Modest clothing has made a comeback in the world of high fashion, and a number of young people now advocate for dressing modestly. Today, however, modesty is often construed narrowly. Modesty is seen as applying exclusively to the way people dress, and in particular to the way women dress. Dressing modestly is identified, furthermore, with covering up in order to avoid being a visual object of sexual desire. But modesty is about much more than this. Let’s turn to St. Thomas Aquinas to see why.
According to Aquinas, modesty is a kind of temperance (Summa theologiae, II-II, 160, 1). It restrains and moderates a whole range of actions and desires (Summa theologiae, II-II, 141, 2). Our desires often pull us in a direction that is contrary to reason; so we need a virtue that will help us resist wayward desires and to bring our desires back into accord with reason. Humility is a type of modesty (Summa theologiae, II-II, 161, 4). Humility tempers the desires of the mind and restrains the mind from pushing on to things of which it is not capable (Summa theologiae, II-II, 161, 1). Humility saves us from the deleterious consequences of overestimating our own abilities. Modesty also tempers our curiosity (Summa theologiae, II-II, 160, 2). For example, it restrains the vicious desire to hear the latest gossip, or to learn about some scandal in the life of an acquaintance. Modesty also moderates the way we present ourselves to the world. We have the desire to brag, to show off, to build up our public image and to make other people look bad by comparison. Modesty restrains this desire. Modesty moderates many other areas of life as well. We have given here only a few examples.
Now we can situate dressing modestly within the context of Aquinas’ general virtue. The virtue of modesty, as applied to our appearance, moderates all of our desires and actions that pertain to our appearance. Aquinas claims that we can have an immoderate, and inordinate, concern for our appearance. This inordinate concern comes in three types. The first is “when a man seeks glory from excessive attention to dress” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 169, 1). This type of concern amounts to vanity and self-aggrandizement. The second type of inordinate concern is “when a man seeks sensuous pleasure from excessive attention to dress, in so far as dress is directed to the body’s comfort” (Summa theologiae, II-II, 169, 1). This type of concern amounts to pampering oneself. The third is “when a man is too solicitous in his attention to outward apparel” (Summa theologiae, II-II, 169, 1). Being too solicitous is wrong, in part, because the overly solicitous person spends too much of his time and resources on apparel, and neglects other more important activities. Modesty combats all three types of inordinate concern. To dress modestly is to dress in a way that is tasteful and decorous, but also in a way that checks our wayward desires and promotes our rightly ordered desires. Therefore, we should not dress in a showy way. We should dress well but simply. Dressing simply helps us to avoid vanity and self-aggrandizement. Also, we should not dress merely for comfort. Keeping comfort low on our list of priorities helps prevent us from pampering ourselves and becoming selfish. And, although we should spend some time and money on our clothing, grooming, etc., it should be only enough to ensure a decent, tasteful appearance. Exercising this restraint will allow us to focus our time and spend our money on more important activities.
Modesty also gives deference to the interests of others. In his discussion of how modesty governs outward action, Aquinas explains:
[I]n so far as by outward movements we are directed to other persons, the moderation of our outward movements belongs to “friendliness or affability”. This regards pleasure or pain which may arise from words or deeds in reference to others with whom a man comes in contact. (Summa theologiae, II-II, 168, 2)
Modesty prevents us from causing needless pain to others. Being showy or braggadocious can cause others pain, in order to give us pleasure. For example, suppose that a student recently had three papers accepted for publication in prestigious journals and received various honors and awards. Suppose also that his fellow graduate students failed to get published after much discouraging hard work, and that they were all worried about the job market and the possibility of not being able to support their families. If the well-published graduate student paraded his accomplishments in front of his fellow graduate students at every opportunity—enjoying his status as the most accomplished of the group—he would be causing others pain for the sake of his pleasure. He would also be tempting others to envy him, or even to resent him, which would be morally harmful. In other words, he would fail in his duty of kindness towards others. Such failure to be kind to others can occur just as easily in the way we dress. If others are worried about their clothes and cannot afford anything nice, we would be unkind by displaying our luxuriant, overly expensive clothes to them and exalting in our sartorial superiority. Modesty helps moderate the display of our advantages (whether those advantages are lines on a CV or the means to afford expensive clothes), thereby putting a check on our wayward desire to exalt ourselves over others. In restraining our showiness, modesty allows us to act out of concern for others’ feelings and well-being.
So dressing modestly involves much more than simply covering the body. It is a way of moderating a whole range of desires and actions that are associated with our outward appearance. The narrower question about covering the body should be considered within this broader context. Because modesty moderates the way we present ourselves to the world, it necessarily moderates the way we reveal our bodies to the world. We should not go to excess in revealing the body. As we have seen, showiness can lead to self-aggrandizement and it can damage the well-being of others. Dressing in a revealing manner is a type of showiness. Instead of flaunting expensive cloths, dressing in a revealing manner flaunts the body itself. This sort of showiness, like all other forms, can easily lead to self-aggrandizement and can damage others. Flaunting one’s body, however, is even more problematic than other kinds of showiness in appearance. The body is more intimately tied up with one’s identity and self-worth than one’s clothes are. Polling data shows a significant correlation, for example, between dissatisfaction with one’s body and low self-esteem, especially among girls and young women. The body is also not easily changed. Improving the body’s appearance through diet and exercise requires sustained effort (and ample free time to spend in the gym); and, in many respects, one’s body is simply determined by one’s genes. Being showy with your body, therefore, risks exalting yourself over others who do not, and perhaps could not, share your physical advantages. And, if your showiness causes others to think less of their own bodies, their sense of self-worth may end up being damaged. Your showiness might also tempt others to the vice of envy. Modesty, therefore, requires us to be moderate in revealing our bodies. Dressing in a way that does not show too much skin, or too many curves, or too much muscle, helps us to avoid self-aggrandizement and to give deference to the well-being of others.
Modesty is about more than covering up. And even covering up is about more than preventing lust. As we advocate for modesty (and here at Cream City Catholic we certainly do), let’s remember that dressing modestly involves moderating a whole range of desires and actions that pertain to our appearance.
 See Rheana Murray, “Why Covering Up is Cool: Inside Fashion’s Modesty Movement,” Today, <https://www.today.com/style/why-covering-cool-inside-fashions-modesty-movement-mormon-style-bloggers-t12216>.; and Azadeh Valanejad, “More is More: The Rise of the Modest Fashion Movement,” Vanity Fair, <https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2016/11/the-rise-of-the-modest-fashion-movement>.
 Kristi York Wooten, “Hemlines Down, Self-Esteem up: The New Modesty Movement Continues,” Huffington Post, <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristi-york-wooten/modesty-movement-teen-fashion_b_860033.html>.
 Aquinas lays out a number of ways being solicitous about temporal matters can be wrong, in Summa Theologiae, II-II, 55, 6.
 Aquinas does not hold that we should neglect our appearance for the sake of modesty. For Aquinas, neglecting one’s appearance is just another type of immoderation, and therefore immodest (Summa theologiae, II-II, 169, 1).
 Adrian Furnham, “Body Image Dissatisfaction: Gender Differences in Eating Attitudes, Self-esteem, and Reasons for Exercise,” The Journal of Psychology, 136(6)(2002) 581-597.