Recently I read an article written by a man addressing choice of dress among Christian women. What I read was a sensitive, well-presented plea for Christian women to consider the weaknesses of their spiritual brothers when choosing their clothes. Though many discussions of dress focus on “how short is too short” or “how low is too low,” this one avoided those legalistic pitfalls and took aim for the heart: what is your motive for choosing the clothes you choose?
The plea to bear with our Christian brothers by covering ourselves is an important one for Christian women to hear. Dressing modestly is one of the simplest ways a believer can distinguish herself from the world around her and keep herself free from sin. But any female over the age of 11 can tell you that modesty may not be the biggest hurdle to overcome in aligning our fashion with our faith.
Consider the following incident related to me by my 13-year-old son: With summer approaching, the band at his middle school planned a party at a local water park. Several moms went along as chaperones. One of the mothers, a woman presumably in her forties, chose to spend the day in a very small bikini that showcased her enhanced assets. As she snoozed in the sun, she became the topic of lively and inappropriate discussion among her son’s classmates.
I have to ask myself: Did this woman wake up the morning of the trip and ask “What can I wear today to excite lust among my son’s peer group?” No, the question she more likely asked was “What can I wear today to impress my own peer group?” — a group, in this case, composed not of both genders but of one: other women.
While dressing for the attention of men is problematic, dressing for the attention of other women is epidemic. The question “How do I look?” implies the answering inquiry “Relative to whom?” Far more powerful than the desire to dress to tempt a man is the desire to dress to trump another woman. It begins in elementary school, at an age before many girls have even begun to think about boys at all.
My son’s bikini-clad chaperone wanted to be the hottest 40-something woman at the pool. She may not love Jesus, so I am going to have to let her off the hook. But what about me? How do I compete with other women by the way I dress? Do I dress to be the trendiest? The wealthiest? The thinnest? The fittest? The quirkiest? What about the purest? In certain circles, even modest dress can be a venue for self-promotion.
There is nothing inherently righteous about a denim jumper or culottes. Nor is there anything inherently sinful about platform peep-toe stilettos. Is having great fashion sense wrong? I don't think so — I know women with effortless style who I would never say distract with their dress. The heart of the problem, then, is not the length, style, or fit of any particular outfit, but my craving for the superlative, the “-est” of any wardrobe choice — a craving rooted in the desire to elevate myself above others.
Crazily, those black and white habits the nuns wore in The Sound of Music are starting to make more sense, aren’t they? They take all the guess-work out of dress-work. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t exactly achieve the goal of diverting attention off me if I wore them on grocery runs to Walmart. American women live in a culture of endless clothing choices. Without a uniform as an option, we will have to train ourselves to focus more on the “why” of those choices than the “which.”
Here is the bottom line: Godly women do not seek to elevate themselves above others — not by immodest dress, and not by competitive dress. They seek to provoke neither the lust of men nor the envy of women. They love preferentially by keeping the focus off themselves. Clothed inwardly with the righteousness of Christ, their outward clothing becomes a matter for sober consideration: How can I best reflect the character of God through my wardrobe choices? May we, as daughters of the Living God, be measured not by our hemlines but by our humility. May our character outshine our clothing, so that, whether we wear a habit or a hula skirt, Christ is magnified.
Well, maybe skip the hula skirt.