Introduction to the Devout Life

St. Francis de Sales on Modesty

In St. Francis de Sales’ book “Introduction to the Devout Life” chapter 25 (page 171 in linked e-book), titled “Decency in Attire”, he writes:

St. Paul desires that devout women, and the same may be said of men, should be attired “in decent apparel, adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety” (1 Tim. ii. 9). Now, the decency and the ornaments of apparel, depend on the matter, the form, and the cleanliness of them. As to their cleanliness, it should be always very great, and we should not suffer any kind of dirt on them. Exterior neatness represents in some measure the cleanliness of the interior; and God Himself requires corporal cleanliness in those that approach his altars, and have the principal charge of devotion.

As to the matter, form, and decency of our dress, it should be considered according to the several circumstances of the time, the age, the quality, the company, and the occasions. People are ordinarily better dressed on holidays, in proportion to the solemnity of the feast which is celebrated. In times of penance, as in Lent, ornaments are laid aside. At marriages wedding garments are worn; at funerals, mourning.

The married woman may and ought to adorn herself when she is with her husband, and he desires it; but if she should do so when she is at a distance from him, it will be asked whose eyes she desires to favour with that particular care? A greater liberty in point of ornaments is allowed to maidens, because they may lawfully desire to appear agreeable to many, although with no other intention but that of gaining a husband. Neither is it considered amiss that widows who purpose to marry should adorn themselves in some measure, provided they betray no levity; for, having already been mistresses of families and passed through the griefs of widowhood, they should be considered as being of a more mature and settled mind. But as for those that are widows indeed, not only in body but in heart, no other ornament becomes them but humility, modesty, and devotion; for if they have an inclination to make men fall in love with them, they are not widows indeed, and if they have no such desire, why do they carry about them the instruments of love? The host that ceases to receive guests must pull down the sign from his inn. Old people are always ridiculed when they try to make themselves look youthful.

Be neat, Philothea; let nothing hang loose about you, or be put on in a slovenly manner. It is a kind of contempt of those with whom we converse to come into their company in unseemly apparel; but, then, avoid all affectation, vanity, strangeness, or levity in your dress. Keep yourself always, as much as possible, on the side of plainness and modesty, which, without doubt, is the greatest ornament of beauty, and the best way to make up for the want of it.

St. Peter (1 Epist. iii. 3), admonishes women, in particular, not to wear their hair much curled and frizzled in rings and wreaths; but men who are so weak as to amuse themselves about such foppery are justly ridiculed for their effeminacy. They say they think no evil in these things; but I repeat, as I have said elsewhere, that the devil thinks quite otherwise. For my part, I desire that devout people, whether men or women, should be the best clad in any company, but the least pompous and affected: I would have them adorned with gracefulness decency and dignity. St. Louis says that each one should dress according to his condition; so that the wise and the good may have no reason to complain that you dress too much, nor young people say you do too little. But in case young people will not content themselves with what is decent, we must conform to the judgment of the wise.

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