Graceful Modesty

Note: This article was originally published at SI on June 20, 2006.
Stainless SteelConcerns over our immodest culture are not swirling in the religious sector alone. Scrambling to bring a semblance of decency to the educational process, the Florida public schools in my own beloved Pinellas County declared a “classroom cover-up” war this past year, initiating a strict dress code that even prohibits sleeveless garments. One thing is certain: As the extreme indecent fashions of our day prompt the resurrection, enforcement, and establishment of dress codes in institutions across our country, the discovery will be made that rules carry little power to legislate modesty.

As we tackle this issue in our own backyard, we will encounter difficulties and limitations in the process. Although I am a firm believer that the goal of modesty is best reached by keeping our attention solidly fixed upon the scriptural admonition to women to dress with a sober mind and a shamefaced attitude, most of us will find ourselves in venues where the defining of lines and the drawing of specific applications are vital components of instruction. During this process, we can unwittingly carve a path to the goal that becomes deeply entrenched in our own opinions and biases. The deeper we dig, the easier it is to lose sight of the fact that our personalities, environments, and upbringings—and not the Word of God alone—have contributed to our specific courses of choice. This can prompt us to make not only unbiblical judgments against those who run paths that veer to our left or right but also dogmatic, authoritative statements about subjective matters.

When addressing the specifics of modesty, one difficulty we face is that we carry our own perceptions about the terms “tight,” “loose,” “long,” “short,” and “low.” In the process of enforcing dress codes, many have taken desperate measures in an attempt to lend unified definition to the broad interpretations these words carry. From the pinching of predetermined inches of fabric to ensure a loose fit to the measuring of skirts and shirts to ensure a long fit, there is ample evidence that terminology alone is insufficient to define our codes of intent. There are no simplistic “long, loose, and lots” statements that eliminate the challenges. We are all in desperate need of God’s wisdom in our pursuits, and we must remain fully convinced that the conclusions we are making fit squarely within the bounds of biblical obedience and expedience. At the same time, we must humbly acknowledge that it is possible for the choices of others to gracefully fit within God’s infallible framework of acceptance, though they may not fit within our own.

Because of the biases they generate, our visual sensibilities can also cause difficulties as we deal with issues of modesty. A major objective of an art appreciation course is to expose students to a broader range of visual art than they have experienced. It is not surprising when the student who has spent his life selling velvet unicorn paintings at the corner gas station expresses distaste when someone introduces him to the likes of Monet or Van Gogh. His rejection is not rooted in an inability to appreciate quality art; rather, it is likely rooted in a lifelong exposure to black velvet. That exposure has narrowly programmed his sensibilities to a specific point of visual comfort.

If we have grown up in a Christian community where a strongly defined code of dress has been established, we have been exposed to a visual programming of comfort that can easily cause us to equate that specific dress code with godliness. Even our judgments about which clothing choices best identify us as believers can become skewed to that code, prompting us to make assumptions about the messages our clothing send—assumptions that may not match reality.

Shortly after moving to Florida, I found myself seated in a waiting room and unsuccessfully attempting to engage a lady in conversation. When she made it clear she was not interested in chatting, I tended to some business on my cell phone. A few minutes later, she leaned toward me and offered an apology for being rude, whispering that she had thought I was a scientologist. Huh? Where I had come from, a long, black skirt was a good Christian woman staple! I was reminded of that experience several months later when I was at a ladies’ retreat. A woman confided in me that the visitor she brought had expressed concern that we were a cult. Apparently, the sea of long skirts was not sending a positive message to everybody. My remarks are not an indictment against long skirts, rather an illustration that we can possess inaccurate knowledge about the messages we send.

Because of the biblical command “to provoke [others] unto love and to good works” (Heb. 10:24), most of us wisely include facts about the God-ordained design of men as we head toward the goal of modesty. Although this is legitimate ground to cover, it is not free of challenges. Not only does it have the potential to set women’s attentions unduly on men and on the temptations they face, but it also carries potential to subtly foster a graceless thinking that men are incapable of living purely in the midst of immodesty.

I am particularly leery about approaches that focus the attention of women on the details of a male’s assumed tendency to think sexually beyond what is seen. I attended a session on modesty where the speaker asked a group of Christian young men to submit the kinds of garments that cause temptation. The lengthy list included items such as leopard prints (that give the impression that a woman will be physically wild), knee-high slits in ankle-length skirts (that are viewed as a preview of more to come), and zippered necklines (that beg to be undone). Though I am not advocating complete dismissal, I question the wisdom of outlining the details of where the flesh can take a man’s mind, especially when we consider where those directions can be taken regardless of how modestly a woman has dressed. When we head down this path, where do we stop? How much consideration should this detailed information proffer? Should we also give credence to the prominent designer who, after citing a lewd reason, commented that men consider a skirt of any length to be the most provocative garment a woman can wear? Modesty is a sobering subject that should lift our hearts to God and to His grace; unfortunately, this approach can easily elicit mockery instead of serious and thoughtful response. And for the highly sensitive woman who desires to honor the Lord, it can elicit fear and false guilt. Whatever the response, it can eventually lead to the dismissal of legitimate temptation that should be drawing a woman’s loving and compassionate consideration.

