Women must be decently dressed, especially when they go to church. The parish priest may, with due prudence, refuse them entrance to the church and access to the reception of the Sacraments, [each] and every time that they come to church immodestly dressed.” (General Pastoral Directive, 1915 A.D.)
Although immodesty in dress was not unheard of from the lips of the Popes, it was around the time of Pope Pius XI that a Dress Code of sorts came about.
Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) spoke of the deplorable immodesty in society, in his Encyclical to the Third Order St. Francis, “SACRA PROPEDIEM“, and encouraged especially the Tertiary Sisters, “by their dress and manner of wearing it, to be models of holy modesty for other ladies and young girls; that they be thoroughly convinced that the best way for them to be of use to the Church and to Society is to labor for the improvement of morals.”
He goes on to say, about society:
“..one cannot sufficiently deplore the blindness of so many women of every age and condition; made foolish by desire to please, they do not see to what a degree the in decency of their clothing shocks every honest man, and offends God. Most of them would formerly have blushed for those toilettes as for a grave fault against Christian modesty; now it does not suffice for them to exhibit them on the public thoroughfares; they do not fear to cross the threshold of the churches, to assist at the Holy sacrifice of the Mass, and even to bear the seducing food of shameful passions to the Eucharistic Table where one receives the heavenly Author of purity. And We speak not of those exotic and barbarous dances recently imported into fashionable circles, one more shocking than the other; one cannot imagine anything more suitable for banishing all the remains of modesty.
In considering attentively this state of things, the Tertiaries will understand what it is that our epoch expects from the disciples of St. Francis. If they bring their gaze back to the life of their Father, they will see what perfect and living resemblance to Jesus Christ, above all in His flight from satisfactions and his love of trials in this life, had he whom they call the Poverello, and who had received in his flesh the stigmata of the Crucified. It is for them to show that they remain worthy of him by embracing poverty, at least in spirit, in renouncing themselves, and in bearing each one his cross.
In what concerns specially the Tertiary Sisters, We ask of them by their dress and manner of wearing it, to be models of holy modesty for other ladies and young girls; that they be thoroughly convinced that the best way for them to be of use to the Church and to Society is to labor for the improvement of morals.”
In “Remarks on the woman’s mission in society” to a delegation of the Union of Catholic Women, October 21, 1919, Pope Benedict XV said, “We must hasten, however, to We congratulate the resolution we just made, you will ensure that Catholic women feel obliged to not only be honest, but to prove his honesty by way of dressing. Such resolution recalls the need for the Catholic woman to set a good example.
Ignorance alone can explain the deplorable extension taken today by a fashion so contrary to modesty, the most beautiful ornament of the Christian woman; better informed, it seems to us that a woman could never have come to this excess wear indecent dressing into the holy place, under the gaze of natural masters and the most authoritative of Christian morality.”
Pope Benedict XV, ” Remarks on the woman’s mission in society” to a delegation of the Union of Catholic Women, October 21, 1919, inProceedings of Benedict XV,Volume II, House of the Good Press, Paris, 1926 p. 69-70
Pope Pius XI had decried the Immodesty of women and called for those who dressed immodestly TO BE DE-BARRED FROM HOLY COMMUNION:
“Maidens and women dressed immodestly are to be debarred from Holy Communion and from acting as sponsors at the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation; further, if the offense be extreme, they may even be forbidden to enter the church.”
(Original letter published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis of 1930 vol. 22, pp. 26-28)
He spoke again of the importance of modesty in sports, in his encyclical, “Divini Illius Magistri” DECEMBER 31, 1929.
In 1930 a letter of the Sacred Congregation of the Council (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1930 vol. 22, pp. 26-28) was issued. This was addressed to the whole world. It condemned emphatically “the immodest fashion of dress adopted by Catholic women and girls, which fashion not only offends the dignity of women, but conduces to the temporal ruin of the women and girls, and, what is still worse, to their eternal ruin, miserably dragging down others in their fall.”
These instructions were given (among others):
1. “The parish priest should command that feminine garb be based on modesty, and womanly ornament be a defence of virtue. Let them likewise admonish parents to cause their daughters to cease wearing indecorous dress.”
2. “Teachers must not receive in their colleges and schools immodestly dressed girls.”
