Some years ago at Saint Eustaby Catholic College, in connection with a “Save the Night” protest, a senior editor of the school newspaper wrote that she should be able to “walk down Eaton Street wearing nothing but flip-flops and a smile,” and not have to worry about being assaulted.
She was right, in an obvious and trivial way. Assaulting people is against the law. If some drunken kid were to run up to her and grab her, somebody else should drag him away, and if the somebody is a policeman, he should haul him away to the precinct. Of course, he should arrest her too for indecent exposure.
It’s the attitude behind the girl’s effrontery that sets me to thinking. I remember an incident that happened one summer when I was helping out at a Catholic Worker house in Washington. I’d been painting one of the halls when the doorbell rang. It was the usual sweltering summer in that sinkhole of fog, heat, and graft, so I was shirtless when I answered the door.
There was an Hispanic lady, about fifty years old, who had a few questions to ask, so I went and got John, my boss. He came to the door and they began to talk while I stood by. It was an ordinary request for certain bits of information, not private.
“Excuse me,” she said, breaking off in mid-sentence and looking at me. I made my apologies and went back to painting. John later explained the matter to me. “She’s a traditional lady,” he said, “and you weren’t wearing a shirt.” I got it. I didn’t think she was prudish or rude.
I’ve no doubt that if we were all working in the fields digging furrows, she would have thought nothing of men without shirts. She would not have expected me to wear a shirt at the beach. The context matters a great deal.
She didn’t think it ill that I was painting the hall while stripped to the waist. She didn’t think it ill that I stood by in case I had some suggestion to make. She thought it ill that I did not put my shirt back on while I was not painting the hall.
She was right, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson. We are social beings, and the way we dress helps to communicate ourselves to others, or to lie, to yell, to frustrate other people and prevent them from communicating themselves to us.
In part, the language of dress is conventional, as all language is, and in part it is not conventional but based upon the nature of the body and the material conditions of the world around us. If I’m in Paris and I utter that legendary sentence from the introductory textbook in French, La plume de ma tante est sur la table, someone will reply, Mais bien sur, and the day will go on in peace and sunshine. Yet that collocation of sounds means nothing in Peoria.
But if I’m in Paris and I pass by a small child playing on the sidewalk, and I glance his way and smile at him and his mother, I have communicated the same delight and approval as I would in Peoria or Poona or Papeete. The gesture is universal.
What counts as immodest dress will vary from one people to another, depending upon climate or activity, but every society draws boundaries somewhere. Since in our time we cannot talk about sexual modesty without the prudes of vice fainting away, for fear that “theocrats” will sweep them to some faraway castle, there to terrify them with gifts, poetry, and courtship, let us change the moral arena.
Consider shouting or fighting. These are acts of aggression not only against the opponent but against those who are nearby. Again we judge by contexts and conventions, but not only so. Shouting at a ball game is usually all right, but not shouting obscenities or threats against a player or coach or referee.
Shouting at a tennis tournament before the serve is not all right, and will get you removed from the premises. Shouting at a big outdoors party is all right. Shouting indoors? Aggressive, rude, uncharitable.
Fighting is all right between boys in the schoolyard, if they observe the rules. Fighting indoors is not all right. Boys ought to temper their aggression, even their happy aggression, around girls. That includes off-color talk. To do otherwise is to say, “I am in charge here, I do what I want, and to hell with you.”
So also with immodest dress. A woman who dresses to show off her form in a provocative way is saying either, “I want you not to look at my face but at more important things lower down,” or “To hell with you.”
Let me be clear. If I see a woman whose dress seems like a strip of plastic wrap, to be used once and taken off, thoughts of sex come immediately to mind, which is what the woman intends unless she is a fool. So I check myself and turn aside. I don’t want to think those things.
It won’t do to say, “Don’t think them.” Every human strength also betrays a weakness. A woman’s sensitivity to feelings – sensitivity without which the human race could never have survived – is also a temptation to choose just the right word to hurt the most. A man’s inclination to roughness against the stubborn resistance of the natural world – roughness without which the human race could never have survived – is also a temptation to violence.
We must live with one another such as we are. Charity, forbearance, an honest admission of one’s susceptibility to sin, and consideration for the susceptibility of others, particularly members of the opposite sex, whose feelings are sometimes quite different from ours, should govern our choices in dress, speech, and physical deportment.
Do not lay a snare in your neighbor’s path.
**Image: President Calvin Coolidge, Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, and well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, June 18, 1925 [Griffith Stadium, Washington, D.C.]