We communicate in many different ways. We speak, we utilize facial expressions, laugh, cry, and so forth— all of these tools are a gift given to us by God to communicate, foster relationships, and give glory to God.
Another way that we communicate is through our clothing. Without having to say anything, we speak volumes about who we are and our values through the pieces of clothing we choose to wear.
Modernity loves to capitalize on the communicative element of dress, constantly encouraging us to “self-express.” But what exactly does that mean? And what do we even mean by the “self?”
We are a body-soul composite. As St. John Paul II states: “The human person is a unique composite – a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, fashioned in the image of God and destined to live forever.”
The human person—our “self”— is created to be a saint: we are created to be eternally happy with God in Heaven. Therefore, the more true to ourselves we are, the holier we are because we are seeking to fulfill our end: sainthood.
This sheds some light on the wildly popular mantra of self-expression. True self-expression is holiness; it’s revealing the dignity of our soul through our body, cultivating virtue, and growing closer to God. The holier we become the more “ourselves” we become.
Self expression properly understood is aspiring to express Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — not our every whim and emotion.
But what happens to our ways of communicating through dress when our world has turned its back on holiness?
Reverence & Dress
In order to tackle this question, we have to start at the beginning: we need to examine the attitude of reverence.
According to philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, reverence “can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values.”
Our spiritual eyes — what a beautiful statement! Reverence is the quality that pulls us out of the hubbub, gossip, vanity, and chaos of the ever-changing world, and orients us towards the all Good and unchanging God, on Whom we are totally dependent.
This opens up the doors to wonder, mystery, and joy. When we take our belief in God seriously, we encounter our own smallness. It becomes impossible to deny that we are capable of little and fall over all the time. Yet, through this awareness of God, we recognize He is always ready to pick us up; He loves us into existence, and calls us Heavenward. And that is amazing!
Opening our hearts up to God enables us to recognize our dignity as being created in the image and likeness of God. We begin, what St. Augustine calls the greatest romance: falling in love with God.
This love transforms our lives and elevates all that we do—even the way we dress— because we start to love with the love of God.
When we deny God and ignore the call to holiness, it’s only too easy to slip into a world of self-obsession. If we look at social media, much of the “self-love culture”, and society in general, we encounter nihilistic self absorption. A place where man’s spiritual eyes are clamped shut, and the eternal is forgotten.
The truth is, due to original sin, we are broken and wounded individuals. The supposed healing balm of self-esteem culture, crying out that our imperfections are perfect, can only go so far because it ignores a basic, wildly important truth: I am broken.
If the self is fundamentally broken, the brokenness can’t also be the antidote. We can only find healing and wholeness in God.
But until then, the fashions of the world will mimic that interior brokenness. When we lose sight of God, we lose sight of our value —Since our dignity is God-given. Our self-worth must be anchored in Christ. Otherwise, we end up looking for validation and approval from the fickle standards of the world. And the world does not acknowledge the intense value and beauty of the human person.
Brokenness Cannot Heal Brokenness
“It might be said that society speaks through the clothing it wears. Through its clothing it reveals its secret aspirations and uses it, at least in part, to build or destroy its future.”
— Pope Pius XII
Is it any wonder that so much of modern fashion fails to reveal the worth of the human person, and instead reduces the individual to parts?
Through promiscuity, birth control, and abortion it is evident that human life is viewed as something disposable and to be used like an appliance. Much of modern fashion reflects this mentality by objectifying the human person.
Immodest dress is an assault on the sacredness of life. And instead of turning to the wounded standards of the world to dictate our clothing choices, we can find healing by turning back to reverence, and ultimately back to God.
Dress to Communicate Truth, Beauty, and Goodness
It’s time we stop buying into the mentality of the fashion industry, and rather seek out authentic self-expression through dress.
Dressing modestly is the most important place to begin because modesty blesses the body and reveals our beauty. Modesty safeguards and affirms our value by celebrating God’s creation.
When we opt for clothing that elevates, pointing us up towards the eternal, we not only experience a healthy boost of self-confidence but communicate to others our belief in human dignity. We are unwilling to view life as disposable.
In my own life, I know that when I choose to dress in a way that reflects my femininity and self-respect, I am treated more respectfully. Men stop to hold the door for me, people are kinder and more gracious. I am communicating that I believe life is intentional and no accident, and I respect that. And that is how I am treated.
Furthermore, by choosing to dress well — opting for a skirt over leggings, for example — I am making a point to showcase my womanly vocation in the best and most beautiful way. As women, we have a special ability to bring beauty into the world, and the way we dress can reflect that.
People respond to beauty and intentionality, especially when our world is so consumed by unending bustle and casualness. When we dress well, without saying anything, we encourage others to do the same. We raise the bar by inadvertently reminding others that their lives are sacred and worthy of beauty. Our clothing elevates those around us, pointing one towards the Good, and reminding those we encounter that they are worthy of love.
As Nicole M. Caruso states in her book Worthy of Wearing: “Our 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.”
We Crave the Eternal
“God has put eternity into their hearts.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Our hearts are truly restless, as St. Augustine reminds us, until they rest in God. We all crave the eternal. We desire to be known and loved. Without God, we lose sight of our value and call to come Home. We become aimless and wounded. The world can never satisfy the aches that we experience in our hearts. Only God can do that. And when we place we give Him our hearts in love, we need to give them freely and allow His love to transform every aspect of our lives.
Even the way we dress.
Because what we choose to communicate externally is ultimately a reflection of who we are internally. Therefore, our clothing should remind us and those around us of our eternal souls.
Clothing can elevate and reveal beauty. It can point man upwards to God, to the eternal, because when we dress well and modestly we reveal the beauty of the human person, a beauty that comes lovingly and freely from God.
Instead of conforming to the world’s standards of dress, it’s time to break free and seek out God’s glory in the way we dress. Because when we choose to glorify God, we unlock a vault of unlimited beauty and goodness — the kind of beauty that will change the world.
Ann Burns is a graduate of Christendom College, as well as the founder of The Feminine Project, a Catholic organization dedicated to restoring authentic femininity through faith, friendship, and cultivating the mind. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband Ed. You can find out more about the Feminine Project at feminineproject.com