A Tale of Two Styles: Why Modesty Matters

Modesty isn’t just about clothes, it’s about the state of our hearts, but what we wear says something about us and how we view the world.


September 1, 2023

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How we show up matters—be it our attitude, our character, or yes, our outward appearance.

Whether we’re shopping for groceries, popping into the store for a last-minute gift, or making our living, what we wear says something about us and how we view the world. Modesty isn’t just about clothes, it’s about the state of our hearts.

Society and the fashion industry have often held the strongest hand when it comes to setting the tone of the times, especially when it comes to what we wear. And this affects men and women alike.

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We are, in essence, walking billboards.

The problem with this sort of “advertising” is that it often starts to blur the lines of propriety—something I’ve slowly learned over the years from my love of Jane Austen novels.

As a closet romantic, I always appreciated the pomp of everyday circumstances in Victorian-era life. There was nary a pair of leggings in sight nor a bare midriff as far as the eye could see.

The truth is, I never truly appreciated what Miss Austen was conveying in her books until I became Catholic. Even in all my years as a Protestant, and all my years reading Austen’s tomes, I never truly recognized propriety as a desirable way of life. 

I did not grow up putting on my Sunday best—millennial here, guilty as charged—and it was all too easy taking a page out of the world’s book. While I can fortunately look back on my articles of dress without too much condemnation, I’ve slowly shifted my understanding to see that what we wear matters. While I can fortunately look back on my articles of dress without too much condemnation, I’ve slowly shifted my understanding to see that what we wear matters.Tweet This

Over time, both via Austen and my conversion to the Catholic Church, I’ve been strongly convicted about how I show up in both character and appearance. And while I couldn’t place my finger on the reason for a sudden urge to cover my shoulders at Mass, I put that nudging into the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit and Our Blessed Mother. 

Much to my surprise, that simple act of obedience has manifested in other areas of my life. 

With time, I’ve come to realize that how we show up is not only a reflection of ourselves, it’s a reflection of the heart. 

Take the man at the gym who works out in a skin-tight shirt or even no shirt at all. 

Or the young—and sometimes not-so-young—woman who’s shown up with nothing left to the imagination.

While it’s easy to cast judgment, what’s really occurring here is hurting hearts. Hurting for attention. Hurting for validation. Hurting for connection.

And this heart-shaped hole isn’t limited to the gym (even if it’s amplified to its highest degree there). It’s becoming ever more present with what I call the “pajama-fication” of society.

Indecent dress isn’t solely defined by the amount of skin shown, it’s also represented in the blatant disregard for self and surroundings.

Think of it this way: in a hyper-casual world, how much can we truly expect from a person who doesn’t respect themselves enough—let alone those around them—to get properly dressed for the day?

That’s not to say people who aren’t dressed to the nines don’t have self-respect (this goes back to the difference between style and class). It does, however, imply that there’s a deep sense of lacking in someone’s life when they can’t be bothered to change out of their pajamas or leggings for errands, let alone Holy Mass.

Theological differences aside, I’ve seen an alarming number of people show up to Mass in indecent and scandalous attire, and I can’t help but cringe when I think of how normal this was (and) is in Protestant churches.

Prior to my inquiry into the Catholic Church, I never gave how I showed up to church a second thought. I came in shorts, tank tops, flip-flops, and Starbucks in hand. In other words, I came just as I was. 

And while there was clearly a mountain of grace set aside for me in this aspect of my journey, I believe a huge part of my “come as you are” mentality was due to a vacuum that I didn’t know existed: a godly, womanly, and feminine example of modesty. 

I didn’t grow up with a stable (or rational, for that matter) maternal figure in my life, which meant lots of disastrous choices while growing up in an era of MTV and Cosmopolitan magazine.

I wore what everyone else did, even at the expense of my God-given femininity.

When I had outgrown my need to show skin (I grew up in Southern California, where high temperatures make immodest dress commonplace), I found myself dressing in a way that was just as immodest as it was ambiguous—thanks to mainstream media’s blatant blurring of gender lines.  When I had outgrown my need to show skin, I found myself dressing in a way that was just as immodest as it was ambiguous—thanks to mainstream media’s blatant blurring of gender lines.Tweet This

I blame this period of androgynous dress on the robotic, automaton nature of working in San Francisco later in life. As you can see, some of us are highly influenced by our surroundings.

Locale aside, my clothing choices were not only immodest, they also lacked femininity.

I didn’t have positive female role models in my life, and I am truly convinced Our Lady was patiently waiting for the veil of societal norms to be lifted from my young eyes.

In hindsight, I can attribute a few key milestones to the Blessed Virgin’s intercession that helped shape how I present myself today, even if they were unbeknownst to me at the time. 

One was a random but staunch refusal to wear shorts in public, which took place circa 2016. (I was only sporadically attending Protestant church services at the time, so I don’t attribute this to a religious experience.) It was actually less about the shorts and more about the amount of bare skin. 

The other was in 2022, when, as previously mentioned, I felt strongly convicted to cover my shoulders at Holy Mass. 

And, at the time of this writing, I have decided that I will only wear dresses to see Jesus—something that surprises me as much as it delights me.

Now, before the court of public opinion comes after me with pitchforks and torches, these examples were my personal stepping stones on my journey to modesty. 

I do believe women are capable of wearing shorts in a modest way. I also don’t think bare shoulders are the work of the devil. And I don’t begrudge an older lady in sharp slacks lining up for Holy Communion. I just don’t see these three things as conducive to my vision of modesty in my life’s circumstances. As always, your mileage may vary. 

The whole point of this article is really to help others out there understand that there are options. That being said, if society tells you to wear something that feels uncomfortable, then you shouldn’t wear it!

Embracing femininity has never come easy for the self-professed tomboy. However, we are created in God’s image, and God wants women to show themselves as the beautiful, feminine creations He intentionally designed. This won’t happen overnight, but it can develop into something that feels authentic and comfortable and that honors God at the same time. We need to support each other in our modesty journey: women need to support each other, women need to support men, and men need to support women. 

How we show up matters. And when modern-day society says “come as you are,” it should give us pause. 

If we take anything from Scripture, it’s the reminder that we need to learn how to live in this world while not being of this world. And if we’re not setting ourselves apart in simple matters like how we dress—which is a great springboard for how we will carry ourselves throughout the day—then how exactly are we setting ourselves apart?

I’m not delusional. I don’t have a yearning to go back to the 19th century—or even further back, to the beginning of the Christian era—but I do think there’s something to be said about the modesty and propriety that those women exemplified and in which we as modern women are severely lacking.

In the end, we’re all going to be held accountable for how we conduct ourselves, and we can start today to make improvements. 

Ask yourself if what you’re debating on wearing is something that honors and glorifies your body. 

Ask yourself if how you present yourself in public honors and glorifies those around you, be it at your parish, your workplace, or even the coffee shop down the street.

When in doubt, ask yourself this: Just because I can, should I?


  • Anna Davis

    Anna Davis is a writer and editor for a major non-profit in New England and has spent over 10 years in Sales & Marketing. She enjoys learning about her Catholic faith, listening to podcasts, reading multiple books at a time, watching vintage and indie movies, and spending time with her family.

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