Is there a Catholic way to dress? Well, there’s no Catholic uniform (at least apart from school plaid). An early Christian of the second century said as much when writing a letter to Diognetus: “With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, [Christians] follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.” I have heard people take this sentiment too far, however, by saying, “God doesn’t care about what I wear.” To dress like a Catholic is not about dressing one particular way; it entails allowing faith to guide our choice in clothing.
Catholic culture is a way of life shaped by faith at the center, that allows it to permeate and transform everything that we do. Charity should form our choices to make them an offering to God and an opportunity to love our neighbors. Nothing, therefore, should be left out of how we live as Christians, including seemingly little details like how we dress. Even if there is no Christian uniform, we still communicate who we are by what we wear. Our clothing can and should honor God, reflect our dignity, and convey respect and charity to others.
Following the customs of the surrounding culture, however, as the letter to Diognetus described, has become more and more difficult. Rather than dressing in one particular way, Christians have to discern carefully whether or not the clothing presented by our culture as fashionable or normal truly represents our human dignity and is appropriate to respect others. Although it is often uncomfortable to talk about modesty, it is a necessary conversation, because we need to dress with dignity to guard our own purity and that of others. Certain fashions should be rejected as too provocative, casual, or attention-getting. We also have to think about setting — what is worthy of wearing to church or to create the right disposition for learning, work, or recreation?
The need for modesty does not take away the opportunity for clothes to express positively who we are and our state in life. A recent book caught my attention in this regard, and my wife, Anne, helped me to unpack it, as it is addressed particularly to women: Nicole M. Caruso’s Worthy of Wearing (Sophia Institute, 2021). Having worked in the fashion industry in New York, Caruso continued to deepen her thinking about clothing as a mother, reflecting on the innocence and joy of her daughter Cecilia. More than a book, she explains, “Worthy of Wearing is a mindset, a thought process that reminds us … that we are precious in God’s eyes and that we are worthy of wearing the things that make us feel beautiful. We owe it to ourselves to dress in a what fills us with joy, suits our body, and matches our vocation and lifestyle” (ix).
Caruso’s book helps us to think about clothes in relation to faith but also goes deeper in exploring Catholic femininity. The reflection questions, focused on the themes of “Where am I called?” “Uncover your fears,” and “Be set free,” invite the reader to reflect back on past experiences and to imagine greater freedom and expression, including forming an action plan. The layout of the book itself provides additional inspiration with beautiful layout and photography capturing the author’s family and friends. The book invites women into a process of discernment, guided by the author’s own experiences, reflecting on who they are and how clothes fit into expressing themselves and their womanhood.
The book maintains the balance between seeing clothes as a personal expression and understanding the need for virtue to guide our choices. On the first point, Caruso explains: “That’s what style is: the way you adorn yourself within various contexts to express who you are uniquely, boldly, and unapologetically. It is a method of getting dressed, presenting your appearance, and telling your story without speaking. Style means intentionally choosing clothing that speaks to your mission, fuels your confidence, and creates connections with others by offering a little peek of who you are. In this way, style is more edifying than fashion” (86).
Speaking of the difficult issue of modesty, Caruso also offers some commonsense guidance: “When it comes to modesty, I like to keep in mind a simple question: ‘Is my behavior or my clothing distracting?’ Our behavior and dress can amplify or detract from the wholeness of who we are in Christ: persons worthy of love, with unique gifts and talents, made to change hearts and spend eternity in Heaven. A low-cut dress can distract someone from your incredible talents, just as the way you gossip can distract someone from your virtue. Your unbridled anger might prevent someone from understanding the difficulties you face. We can even distract ourselves by wearing clothing that misrepresents who we are or simply does not fit our body or way of life” (99-100). She also gives practical tips, such as dressing for each season and for one’s locale, tips for building a wardrobe, and shopping with intention.
Reclaiming our culture for Christ is a big task. For us, however, each day presents us with little opportunities to use all that we do to give glory to God. Clothing is no exception, as we make it an expression of our dignity and respect for others.