3. “Maidens and women dressed immodestly are to be debarred from Holy Communion … further, if the offence be extreme, they may even be forbidden to enter the Church.”
(I X . Puellae et mulieres, quae inhonestas vestes induunt, a Sancta Communione
et a munere matrinae in sacramentis Baptismi et Confirmationis
arceantur, atque, si casus ferat, ab ipso ecclesiae ingressu prohibeantur.)
In another Encyclical he wrote:
“It is abundantly clear that readers of Augustine will not be caught in the toils of that pernicious error, which was widespread during the eighteenth century, namely, that the inborn impulses of the will should neither be feared nor curbed, since all of them are right and sound. From its false principle sprang those educational methods, which We condemned not long ago in Our Encyclical on “The Christian Education of Youth.” Their effect is to allow a free mingling of the sexes and to employ no precaution in controlling the growing passions of boyhood and youth. From this false principle too comes that license in writing and reading, in presenting or frequenting plays, that do not merely threaten innocence and purity with dangerous occasions, but actually plot their ruin and destruction. From this source again are derived those immodest fashions of dress, which Christian women can never be at too great pains to abolish.”
“Ad Salutem“, April 30, 1930 A.D.
The Pope’s weren’t the only ones who spoke out about the dangers of immodesty and indecent attire. In 1925 the Bishops of Belgium issued a serious call concerning indecent fashions, quoting, “People who are not well dressed are asked not to approach the communion rail.”
(The Catholic Tunisia , October 11, 1925, p. 750 -752)
An article in Le Figaro, published on December 20, 1920 by His Eminence Cardinal Louis-Ernest Dubois spoke of a letter that “was read from the pulpit in every church in the diocese, the following warning of the new archbishop of Paris, ‘against indecent modes and unseemly dances.'” quoting, “We urge our diocesan react against the opposing modes to Christian decency.”
Le Figaro , 66 th year, 3 E Series, No. 354, Monday, December 20, 1920, p. 2 .
Continues letters and calls to decent Fashions streamed from chanceries and pulpits during these years (1920s-1940s), as it was becoming the “mode” to throw off old ways and do whatever was scandalous (for those days).
One must understand that the fashions of the 1920’s were not of such terrible immodesty as was the intent of scandal that was behind it. The lifestyle of the “Flapper Girl” that was behind much of the new crazes pushed for a “freer” lifestyle. One that, without the Church reminding Catholic’s of their duties, would easily cause many souls of forget all Modesty in dress, speech, and so on.
The new dances may not be of such concern today, but when they first came out in the 20’s, it was to be as much of a scandal as possible. Shaking parts of their bodies that were so un-exposed before. Hiking up their skirts to expose their knees – a “scandalous” deed back then. Smoking and drinking excessively, sleeping around freely, flirting with every person that came their way. Moving pictures gave the public more freedom concerning dirty movies. All of these immodesties called for the Church to openly speak about the dangers of such acts. For who knew where and when it would stop?
Cardinal-Vicar of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pompili (photo on left), on 24 September 1928 issued Guidelines to help Catholic women with regard to Fashion – and what they could consider to be Modest and proper for Mass (and so on).
“A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper.”
There has been a concession with regard to sleeve length, because of market conditions.
Brother Raymond-Marie Rouleau, Archbishop of Quebec, wrote in 1930: (loosely translated from French)“In order to determine precisely what is to be considered what is appropriate, (or) improper attire to be worn by the person assisting at Mass…We take the following rule to the letter of His Eminence Cardinal Vicar [ Basilio Pompilj ] addressed on 24 September 1928 to all higher schools of sponsorships and girls in the city of Rome..
We hope that all the girls and women of our diocese will be a duty to comply with these provisions and to set an example of Christian modesty with the submission to the will of the Vicar of Jesus Christ. It goes without saying that sanctions brought by the Sacred Congregation must be applied with equal prudence and firmness , to stop immediately and as effectively as possible the scourge of immodesty.”
Circular clergy” , Part No. I, April 6, 1930, published in Mandements, pastoral letters and circulars of the bishops of Quebec , Supplement No. 33, p. 15 , New Series, Volume 9, Quebec, in 1925.
