Ninnies, Tyrants, and those Damned Pants

Some years ago – long before we knew each other – my future wife was going to a formal event with a young man. He picked her up, drove a short way, pulled over to the side of the road, and angrily informed her that her dress was immodest. Did her dress have a plunging neckline? No, it was cut right to the collarbone. Did it show too much leg? It was to the ankle. What then did this young swain find so objectionable? The color was red, yes red, and the dress showed her back and we’re not talking lower back either. He drove her to a dress store and told her to buy a new dress or he would not go to the dinner.

There are many confusions in our age. How we are to act and dress are just two of them. And this confusion – particularly among men who are trying quite properly to uphold notions of traditional morality and to revive a Catholic culture – can turn some men into ninnies and also into tyrants. Red dress? Too much back? She should have punched him right in the kisser and gone home. She now wishes she had.

A blast email sent around last week brings this story to mind. Its title is “Regarding Not Wearing Pants.”  Would that it were an essay by Woody Allen rather than a Catholic ninny. The author, who shall remain nameless but who is a Catholic layman with a wide Internet following, wants women not to wear pants because he claims pants show too much of their figures, and women wearing pants can lead Catholic men to impure thoughts and actions.

The author says, “The godless, sexed-up, secular fashion industry is out to make money and convince you that vice is virtue. They, and their damned pants (italics mine), accentuate your flaws.”

He continues, “Sadly, and we understand you may not be aware of this, but almost every style of pants reveals private information about your figure (by way of contour) what only your husband (and if not him, no man, including your sons, if you have sons) should perceive.” 

There’s more: “Thus, even a woman endowed with the most spectacular genetic form, in the bloom of her youth, can be given the illusion of ugliness, if not cheapness, by wearing pants. Likewise, pants rarely do anything but exaggerate extra volume on our figures.”

Isn’t this all rather creepy?

The author is not just anti-pant: he is very much pro-dress, at least of a certain kind. “While some styles of pants can be attractive, in terms of beauty, pants will never trump a tasteful dress or skirt of similar material, pattern, and quality.” This guy is hardly a fashion plate, so what’s he know about fashion? What’s more, have you seen the dresses these days? They’re enough to give Caligula an aneurism.

The author is certainly correct that women’s fashions are out of control. There is a flimsy baby-doll dress women are wearing this summer that is cut right up to the curve of the back-side and even the slightest of breeze displays everything. Women’s fashions can be an occasion of sin. One sees men’s heads jerking around like bobble-head dolls as they ogle the babes.

But are pants really the problem? Pants? I would agree short shorts are a problem. Micro-minis are a problem. Plunging tops are a problem. But pants? And besides the rather silly proposition that pants are the enemy, there is something deeply disturbing about the author’s tone.

He claims to offer only “food for thought” not “hard and fast directives.” We are relieved – for now – but does he think that he can do that in the future? He certainly does.

He says, “In the day-to-day reality of the suburban lives most of us live, men almost always delegate the purchase of clothing to their wives.” He reassures us that “We have no problem with men delegating clothing purchases to their wives.” Delegating clothing purchases to your wife? Anybody want to try that at home?

And then there is this. “May we suggest…that your husbands…take you shopping for the express purpose of choosing everyday clothing for you. Men, be sure your women love the choices you make for them (italics mine).

My wife, a conservative and modest Catholic, got this email and hit the roof. A friend of hers said it well, “These guys want us to dress like the Amish.” And it’s true. What they really want is for Catholic women to dress in shapeless sack dresses. They want Catholic women to be readily recognizable and frankly strange and unappealing. And more than anything else, they want to be in charge, Biblical head of the wife and all that.

This kind of thing is quite common these days when people are grappling with a restoration of Catholic identity – and also reacting against the poisonous culture. It’s also quite common in orthodox movements within the Church, which can attract the slightly strange, the tightly wound, and those who want to impose it all on others. But we should resist. Catholicism must attract not repel. By definition, it should be normal and not odd.

There are ways forward. A group of Catholic women, for instance, runs a program called Pure Fashion that puts on fashion shows for teens around the country. The fashions are modern, stylish and entirely modest. Oh, and they wear pants, too. 

One final thing about that red dress; my future wife returned it tearstains and all, and to this day she rails against the lame Catholic men she met when she was dating. No wonder there is an epidemic of wonderful yet unmarried Catholic women. They want regular guys, faithful Catholics, not ninnies or tyrants.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.