Updated: Sep 16, 2019
“If we want our culture to get its act together, one of the first things we need to start doing is change our dress.” Fr. Chad Ripperger
When you hear people talking about dressing modestly, they are usually focused on how women dress. However, even though male dress is something we don’t hear a lot about, it's still important.
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First, some terms. We often discuss modesty with regards to the 6th and 9th commandments, but this limits it unnecessarily. Decorum is a subvirtue of modesty, and it means dressing according to who you are (profession, gender, etc.) and your circumstance (Holy Mass, work, etc.).
To understand what decorum requires, you have to understand the different purposes of dress for women and men. Women have a natural inclination to please their husbands or prospective husband, and naturally/historically, that is the aim of their dress.
However, in the natural order, men are not judged, but judge (on external matters), which is why it would be inappropriate for a man to wear jewelry or make up. (Wedding bands and the like are excluded because they are utilitarian. The point is dressing to "adorn themselves" would be against the natural order.) So the aim of their dress is found primarily in its practicality: it is to build virtue and to find and keep work.
Some quotes on the significance of dress:
Clothing you wear “conditions, determines, and modifies that persons gestures, attitudes, and behavior” “such that clothing worn on the outside imposes a particular frame of mind on the inside” (Fr. Ripperger)
“The virtuous man manifests his virtue through proper dress” (Fr. Ripperger)
“Clothing should also render a service to the soul” (Dr. Marian Horvat)
Now, a thought exercise. The following images depict middle-class dress from 16th c., 1850, 1915, respectively. The garbs are different according to the different customs, but they are all dressed formally and appropriately according to their profession.
Now, go most places today, and you will see something like this:
(streetfair, left; Mass; right)
Like most of modernity, this push to “casual” was planned, deliberate, and began in the mid-20th century. The Sorbonne Revolution (think Berkely student revolt in 1968) motto was “it’s forbidden to forbid”, and their banner was sloppy, casual, easy clothing for everyone.
The Beatles’ dress here (they were a very effective chess piece in the game) was evolutionary for the time (sloppy, casual, boyish), though even this would be a breath of fresh air nowadays.
Let’s look at two specific pieces of men’s clothing to demonstrate. First, the blue jeans. Before the 1960s, they were the durable/practical clothes of cowboys and ranchers.
As Dr. Horvat puts it:
“The ‘60s transformed the blue jean into a symbol of the egalitarian and “democratic” tendencies of the age. Faded, torn, tight-fitting, unisex, they became the uniform for the student revolutionary.”
(Remember, this revolution was about making everything seem the same. Men and women are the same. Students and professors are the same. Upper class and working class are all the same. What better way to push this on the people than to make everyone dress the same?)
A particularly malicious ploy was to get father’s and son’s to dress the same, because, after all, authority was repressive and outdated. That brings us to the second piece of clothing: the shorts.
Up until the early 20th century, shorts and pants meant very different things. Boys typically wore shorts. They were given their first pair of trousers when they hit puberty, and this was a big deal. It was a coming-of-age thing. Men wouldn’t have been caught dead in shorts, because it was a sign of immaturity.
Schools have long known that to encourage good behavior and develop young boys into men, you dress them like adults. Take this picture of 15-year-old Winston Churchill, for example:
"The young man, with an ardent longing for responsibility, maturity, and action, feels himself imbued with the incipient importance that his costume seems to transmit." Plinio Correa de Oliveira
Because clothes are so important (remember how tied up they are with virtue!), the forces trying to destroy Christian culture had to get their hands on clothing customs. And they succeeded. So, what do you see today? No longer do boys dress like men to become men. Men dress like boys (ball cap, t-shirt, shorts, tennis shoes). This is lamentable. Think for a second of the effect this has on fathers. Consider this quote from Dr. Horvat:
This revolution in dress was a deliberate attack on fathers and male authority.
Now for the practical applications. The Church doesn't treat male dress the way it does women. Therefore, there are no rules like two-fingers below this and six-inches above this like there are for women, because men are not the gatekeepers of chastity like women are (remember, just because their specific role isn't that of gatekeeper does not mean they are exempt from perfecting the virtue themselves).
As far as modesty relates to the 6th and 9th commandment, the Church does divide the body into three parts:
Honest (face, hands, feet)
Less Honest (lower neck, back, legs, arms)
Dishonest (reproductive organs and their proximities)
The thinking is (as I understand it, at least), show the “honest” parts guilt-free, the “less honest” with discretion/carefully, and avoid showing or accentuating the “dishonest” at all costs.