Rufino J. Cardinal Santos, Archbishop of Manila, quotes these guidelines as “The Church’s stand concerning modesty in dress” in his Pastoral of December 6, 1959. He was known for launching many religious crusades, including the Purity Crusade for Mary Immaculate.
The Bishops in Quebec, Canada also wrote a lengthy Joint Pastoral Letter titled, “Purity Crusade“, concerning the grave importance of Modesty in Dress, published May 5th 1946. Earlier they had quoted,
“Synod of Quebec (1940), Decree 102, notes: “What if we ask what is a modest and decent attire ( minimum ) for a Christian, as we understand it’s one that covers the chest and the arms of non-transparent fabric, which goes down at least mid-leg, and whose cup a suitable extent protects modesty hiding body lines ” (Cardinal Rouleau, December 8, 1930 , Mandements of Bishops of Quebec , . vol XIII, Supplement 45) [made in: 36].
Address of Pope Pius XII to young girls of Catholic Action of Rome, members of the Crusade for Purity, on May 22, 1941. ‘How many girls there are who do not see any wrongdoing in following certain shameless styles like so many sheep. They certainly would blush if they could guess the impression they make and the feelings they evoke in those who see them.’ Pope Pius XII
Address of Pope Pius XII to young girls of Catholic Action of Rome, members of the Crusade for Purity, on May 22, 1941. An telling instruction from the Sacred Congregation of the Council, January 12, 1930, speaks volumes of the importance that Pope Pius XII held modesty in dress to: “Under the supreme apostolate which God has entrusted the performance of the whole Church, His Holiness Pope Pius XI has never ceased to teach by word and writings the precept of St. Paul: “That women wear decent clothes, adorning themselves with modesty and simplicity (…) and as befits women who profess to worship God through good works. “
Often when the occasion arose, the Pope disapproved and condemned severely indecent modes introduced everywhere today in the clothing habits of women and girls even Catholic; not only these modes gravely offend the dignity and feminine grace, but unfortunately cause temporal damage for the woman and, what is worse, his eternal loss and others.”
(D. Card. Sbarretti Sabine bishop and Poggio Mirteto, Prefect. JULES, Bishop of Lampsacus, Secretary. Instruction to Diocesan Ordinaries on Indecent Women’s Fashion by the Sacred Congregation of the Council, January 12, 1930)
Is it still Relevant Today?
There is still a sign outside the Vatican which tells the visitors how to dress. And if you are dressed more immodestly you will be thrown out or given paper clothing to wear! And as you can see, they still adhere to the original Modesty Guidelines, “shoulder and knees covered, nothing too low-cut… etc.” The Papal Audience Dress Code should at least be thought about adhering to when in the Presence of, not just the Pope, but the Blessed Sacrament!
Pope Pius XII condemned the idea that a sin such as wearing an immodest fashion is acceptable (i.e. not sinful) if it is customary at a given time and/or place. The principle of majority is no rule of conduct. (There are many evil practices that are widely accepted.)
“Yet, no matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger: style must never be a proximate occasion of sin.”(An ADDRESS of Pope Pius XII to a Congress of the “Latin Union of High Fashion” November 8, 1957.)
The SACRED CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH: PERSONA HUMANA : DECLARATION ON CERTAIN QUESTIONS CONCERNING SEXUAL ETHICS says,“In moral matters man cannot make value judgments according to his personal whim: “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. . . . For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.””
The virtue of chastity, however, is in no way confined solely to avoiding the faults already listed. It is aimed at attaining higher and more positive goals. It is a virtue which concerns the whole personality, as regards both interior and outward behavior.” Learn to respect and love one another. But do it completely.
Are we a “generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet are not washed from their filthiness.” [Proverbs 30:12] ?
In 2006 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement titled, “Happy Are Those Who Are Called To His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist”, in the statement is this portion on dressing well for Holy Mass; “Appropriate attire — We should also come to the sacred liturgy appropriately dressed. As Christians we should dress in a modest manner, wearing clothes that reflect our reverence for God and that manifest our respect for the dignity of the liturgy and for one another.”
As we can see, the importance of the issue of modesty, especially in the Presence of the Holy Eucharist is still very important.
