If you’re a member of a religious order, getting dressed in the morning is fairly simple: You have the choice of one outfit—your habit. For the rest of us, choosing our clothing can be a bit more complicated.
While many men are not fashion inclined, like it or not, what we wear communicates something about us. We all know that. That’s why we wear shirts with our favorite brands on them or clothes that communicate our own personal sense of style, whatever that happens to be.
But as Catholic men, should we even care about our clothes? Does it really matter what we wear? Today, I’d like to share some fashion advice from a rather surprising source—the great saint and Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales.
St. Francis de Sales was a gifted man. He not only boldly preached the Catholic faith during the difficult time of the Reformation, converting tens of thousands back to orthodoxy, but he was also a spiritual director to countless souls, many of them laymen living in the world. Can you imagine having a Doctor of the Church giving you guidance?
Fortunately for us, much of this saint’s wisdom was recorded in letters and summarized in his classic spiritual work, Introduction to the Devout Life. It is in the Introduction, Chapter 25 of Part III, that we find this saint’s advice on dressing well. Here it is, slightly edited to remove some of his advice for women:
St. Paul expresses his desire that all Christian women should wear “modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety;”—and for that matter he certainly meant that men should do so likewise.
Now, modesty in dress and its appearances depends upon the quality, the fashion and the cleanliness thereof. As to cleanliness, that should be uniform, and we should never, if possible, let any part of our dress be soiled or stained. External seemliness is a sort of indication of inward good order, and God requires those who minister at His Altar, or minister in holy things, to be attentive in respect of personal cleanliness.
As to the quality and fashion of clothes, modesty in these points must depend upon various circumstances, age, season, condition, the society we move in, and the special occasion. Most people dress better on a high festival than at other times; in Lent, or other penitential seasons, they lay aside all gay apparel; at a wedding they wear wedding garments, at a funeral, mourning garb; and at a king’s court the dress which would be unsuitable at home is suitable.
Always be neat, do not ever permit any disorder or untidiness about you. There is a certain disrespect to those with whom you mix in slovenly dress; but at the same time avoid all vanity, peculiarity, and fancifulness. As far as may be, keep to what is simple and unpretending–such dress is the best adornment of beauty and the best excuse for ugliness.
St. Peter bids women not to be over particular in dressing their hair. Every one despises a man as effeminate who lowers himself by such things, and we count a vain woman as wanting in modesty, or at all events what she has becomes smothered among her trinkets and furbelows. They say that they mean no harm, but I should reply that the devil will contrive to get some harm out of it all.
For my own part I should like my devout man or woman to be the best dressed person in the company, but the least fine or splendid, and adorned, as St. Peter says, with “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.” St. Louis said that the right thing is for every one to dress according to his position, so that good and sensible people should not be able to say they are over-dressed, or younger gayer ones that they are under-dressed. But if these last are not satisfied with what is modest and seemly, they must be content with the approbation of the elders.
Is there one right way to dress? Not really, according to St. Francis de Sales. A lot of it depends on the context in which we find ourselves. But the aim should always be a sort of elegant simplicity that is neither overly flashy nor careless and sloppy.
In summary: Be the best dressed. Don’t be a careless slob, but don’t be an effeminate fop, either. Dress simply and appropriately to the context and you can’t go wrong.