to design an attractive t-shirt-style top, to include a logo and good use of religious symbolism, as part of the preparations for World Youth Day? The top twenty or so designs could be chosen to be on sale as “official WYD” wear and could come as part of a clear statement about a dress code, mentioning no bare middles or spaghetti straps.

And there is much more for Catholic groups, colleges, women’s organizations and so on to tackle. It might be that there is a fashion magazine waiting to be born, new fashion events created, some conferences held, some new trends set. Is there a group or some individuals who would be willing to make a start?

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