“Modest dress is required, in keeping with the dignity of the place as well as the solemnity of the occasion. Whatever you strip off the wedding dress afterward to turn it into a party dress is not at issue; one does not show up for a religious ceremony in a plunging neckline or strapless party dress.” –Miss Manners

Oh Miss Manners, in the years since you wrote those words, the issue of modest dress at religious ceremonies has only gotten worse. It’s gotten so bad that even the Savannah Morning News carried an article at the end of June in its Accent section entitled, “Bearing Witness or Witnessing the Bare: an Explosion of Immodest Dress is proving a distraction for some churchgoers” (June 30, 2006).

Given the strength of Jesus’ warning about lust (it violates the 7th Commandment prohibiting adultery), the extreme measures that He urges to avoid it (plucking out our eyes, cutting off our hands), the direct Apostolic command to women to “adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly” (1 Timothy 2:7), and given that one comes to worship in order to promote sanctification and piety, it is remarkable that girls and women show up at churches dressed as they do (Matthew 5:30).

I am encouraged by the tasteful and unostentatious dress of the vast majority of the women in our congregation. There seems to be a fairly strong consensus on standards. In fact I once overheard a young mother respond to a blatantly bad example of provocative dress: “She must not know how we dress around here.”

But the evidence from around town would seem to indicate that we have reared a whole generation of girls who have no sense of modesty whatsoever. Wendy Shalit’s recent book, A Return to Modesty, has not gotten much traction with today’s teens.

Attend a High School football game and watch the fashion parade. Half of them look as though they are auditioning for Hooters. The popular “lingerie look,” as we might call it, further obscures the already almost obliterated line between public and private apparel.

Many of their mothers are of no help, themselves being caught up in what are often painful attempts to look youthful. Through the malls, the schools, the neighborhoods, the restaurants, and even the churches the march goes on and on: plunging necklines, bare shoulders, bare midriffs, short skirts, shorter shorts, and painted-on tightness.

Few things pain me more than to see sweet, girlish 8-12 year olds transformed into 13-18 year old Lolitas. Their fathers are either AWOL, defeated (ganged up on by mother and daughter), or perhaps blind. The problem for us is that the world’s plunging standards are corrupting our own.

Years ago Eric Segal’s description of the heroine in Love Story (through the thoughts of her “preppie” suitor) included the observation that there had never seen so much as an additional button left unbuttoned on her blouse. This was Segal’s way of describing modesty as it was still expressed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I can’t imagine a novel today having such a line. Our culture is so far gone in the direction of immodesty that Jennifer (no puritan herself) seems quaint, almost Jane Austenish. Even the business community has become alarmed, as the following box indicates:

“Modesty Concerns in the Workplace”

  • National Mutual Insurance Co. of Columbus Ohio: banned low-cut tank tops and blouses with spaghetti straps.
  • Lazard Asset Management cited as inappropriate business attire “spandex-type materials”, sun dresses, halter tops, and miniskirts.
  • Fifield Cos. (real-estate development company in Chicago) was forced to rewrite its employee handbook after a staffer showed up at a sales event in a midriff-barring ensemble.
  • Dow Jones Office-Casual Risk Index rated spaghetti straps, midriff-exposing tops, miniskirts (more than a few inches above the knee is “considered provocative” and is “not acceptable”) and sheer blouses as being elevated to severe in riskiness and sundresses as acceptable only if they hit the knee and are paired with a blazer.
  • Enterprise Bank of Wichita, Kansas produced a 20-page Power-Point presentation which nixed short-shirts which expose the midriff, and sleeveless blouses.

“The Office Cover-up”
Wall Street Journal, August 5 ’06

I know what a struggle it is with teenage girls and their clothes. I know that the retail outlets provide few modest alternatives. But the winds of fashion do not alter an unchanging fact: the female form stirs up male lust. The more of it that is displayed, the greater the struggle for men. Men are responsible for their eyes. But women are responsible for how they dress. Traditional societies, Hindu, Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, and Christian (prior to World War I), have responded to the obvious by mandating substantial coverage, even “veiling” their women in public. Recently I saw an orthodox Jewish family at the beach, mother and daughters bathing in dresses down to their knees. Between that extreme and today’s fashion anarchy in “Christian” societies, there is a way to dress that is still feminine yet modest, still fashionable yet not provocative.

Sadly, where Islam and Christianity meet, in places like Lebanon, the Christian women are clearly distinguished over the Muslim: they are the ones dressed immodestly.

Serious re-evaluation of hearts and wardrobes is essential in the Christian community.

Several years ago a letter read on Elizabeth Elliot’s Gateway to Joy radio program (May 25, 2001) made this very point: “This week’s program concerning modesty and woman’s mandate to become a Titus 2 Woman have come at an opportune time. I have been affiliated with an affluent and prestigious Christian school for 14 years. Over the years, we’ve had a constant source of tension concerning the dress code, but the past few years the styles have radically changed and we have been on the slippery slope downward. I believe there are several factors involved.

“Today’s materials are revealing. The classy linens and cottons of a few years ago with the Laura Ashley look especially have given way to sleazy, see-through, form-fitting materials of today. What is labeled a large on the store’s shelf is in reality cut to fit a child of five or six and not a well-developed young woman who is overflowing from her tank top.”

Elizabeth Elliot then commented: Getting rather specific here, isn’t it? But I think we need to hear it.

She continued reading the letter:

“Cleavage is the norm within the classroom and the hallway; decorum and deportment have gone by the wayside. The girls look as though they are dressed to go to the beach or the bedroom.

“I once overheard one of our very sensually-dressed 10th graders inform a friend that her mother had said, ‘If you have it, flaunt it.’ Or they think more highly of having their daughters fit in than training them in godliness. (May 25, 2001)

Perhaps we can all agree at least on this: when Christian ladies come to church, their clothes should be loose fitting, approximate the tops of their knees, cover their shoulders and their backs, and with necklines that leave everything to the imagination.

Why these standards should not be maintained through the rest of the week is worth discussing as well. Need more specific guidelines? Try the following: the organization “Pure Fashion,” mentioned in the above noted Savannah Morning News article, makes the following recommendations:

Modest Dressing Tips From Pure Fashions (Savannah Morning News, 6/30/06)

  • Undergarments should never become outer garments (no exposed bra straps).
  • Necklines should be no lower than four fingers below the collarbone.
  • No thin, sheer or tight material.
  • Material should never be tight in the bust area or tug on buttons
  • Shorts are too short if they rise above the tip of your fingers when your arms are against your sides.
  • Skirts and dresses should be no shorter than four fingers above the kneecap.
  • Make sure loose clothing does not expose the belly, back, cleavage or the area inside the armpit when you sit, walk, bend over, or lift your arms.
  • Make sure bra and panty lines are not visible through your clothes.
  • Make allowance for cold weather.

(for more information, see

These recommendations seem to me to be reasonable, even helpful. We have no mechanism for enforcement, so I appeal to conscience: don’t plead ignorance; don’t be selfishly insensitive; don’t be a stumbling block for your brothers; and don’t be naïve. Refuge may not be sought in “Christian liberty.” To those who claim “all things are lawful” the Apostle Paul has an answer: “not all things edify.” Further, “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24).
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