Another thing to consider is the vice of admiratio, or dressing to stand out or get attention. This can apply to over-the-top clothing (remember the Fop from 18th c. Lit?) or dressing at the gym in a way to reveal your buff physique. (Intention is what’s important here.)
Many of you were asking about the rules for the beach and pool after Mater's post on Modesty at the Beach. Again, there are no hard and fast rules. Men generally dressed the same in mixed company, once mixed bathing became acceptable, as you can see from these pictures (1877 on the left, 1915 on the right). However, it is worth noting that once the shirt came off, shorts shrunk exponentially, and things got out of hand fast.
I think there is another element to consider when deciding what to wear, specifically when it comes to mixed bathing. Historically, men always dressed according to their profession, even off-duty. This was another thing the cultural revolution sunk its teeth into. So, if you’re one of the ones lamenting how priests ditch the cassock when “off-duty”, you should know this was a result of all men losing their professional garb when “off-duty.” The whole notion of getting home from work and changing into sweatpants is problematic, but that’s another post. To illustrate, another thought experiment:
Both of these pictures depict Kaiser William II, King of Prussia.
On the left, he is in his royal soldier garb, ready to give commands. The other, in civilian garb, is quite unsettling if you know who he is. How are you to give him the homage and the swift obedience he deserves when he’s dressed just like the onlooker? Can you imagine Nazi commanders dressing like civilians while walking the street? Things might have been very different if they had.
So no, there aren’t any specific garb for lawyers or engineers, etc. these days. But consider this: you should always dress worthy of the authority proper to you. So, if you’re going to the beach with your kids, does dressing half-naked, identical your 5-year old boy, convey your authority like it should? Or are you pulling a Kaiser William II?
If you are wanting to dress nicely, there are resources and easy ways to do this. On the chart below, a nice goal would be “Business” for Mass and work, “Business Casual” or “Casual” for recreation with friends, and “Casual” or “Ultra Casual” for hard labor. (My grandfather was a rancher and wore jeans and a button down everyday.) Avoid "Sloppy" altogether.
These aren’t hard and fast rules. Pray about it and see how you can adjust your clothing to foster the virtues for which you are striving. Remember, this is all about virtue, and it's okay if it's a slow process. I'm still working on it, too.
A memorable quote from Fr. Ripperger is applicable here: “If we want our culture to get its act together, one of the first things we need to start doing is change our dress.”
If you need resources, particularly if you are a single man, Art of Manliness has an entire section devoted to learning how to dress. The Catholic Gentleman has some good information on dressing for Mass. Those Catholic Man have some articles to peruse on the topic, as well, here and here.
Lamentably, the cost of a good suit has skyrocketed. (You can read more about that here). Generally, good suits and jackets are worth the investment.
However, I will post some cheaper options for those who have nothing and need a jacket for Mass this Sunday or for any man who has or will have a baby in the near future who will definitely spit up on you at Mass (Yes, this happens often, to me at least!). There are perks to having a cheap jacket around!
Kohl's regularly has jackets on clearance for over $100 off. Start building up a good dress shirt collection with simple dress shirts like these. I have these slacks and they are extremely comfortable and look great.
You can also find some good deals at thrift stores occasionally. Don't forget to shop sales at places like Men's Warehouse, too.
Here are the workout clothes that I wear that I purchased at Kohl's on clearance. I've worn them to play basketball, train for triathlons, and lift weights. My rules are moisture-wicking, lightweight tees with sleeves (no muscle shirts) and pants or shorts that reach the knees. My favorites are here, here, and here.
Hopefully this helps! Remember, we are trying to restore authentic Catholic culture. It'll take more than attending the Latin Mass to do so. We need to factor it in to every part of our lives, and dress does indeed play a very significant role.
Sources & More Info
https://traditioninaction.org/Cultural/C017cpMen%20DressingWell.htm… https://traditioninaction.org/religious/n003rpLapide_Appearance_2.htm… https://traditioninaction.org/Questions/A005_Fashion.htm… https://traditioninaction.org/Cultural/C043_Habit.htm… https://traditioninaction.org/Cultural/C041_Men.htm… https://traditioninaction.org/Questions/B847_Truman.html#clothing… https://traditioninaction.org/Cultural/G003cpIrresponsibleFathers.htm… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_swimwear… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shorts