I want to propose a definition for modesty that seems to me to fit all of the best, most common-sense ideas of dress and modesty, while avoiding the traps some fall into which make it such a difficult virtue to talk about.
First of all, I want to reject any definition that defines modesty strictly in terms of a negative: "Modesty is avoiding tempting others to lust. Modesty is avoiding drawing attention to your sexual attributes. Modesty is not standing out."
Modesty is passing the two-finger test.
While some of those things might be the effects of a modest wardrobe, a virtue should not be a negative. A virtue must be something that can be aspired to and embraced, not merely the absence of a vice.
We should strive for more than to merely run away from what is harmful to us; we should be running towards something that heals and transforms us.
Have you ever tried to break a bad habit by sheer force of will? Sooner or later, you forget why you aren't doing whatever it is you are avoiding. Yes, there might be consequences you would like to avoid, but it just doesn't feel like living to be constantly making choices out of fear rather than something stronger and greater. Nor is it very sustainable.
We try to counter a culture that tells women they have to dress to be sexually alluring to men by proposing to them that they dress 'modestly' to avoid leading men into sin. But both options leave us struggling to mind-read people we might not even know, and that in itself is degrading—both for the woman who is asked to consider her sexual affect on men every time she dresses, and for the men whom we must make assumptions and generalizations about in order to even begin to talk about what is alluring or 'immodest.'
Sometimes, we even manage to combine both demands.
Is that the effect a virtue should have?
I've noticed something else about the way we talk about modesty. We rarely talk about modesty in the context of conspicuous consumption. Yet, this is the way the Bible talks about modesty in dress all the time. In 1 Timothy, the people are warned, not about uncovered skin, but about "...braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire." In Isaiah, the "wanton" daughters of Zion are described by their mannerisms ("haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go") and by their ostentatious jewelry and accessories.
Arm yourself with a good concordance, and you'll see rather quickly that the Bible says very little about sexually provocative dress (as opposed to actions) but quite a lot about avoiding showy dress and displays of wealth or superiority.
Which leads me to my next objection to so many presentations of modesty.
Modesty is not primarily about sex, and it isn't only for women.
When I was looking for those Bible passages up above, I wrote "Bible verses on dress" and the search results were all for "Bible verses on Women's Dress." I tried looking for "Bible clothing" and got "What does the Bible say about women's clothing choices?"
We have a problem here.
All of this ignores the wider implications of 'modesty.'
We still have linguistic clues to the older, broader, more comprehensive meaning of modesty. We still talk about someone having a "modest income" or a "modest home." We know that someone who declines to brag is "being modest." None of these things have anything to do with sex; all of them apply to men and women (and their possessions).
Yet, somehow, when we talk about modesty as a virtue, we talk almost exclusively in terms of sexual propriety—for women.
The Catechism goes a little further: "The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person."
But what does "consciousness of being a subject" mean? And what exactly does it mean to intuit "the spiritual dignity proper to man"? And how does this tie in with unostentatiousness and modesty in habits and bearing?
So here's the definition I want to propose:
Modesty is telling the truth about ourselves and others in our dress and behaviour.
Telling the truth about ourselves, of course, requires knowing the truth about ourselves. As the Catechism says, it is linked to our intuition of our own and other's worth and dignity.
Telling the truth about myself means that not only must I not present myself to others as an object for consumption or as having a primarily sexual worth, but I must also not present myself to others as something other than I am.
It means not acting and dressing to display my superiority to others, or to make a show of my rejection of the values and norms of the people around me.
Modesty means not dominating conversation in a way that demeans the contributions and worth of the people I am talking with, and not inflating my own importance in a way that diminishes others.
It means not playing games in my relationships, not being coy and evasive, but being honest in my intentions and actions. It also means treating others as having a dignity and worth that nothing they do or say can eclipse.
It means dressing for the role I am in, whether that means business dress in a business situation, old jeans when gardening, or taking special care with my appearance when entering into the presence of Christ. It means wearing wedding garments to the feast when I have them or when they are offered to me, but not setting myself up at the head table uninvited.
But it also means, I think, not being afraid of appearing unprepared in front of others. It's better for the seeker to wear the clothes she has than to avoid Church because she can't afford "modest" clothes and is afraid of judgment. There's no shame in appearing unprepared, messy, or imperfect when that is the true state of your soul.
Modesty in dress shouldn't be about women reading the minds and hearts of men. Instead, it requires that we know our own minds and hearts—our own worth and breadth of being—and that we dress accordingly. Not to display one aspect to the detriment of others, not to put on a show or make a statement, but so that our outer selves are an extension of our inner selves.
There are exceptions to this, obviously.
That doesn't mean our only reference is our own likes and preferences. We live in community with other people, and we should be conscious on some level of the 'forms' of our own culture; the broadly understood modes of propriety and framework within which our own 'language' of the self must develop in order to be understood. But these considerations cannot become primary, particularly in a pluralistic and multi-cultural society where we cannot 'speak' the language of every group and culture simultaneously. Among such a broad range of 'norms,' we have an unusual freedom to seek affinities within that scope.
To some extent, I think this process will always be somewhat intuitive and exploratory. As with any effort to tell the truth of ourselves, we will encounter misunderstanding and confusion, and each such encounter, when handled with charity, changes those involved.
But in such a fluid and complex medium, we do ourselves and others a disservice when we reduce the virtue of modesty to a set of firm rules and negatives when it has so much more to offer