By Jan Bilewicz,
Hi! Today’s letter is about fashions. I use the plural deliberately, as there are all kinds of fashions. We say someone dresses fashionably, but we also speak about the current fashion of reading Harry Potter, about using vulgar language, de facto marriages, dating (the subject of my last letter), and so on.
Fashions — like all social trends today — are set by the people of the media, for they are the ones with the means of reaching people with their ideas. We know that when certain goods, ideas, or “lifestyles” are presented long enough in an attractive manner, consumers accept such messages as their own. We say they “buy into” them. And they do this without regard for the actual value of what they are “buying.”
Advertising works on just such a principle. Salesmen know that regardless of the quality of the product, if it is suitably packaged and advertised (i.e. if the consumer is skillfully manipulated) he or she will end up buying it. There are canned products now being sold in our supermarkets that a dog would not touch, and yet people eat them and lick their fingers afterwards. The quality of goods decreases even as our skill in manipulating the consumer increases; and business is brisk! As I say, we advertise not only goods, but also ideas, behaviors, values, etc. Generally speaking, they are of comparable quality to those canned products in the supermarket; and people smack their lips over these as well.
The height of manipulation
I am reminded here of one of the milder replies to the old chestnut: “What is the height of cheek?” Doing a job on someone’s doorstep and then knocking on the door and asking the person to clean up the mess.
An apt description of the way our communications media work! Too many of us put up with this cheek and then blithely proceed to clean up the mess. More than that. We say “super!” and ask for more. After a few such cleanups and few more allurements we are ready to kiss the hand of those who make the mess as if they were humanity’s benefactors, and before long the whole neighborhood comes begging to these same benefactors to stop at their door as well. Such is the level of manipulation that our TV stations and popular newspapers exert on us today.
Who lets himself be manipulated this way? Mainly people who do not stop to think, to analyze, or take stock. People who are ruled by impressions, who fall for fancy packages. God gave them the gift of reason, but they refuse to use it. Clearly, mental effort is also out of fashion these days. “Staying loose” is in. And with it, logically enough, come superficiality and plain stupidity.
The plethora of Internet chat sites, in which our cybernauts express themselves on the subject of The Church reveal the abysmal depths of this stupidity. We can quite objectively call these “fools’ sites” or better still, “Satan’s sites.” These forums are the pride of our communications media, the summit of their achievements. To make militant atheists and even blaspheming Satanists out of the Baptized and Confirmed — now that is some trick!
Being sexy, sexy, sexy!
So much for my intro. Now let us examine one example of fashion that prevails today. A classical example! I will begin by asking as question. How can you tell a streetwalker on the prowl for a client from a girl hitchhiker just thumbing a ride? Generally by the way she dresses. Generally! A very short skirt, shorts as tight as the material will allow, a tight-fitting top (revealing plenty of cleavage, naturally), etc. That is your typical uniform of the wanton young ladies who go by the new and exalted name of “sex-trade worker.” Above all, there has to be lots and lots of bare flesh, so as to be sexy, as sexy as possible. Prostitutes have always dressed this way. Exposed flesh arouses men’s lust, and that is precisely what it is all about. If she does it right, she will score a success. A client will avail himself of her services. (Who cares if he has a wife or children!) From a commercial point of view, you would say she is displaying her wares. After all, the consumer has to see what he is buying. And the resulting transaction will be called “love.”
As I write this, I look forward to the spring, when we can cast off our winter clothes and put on something lighter. Of course, as usual, our “dictators of fashion” will be trotting out their own proposals, as if we had no taste of our own and no idea what to wear. What will this year’s fashion for young women be? Well, what? Everybody knows. Same as always. For years now our fashion czars have been busying themselves not with dressing our young women tastefully, but with undressing them. The underlying principle is always the same: expose as much flesh as possible, so that the girls will be sexy, as sexy as can be. Personally, I do not like (and I am not the only one) to see young women running about town half-naked. Every spring I look out for women who are dressed tastefully, elegantly, beautifully, in knee-length dresses that enhance their beauty — modestly, without any aggressive display of flesh. Alas! Such heart-warming sights are rare. All too rare.
A couple of year ago it was “hip-rider jeans.” You could see the girls’ exposed underwear and bare bellies even in church. (When I say “underwear,” I mean not the ordinary kind, but so-called “string” panties — i.e. pieces of string, strings literally! Very fashionable these days. Extremely smart idea, wouldn’t you say?) And girls can be competitive. They would fight for every inch of bared skin, to the extent that the hip-riders covered little more than their legs.
It occurred to me at the time that girls dressed this way could easily go to a costume ball. The bouncer would have no problem letting them in. No one at the ball would have any trouble guessing what they were dressed like. What are they dressed like? Well, dare I say it? Our fashion czars would dress our girls like — prostitutes! And that is why sometimes it is difficult to tell a streetwalker from a fashionably dressed hitchhiker just thumbing a ride.