I recently listened to a radio program on modesty hosted by a respected theologian and his wife. A young woman called the show, obviously confused and concerned that her strapless wedding gown had been deemed immodest. She sweetly explained that she was strongly dedicated to wearing modest clothing, outlining how she carefully chose a dress that was cut high enough to offer full coverage. She expressed genuine inquiry as to why her dress would be considered immodest since her family agreed it was acceptable. I listened eagerly as the host deferred the question to his wife. She thoughtfully commented that a strapless dress has no anchors at the shoulders; therefore, the dress gives men the impression that it can be easily removed with one little tug. The host’s admission that he had never entertained this thought before prompted me to ask my own husband if he had. This could have been a potentially dangerous question for a wife to ask, but I was safe since the whole “anchor thing” completely eluded him. His inquiries revealed to me that the concept required an understanding of fashion engineering he obviously did not possess, and he went on to comment that his concerns centered on the “distractibility factor of high skin ratios.” After offering a slight eye roll over an accountant’s uncanny ability to turn every discussion into something boringly numerical, I thanked him for offering a palatable perspective that, in my opinion, would more likely welcome sober consideration.

As we address modesty, another difficulty comes with our differing perspectives on culture and on the varying degrees with which we allow it to influence our clothing choices. When the fashion industry introduces a style that is openly anti-biblical in the message it has been designed to send, it is typically rejected by those of us who are seeking to please God even when the style is modest. However, grave differences can be found in how quickly or slowly we eventually embrace the style since we possess not only varying perspectives as to when the initial messages of sinful intent have subsided but also varying perspectives about the identification the style continues to carry.

The designs of Coco Chanel, for example, illustrate our differences in this rejection and acceptance process. In the 1920’s, it was scandalous when Chanel removed the darts and waistlines from dresses that had given them a distinctly feminine form. Her introduction of a loose-hanging shift dress gave women a “boyish and masculine figure” that greatly disturbed conservatives. Though the initial intent of her shapeless garments caused rejection, eventually the free-flowing designs were embraced. (“Jumpers” evolved from this design.) Controversy continued to follow Chanel when she introduced women’s suits. Lapels, herringbone, glen plaid fabrics, and button-down and French-cuffed blouses found as much controversy as the trousers she included in her collections.

Though godly wisdom may dictate our hanging onto bars of rejection when anti-biblical messages swirl around a particular design, godly love demands that we don’t kick at others who deem it acceptable to release their grip. Much damage can come when sinful judgment finds us establishing ourselves as the determining factor of when bars can righteously be released. There will always be rejection bars to which we should and must cling as we seek to honor and to obey God and to keep a clear conscience before Him, but we must do so humbly and graciously.

In spite of the challenges outlined in this article, a more important and poignant message is that the path of modesty is paved with the glorious Gospel of Christ. As the truth of His grace fills the heart of a Christian woman, she will develop a mind of sobriety that will find her setting “her affection on things above” (Col. 3:2). The more she is consumed with the fact that her nakedness has been covered with robes of righteousness, the more she will desire to physically clothe herself in a manner that will richly—and not skimpily—demonstrate that covering. As she grows in grace, she will begin to more fully understand that, as a redeemed child of God, her clothing represents more than a physical covering. She will develop a shamefaced attitude that comes from a heart that remains keenly aware that the shame of her sin was covered by the precious blood of her beloved Savior, a covering she was unable to procure for herself. A yearning to “conceal, not reveal” will grow within her heart as she gains deeper understanding of that marriage, a beautiful picture of the Gospel that has covered her sin, offering the one venue where her nakedness can be shamelessly exposed. This truth will drive her to joyfully preserve herself for a holy union she will cherish whether she is married or not.

When we face a sea of ill-clad women in our world, do our hearts compassionately yearn to share the news of the Gospel? I must sadly admit that instead of that response, I too often find myself mumbling sarcastic phrases of frustration under my breath. Does the immodesty that surrounds us fill our hearts with a passion to humbly offer instruction in righteousness and to lovingly disciple others toward Christlikeness? Are we faithfully modeling before our daughters the garments of grace that will stir their minds to be soberly set upon Him? May each day find us voraciously feasting on the Word of God and diligently attending to the slightest prompting of the Holy Spirit so that, in spite of human limitations and difficulties, graceful modesty reigns within our hearts and our homes.

Holly StrattonHolly Stratton, mother of two, is wife of Dr. Dick Stratton, president of Clearwater Christian College (Clearwater, FL). She earned a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics Education from Bob Jones University (BJU) and a master’s degree in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia. She taught family and personal management courses at BJU for 18 years as well as a Christian womanhood series for the Homesat network. Besides teaching at Clearwater Christian College, Holly is a frequent speaker at ladies’ retreats.
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