The modesty wars have been raging so long already that now we’re in the throes of a backlash against a backlash against a backlash (as Simcha Fisher put it the other day).
First came a tendency, more Puritan than Catholic, to devise dress codes that micromanaged every centimeter of flesh from collarbone and kneecap, at least. They focused everybody’s attention firmly on the outside of the cup, the whited part of the sepulchre.
This fomented phariseeism, some objected, and made womanhood itself seem suspect and dirty.
Then came the reaction: people got fed up with the holier-than-thou-ness of it all and refused to humor the micromanagers of appearance any longer. They emphasized men’s responsibility for their own responses and refused to concede that there were any objective standards of modesty at all. Some suggested that the word “modest” be retired—not because there is no such thing, but because it was weighed down with so much baggage.
Next came the reaction against that—it struck some as a convoluted excuse for caving in to a godless culture. They thought those who wanted to emphasize the person rather than the hemline were just making excuses for being indistinguishable from the pagans.
Not much, maybe, but I’ve thought of one distinction that may get rid of one particular misunderstanding. I think it also sheds light on why modesty talk so often degenerates into the unedifying spectacle of Christians policing each other’s souls and judging the interior of other persons. This is something which we don’t have enough data to do right and which, in any case, we're clearly forbidden to attempt.
Here’s the new wrinkle: when we talk about clothing being moral or immoral, we fall into a trap. To say that some kinds of clothing are evil in themselves is clearly nonsensical. The skimpiest bikini could serve as a cleaning cloth, or to bind up a wound and save a life. No piece of polyester is moral or immoral, because no material object is moral or immoral.
Well, then, can we judge that wearing certain kinds of clothing is always blameworthy?
No, we can’t do that either, because that would require looking into other people’s souls, reading their interior dispositions. You may think it laughably obvious that a girl who dresses as if she can’t tell the difference between tights and pants is trying to provoke lust, but she may just be trying to be blend in with her fellow tenth-graders. Or maybe in her family, or her neighborhood, she was never taught that there was any way to be pretty besides being provocative.
People make assumptions about what’s going on inside men, too. Just as some assume they know exactly what motivates a woman to dress revealingly, others don’t believe men are really all that susceptible. Still others refuse to give men any credit for self-control.
So if there's no clothing that's intrinsically evil, and there's no way of dressing that's always blameworthy, aren't we forced to say that it's all relative?
No, of course not. I think you can make perfectly reasonable assumptions about the moral meaning of certain trends in clothing without making any judgments about the soul of the wearer. Here's an example, though it's an odd one.
In a movie I saw long, long ago--I think it was Black Orpheus--there’s a Brazilian tribe in which the natives traditionally go unclothed. Foreigners break in to exploit them, and the first thing they do is dress the women in brightly colored bikinis. Now they’re less modest, but more marketable. Strangely enough, here’s a piece of evidence that clothing clearly carries moral connotations—even though in this rare case more cloth means less modesty.
So there's no cause to fall for the false alternative: either it's all relative and morally meaningless, or we're all called to go probing around in other people's souls.
That's all. Not a definitive decree, but maybe a useful wrinkle.