John Cassian surprisingly begins his Institutes, which describes the life of the desert Fathers in Egypt, with clothing. The monks must dress to fit their vocation, for the monk will be known like the Prophet Elijah, “by the description of the character of his clothing.” We are sacramental beings and express ourselves outwardly in our demeanor and clothing, which manifest our personality and even our character. Cassian says the habit of the monks should “aim at modesty of dress as well as cheapness and economy.” Clothing achieves its objective by meeting our needs—keeping us warm, presentable, modest, and humble.
Is modesty just for women? St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life specifically addresses this question: “St. Paul expresses his desire that all Christian women should wear ‘modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety;’—and for that matter he certainly meant that men should do so likewise.” He gives some more guidelines: “Always be neat, do not ever permit any disorder or untidiness about you. There is a certain disrespect to those with whom you mix in slovenly dress; but at the same time avoid all vanity, peculiarity, and fancifulness.” Finally, St. Francis tells us why modesty matters: “Purity has its source in the heart, but it is in the body that its material results take shape.” We express our interior purity in the way we conduct ourselves and in how we dress.
How can we express these points practically for men?
Don’t dress like a bum. If you dress down for work and social engagements you’re showing you don’t really care. Dressing nicely is a sign of the importance of the moment and helps direct our attitude.
Don’t go to the opposite extreme and be vain. Don’t chase the latest fashions and spend too much money on clothing, which can be directed to better purposes. It is a sign of pride to take too much care in how we dress and it makes us overly concerned about what other people think of us. Dressing nicely is actually very simple, especially for men (sorry women!).
Don’t try to entice women. We tend to put the burden of modesty of women, but it’s clear, especially these days, that women can be led into lust by men as well.
Stop wearing super tight pants!
Keep modesty even in bathing suits. It makes no sense to drop all standards of modesty when we swim. If we wouldn’t want to be seen in our underwear normally, why does the presence of water make a difference? Although it may not be required, it is more modest to wear a swim shirt (and it was standard in the early twentieth century to have a one-piece suit).
Honor God by the way you dress in church. Padre Pio’s rules were: “The Church is the house of God. It is forbidden for men to enter with bare arms or in shorts. It is forbidden for women to enter in trousers, without a veil on their head, in short clothing, low necklines, sleeveless or immodest dresses.” We should wear our “Sunday best” to show that Mass is more important than anything else.
Clothes should focus us on our dignity. When we think back to the origin of clothes in Genesis 3, God made Adam and Eve clothing out of animal skins in response to their shame. Clothes direct people to our faces and therefore foster personal relationships. Clothes have a moral, not just a practical purpose. A good question for a dress, then, is whether it is “personal” or objectifies us.
Clothes should reflect our character in their simplicity, nobility, and yes, modesty. As St. Charles Borromeo said: “Guard yourself against pompous fashions in clothing, and against every sort of vain beauty product or making yourself up, whether you are a man or a woman” (Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings, 179). It’s important for men to realize that modesty is for them too!