Some Thoughts on Modest Dress
In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul says, “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments...”
As usual, Calvin’s comments on the passage are helpful. He says Paul is addressing a “vice to which women are almost always prone. That vice is -- excessive eagerness and desire to be richly dressed.” Matthew Henry agrees. He says, “Women being more in danger of exceeding in their apparel, it was more necessary to caution them in this respect.”
Everyone knows this is true. Women care deeply about their appearance. There is nothing wrong with that when it is regulated by modesty and sobriety. The problem is, as Calvin says, that it often gives way to “a desire to make a display either for the sake of pride or of departure from chastity.” This sin is more pronounced in women. Hence, the Holy Spirit issues this warning directly to women in 1 Timothy 2:9 and in 1 Peter 3:3.
Paul calls them to modesty by giving them some example of immodest dress or appearance to avoid (braided hair, pearls, gold, expensive clothing). Note that according to the Holy Spirit hair-styles, jewelry, and clothing all can be vain. His list is representative and not exhaustive. Related to this, Calvin says, “And hence we ought to derive the rule of moderation; for, since dress is an indifferent matter, (as all outward matters are,) it is difficult to assign a fixed limit, how far we ought to go.” In other words, determining modest or vain dress requires discernment.
I should add that modesty doesn’t mean that a woman must hide her feminine features. The opposite is true. The feminine form is God’s good design. Her dress should embrace her God assigned sex. This is why God says, "A woman shall not wear men's clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman's clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.” In short, women should dress appropriate to their sex in a modest way.
But can’t men dress in an immodest way?
Yes, men can definitely be guilty of immodest dress. Historically speaking, it’s a less common embodiment of the sin of vanity in men. When it becomes common, it's clear that a society has become effeminate. This effeminacy is further demonstrated by men dressing in a way only appropriate for women. For example, men and women have different shapes. That is why there are guys pants and girl pants. Girl pants accommodate the natural curves of most women. A guy wearing pants cut for women is dressing in an effeminate way. I know that everyone is going to want that definitive inspired style guide but God clearly wants us to exercise discernment in determining modest and masculine dress.
One principle would be: Does it suit the masculine form and align with the duties assigned to men?
Another principle that I think could be applied to both sexes is whether or not your dress will make you the focus of attention in an inappropriate way.
It isn't immodest to be naked with your spouse in the marriage bed. That's appropriate. It would be immodest to dress in such a way that you make yourself into a spectacle at say a wedding. It's inappropriate to make yourself the center of attention due to the nature of that event.
Modesty requires discernment. Modest dress is something like the volume of a song. If it’s too loud, it ruins the beauty of the song by overwhelming you. If it’s too quiet, you can’t enjoy the beauty of the song in any way. It’s about finding the right volume for the particular song. Hence, there are aspects of subjectivity. Modesty is a principle that must be applied in wisdom.
You dress to the occasion and to the role you’re playing in it.
For example, everyone is expected to dress in a more formal way at a wedding but not in such a way that it lessens the focus on the bride. And there is nothing intrinsically immodest about a bride wearing an ornate dress given her role in the event.
Now, in conversations like this it’s easy to get lost on particulars instead of extracting helpful principles. Please don’t do that in the comments. Also, don’t rage about how immodest everyone dresses today. Yes, we know.
Again, modest dress requires a good deal of discernment and training. It’s really incumbent on parents to work these principles out with their kids as they mature.
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