Most girls accept uncritically what the fashion designers dictate in the matter of dress. Many girls even go into raptures. If they could, they would kiss the hand of their benefactors for their wisdom, goodness, and subtle aesthetic sense. Now they are truly sexy. What kindness! All that attention! All those looks! Great to be at the top! Nothing but gain! Fantastic!
Casualties of war
Do all the proposals of our fashion designers square with Christian living? We have to realize (reach ourselves anew) that Christians cannot blindly follow all the fashions, values, and ideologies that the media promote. Before we “buy into” them, we must examine them in the light of Christ’s teaching. If they do not square with this teaching, we must reject them. No one knows better than God what is good and what is evil. Holy Scripture tells us, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 Jn 2:15). An uncritical attitude toward what the “world” proposes leads to the rejection of Christ, loss of faith, forfeiture of supernatural grace, and, ultimately, the squandering of eternal life. There is a war raging around us. A silent war, without explosions and gunshots, not easily perceivable, but a fierce one all the same — a war for our very souls. Do we realize this? It is extremely dangerous. We can be gravely wounded or even killed. What is worse, we can forfeit eternal happiness. Let us not become casualties of this war! The “world” stands in opposition to Jesus, who calls Satan “the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31).
Satan’s rule can clearly be seen in our modern Europe. Western liberalism is more dangerous to the Christian than was Soviet Communism. In 1991, the year of the collapse of the USSR, about 30% of Russians acknowledged belief in Christ, while in Sweden, a country of freedom and tolerance, only 23% of its population claimed to be believers. The Devil has devised new ways of tearing God from the hearts of men. In the past, he fought by primitive means, with the hammer and sickle. Today he fights with “white gloves.” He uses the “soft & light” method — through freedom and tolerance.
The sin of scandal
But to return to the matter at hand. Did Jesus have anything to say on the subject, i.e. public undressing, for such is the modern fashion? Indeed he did. “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mat 5:28). A young woman’s immodest dress can lead a man into serious sin.
We do not know the extent of human frailty that the sin of Adam inflicted on our human nature. But if we may not expose others to the danger of loss of health or physical death, in this world, how much more so may we not do this with regard to the health and life of the supernatural, eternal soul! That is why Jesus says, “Woe to the man by whom the temptation [or scandal] comes” (Mat 18:37; cf. also Rom 14:13).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains exactly what “scandal” means. (And it does this, interestingly enough, in its discussion of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” One can kill spiritually. In this sense, modern liberalism is massacring and exterminating whole Christian nations. In barely a few decades, Sweden has killed off the majority of her Christians. Those who declare themselves non-believers are surely dead — spiritually.)
“Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter....he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (CCC, 2284). Elsewhere, the Catechism refers specifically to fashion: “Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or public opinion” (2286).
Now imagine a girl coming to school fashionably dressed, i.e. more undressed than dressed. How many of her male schoolmates does she provoke to look at her lustfully? God only knows. But I fear that many such girls will be shocked one day to learn what temptations and sins she led others into by a manner of dress to which she currently attaches so little importance. At some point she will have to confess it (“Ì dressed immodestly, which may have caused others to look at me lustfully”), repent of it, and make amends.
Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski once recalled confessing a man at Jasna Gora. The man had not made his confession in twenty years. “What prompted you to seek confession today?” Wyszynski asked him. The man told him he had shared a train compartment with a young woman. “I sized her up, as I was accustomed to doing,” he said. “She was reading a book. Once she looked at me. On getting off the train she looked at me again. That was it. She never said a word. And suddenly I felt so dirty, so terribly wicked, that I immediately got off the train and came here.” A modest and chaste girl can raise a boy to supreme heights! Alas! All too often we see the very opposite thing happening.
Modesty and purity
This anecdote brings us to still another matter. Immodest dress eventually leads to the loss of a healthy sense of shame on the part of the wearer. A wholesome sense of shame protects our purity. We lose shame, we lose purity. Makes sense. Here is what the Catechism says: “Purity requires modesty....Modesty is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness” (2521). “Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies” (2523).
Excellent food for thought. Or we can choose to go another route. We can forget about thinking altogether and join the herd of fashion followers and adherents of “prevailing ideologies.” The more the merrier, as they say. The problem is that the sense of togetherness and wellbeing that comes from following the herd lasts only for so long. I mentioned this in my last letter. What is worse is that such a herd can end up following its guru to a place filled — in the language of the Gospel — with “weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”
But of course the other path and destination is by far the better choice. “I write to you young people,” says St. John the Evangelist, “because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 Jn 2:14). So let us overcome the Evil One and let God’s teaching abide within us! Till next time. Yours,
Fr. Jan Bilewicz OFM
Published in February 2012.