A question one might ask oneself is, “How exactly could something of such great importance, as called by the Church, suddenly no longer be so? Have we lost our concupiscence which we have been born with, thanks to Adam and Eve’s sin? Have we gained a miraculous ability to no longer be tempted?”
Alice von Hildebrand speaks volumes concerning this in her article, saying this of downplaying of temptation and the like, “King David’s sins underscore how sexual desire can degenerate into what Dietrich calls “diabolical” temptations. Some of the most atrocious perversions occur when the Devil takes over completely. And one should never downplay, or minimize, the gravity of these evils. It is plainly false to claim that such abuses are “tragic,” rather than “filthy.”” Her book, “The Dark Night of the Body” is another interesting and great source on this topic. Even secular sources’ findings concerning the primal feelings that man, in general, have, when it comes to the Bikini (As well as the mini skirt) is a loud warning bell to any Catholic. One can learn to love the other for their God-given beauty and their Temple of the Holy Spirit as much as they can, but even great Saints take steps to fight temptation. St. Thomas Aquinas for one example – threw a burning log at a prostitute coming into his room to tempt him.
St. Padre Pio had a great love for Modesty, take a look at some of his letter:“Most of all it was modest in the way of dressing that was most dear to the Padre’s heart, no matter where one lived. The reason that the Saint worried was that an indecent way of dressing can be scandalous and an occasion of sin for anyone.’”
(IASENZANIRO, FR. MARCELLINO. PADRE PIO TESTIMONIES. VOL 1. SAN GIOVANNO ROTUNDO, ITALY: EZIOLINI POADRE PIO PIETRELCINA, P 149.)
Although one story in particular has not held true concerning St. Padre Pio and modesty, and that is the story of his “putting a sign debarring certain women with certain dress lengths from confession.” This story has been proven to be false.
St. Dominic Savio was also a great lover and promoter of purity and modesty.
St. Maria Goretti as well.
Even an early Christian martyr, St. Perpetua was known to cover her legs as she was thrown to and fro in the lion dens – to cover her modesty!’When she was thrown into the air by a savage bull in the amphitheatre at Carthage, her first thought and action when she fell to the ground was to rearrange her dress to cover her thigh, because she was more concerned for modesty than pain.’
Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the Girls of Catholic Action, speaking of St. Perpetua
Conclusion / Final Notes
The Catholic Church isn’t dumb; we are not expected to wear old fashioned or ugly clothing, covering our bodies likened to Sharia Law! Pope Pius XII actually calls us to follow the fashion, but with prudence! He called it an act of charity! He has even said that Fashion and Modesty go together.
We are called to look to these guidelines for the sole reason that we know without a doubt that our dress (and, remember we must be modest in our looks, thoughts, words and actions also!) will never be a source of scandal or sin to others.
It’s not “two more inches and you are sinning!” but rather “here is a Standard that will make it easier for you to be able to build a wardrobe around, without having to worry about Modesty at all!” And even if some willfully dress immodestly, it is never our place to hate those people, or treat them badly! Never! We are called to be examples, and to tell the truth when it is charitably necessary (if people don’t know what is modesty they cannot dress modestly), but we are not called to judge if a person is purposefully dressing sinfully to make men lust after them! Most people have no idea anymore! And then need our prayers, our charitable information when possible, and most of all … our example It would be really easy to believe that we could dress how we think is modest, but as mentioned before; something are more difficult than others when it comes to temptation. It is up to both genders to dress modestly, be pure in heart and mind, “flee thou youthful desires, and pursue justice, faith, charity, and peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” [2 Timothy 2:22]
If we tried to “cover up” parts of ourselves that were a “stumbling block” or “temptation” for others it would be impossible. As even the mere thought of a person can bring about temptation. It is up to us to fight these temptations, yet not making it harder for our Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
Few “dress codes” have been made by some Christians that have proven to make no sense at all concerning “inches” and “situational outfits”. Is Original Sin merely situational? Prudence and common sense calls us as Catholics to follow a moral guideline, not our feelings, as most Catholic issues. As the Catholic Church has so very much pointed out the importance of Modesty in dress, as well as other areas, we should at least adhere to the seriousness, and the importance.
We will continue to update this portion of the website as we obtain more information concerning Modesty in Dress & the Church.