A review of Christian Fashion in the Teaching of the Church by Virginia Coda Nunziante

by Joseph Shaw

This book is being launched in London, in the St Wilfrid Hall of the London Oratory, on Thursday 9 June, and I have been asked by the publishers, Calx Mariae Publications, to review it in advance of this event. For more details, please click here.

This short book comprises the author’s own introduction to the subject, and materials drawn from the speeches and writing of Popes Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII, with two final contributions from Cardinals Siri and Colombo. The documents date from 1914 to 1971. They end at this point because the Popes after Pius XII do not seem to have addressed the issue. Although small, therefore, this collection is comprehensive, at least in terms of the modern era, and for this reason extremely helpful to anyone interested in the subject.

The enormous scope of the subject makes the task of the Introduction difficult, and this difficulty is compounded by the reluctance of the Popes to specify exactly what they are talking about among the fashions of their own times. The earlier part of the period covered by these documents saw the development of recreational bathing, female sports and engagement in the work-place (particularly during the world wars), as well as many style trends. There are some references to the changing role of women and new realities such as dressing for the beach, but none at all to things like the length of skirts, sleeves, swimwear, or women wearing trousers, although Cardinal Siri does attend to this last issue.

It is very difficult to say anything about the history of fashion in a short space without fear of contradiction. For example, the Introduction contrasts a period of “customary” clothing before the advent of modern “fashion”, and there was certainly a change of tempo in the world of clothes with the advent of mass production and modern communications, but it is important to keep even this in perspective. Nineteenth-century Parisian fashions were transported across Europe and America for sale and imitation year by year, and even the clothes of the poorer majority are strikingly different century by century. On the other hand, the classic English suit, which is now found on formal occasions in every corner of the globe, has changed remarkably little since its development about 170 years ago.

Similarly, generalisations about how covered-up women were in former times need to be hedged about with qualifications. The depiction of “Summer” in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a richly decorated manuscript from early fifteenth-century France, juxtaposes elegantly-dressed nobles hawking on horseback with other people bathing in a river, stark naked. Again, there is a sharp contrast between day-wear and evening-wear in nineteenth-century clothes: Victorian evening gowns were much more revealing than what the same people would have worn in the working day, and these were themselves a reaction against the still-less modest fashions of the previous era. 

There has never been a time when there was not a lively debate about clothing: as Pope Pius XII remarks, in this volume, with the Preacher, there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles. 1:9). The focus of this debate has changed, however, and has done so in confusing ways. It is useful to keep in mind three Latin terms: luxuria, modestia, and pudor. Luxuria means lust, but in modern English of course “luxury” means something quite different, referring to high-status or extravagant items or lifestyle. The meaning of modestia has travelled in the opposite direction: in Latin it refers to the virtue which avoids extravagance, notably in clothing, but now, when applied to clothes, it is allied to chastity. Pudor is commonly translated “modesty”, which is fair enough but can add to the confusion. It refers to a sense of shame, which is connected with social norms. 

In the history of the debate over the centuries there has been a marked shift of emphasis from modesty in the old sense to modesty in the new sense. A great deal is said by the Doctors of the Church about avoiding excessive display, which is a sign of pride; the competition to wear the finest clothes could even lead to financial ruin in centuries past. Excessive extravagance still gets a mention by the modern Popes in this collection, but it is clearly much less of a problem, by their time, than clothing that is destructive of purity. I would say that, since the era of these documents, a striking new issue has arisen: of clothing associated with a nihilistic ideology of ugliness: ripped and dirty clothes, and clothes deliberately at odds with their original use, or with each other.

Fashion is a subject which requires historical perspective and careful distinctions. The most valuable contribution to the teaching of the Church in this collection is accordingly the longest and most nuanced, the address of Pius XII to an association of people involved in fashion in 1957. He makes a number of very valuable points.

First, the Church does not deprecate fashion in itself. “This penchant for the adornment of one’s person clearly derives from nature, and is therefore legitimate.” Like other forms of art, fashion develops by its own authentic principles: “it is quite true that fashion is like art, science, politics, and other so-called profane activities, which follow their own rules to attain the immediate ends for which they are intended.” Fashion makes an important contribution to social development: “It might be said that society speaks through the clothing it wears.”

On the other hand, Pope Pius XII condemns a form of what Martin Mosebach calls “the heresy of formlessness”:

“the insistent attempts of many contemporaries to separate the exterior activities of man from the moral realm as if the two belonged to different universes, as if man himself were neither the subject nor the object of the moral realm, nor therefore responsible before the Sovereign Regulator of all things.”

It is precisely because clothes are important, and have a contribution to make to the cultural development of a nation, that we cannot be passive participants in its trends. Bad trends should be resisted. Just because a particular kind of immodest garment has become widely accepted, that does not make it permissible. The promotion of such garments may even, on occasion, be the result of a malicious intention among some designers.

What, however, does this mean in practice? 

We do not intend to suggest that the expansive force or the creative genius of designers should be repressed, nor that fashion should be reduced to unchanging forms, to monotony or to dismal severity. On the contrary, We mean to indicate the right road that styles should follow, so that they may achieve their end as faithful interpreters of civilised and Christian traditions.

Avoiding the errors of ignoring the problem, of accepting fashions blindly, and of a lack of moderation, Pope Pius XII appeals to the instincts of the individual: “the sense of shame, almost without being consulted on the matter, gives immediate warning as to where immodesty and seduction, idolatry of matter and luxury (or simple frivolity) might be lurking.”

He also appeals to the designers themselves: who of course were present in his original audience. 

“Far from wanting a return to outdated forms (which not uncommonly reappear as novelties in fashion) but wanting rather to confirm the perennial value of sobriety, We should like to invite today’s artists to dwell for a moment on certain feminine figures in the masterpieces of classical art which have undisputed aesthetic value, and where dress, marked by Christian decency, is the worthy ornament of the person with whose beauty it blends as in a single triumph of admirable dignity.”

These are beautiful words and admirable aspirations, but I know that some readers will be frustrated by the lack of specificity. They will ask, What does “sobriety”, “dignity” and so on mean in practice? Can I wear my ripped jeans to the shops? Can I even go to the beach, let alone dress as is expected there?

The reason for this vagueness is that by definition fashion is variable, and applies to varied circumstances. What is appropriate for a car-repair workshop is not necessarily appropriate for going to church. Geography, cultural heritage, age, sex, class, all affect what is appropriate or indeed possible. What Pope Pius says is unfortunately correct: we must develop our ability to discriminate between what is practical, becoming, and appropriate, and what is not. Some of the Popes, and Cardinal Siri, called for an education of society through the efforts of organised Catholic groups, but we can’t wait for this to happen. To get through the current crisis, we will all have to think for ourselves.

I do not think this is as unhelpful as it may sound, because a large part of the problem is precisely people not thinking. Thoughtlessness is the major barrier to a healthier relationship with our clothes. Stop just wearing the easiest thing, or the thing others are wearing. Within your means, think about what will make you look nice: something becoming and dignified. For many people this thinking may be immature at first, but it would be a big step in the right direction. 

And what did Cardinal Siri say about women in trousers, you ask? To find out that, I suggest you buy the book. 

Source: Rorate Caeli