Manners, Customs, Clothing

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Dressing Well: Vanity or Virtue?

Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira

I received some questions about the way one should present himself. I will answer them one at a time.

Question: Why should we dress well? Isn’t concern about making a good presentation a way to favor vanity?

Answer: The reasoning behind this question is this: Man should avoid everything that propitiates sin. Now, to dress well can propitiate vanity, which is a form of sin. Therefore, one should avoid dressing well.

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The dress should represent the dignity of a man. Above, the Duke of Albe, a grande de España

Point de Vue, October 26, 2005
Let me apply this reasoning to the topic of study. To study can propitiate vanity. Therefore, one should avoid studying.

The same could also apply to hygiene. To keep oneself clean can propitiate vanity. Therefore, one should avoid showering and bathing.

If one would keep applying this reasoning to the different spheres of human behavior, in the end the ideal situation for the practice of virtue would be barbarism. Barbarism is the logical consequence of this reasoning. But this is an absurd conclusion. Now, everything that leads to the absurd is false. Therefore, this syllogism is false.

The true answer is that in everything man does, an abuse can enter. One can abuse intelligence, courtesy, dressing well, and even virtue, since a person can become proud of the virtue he practiced. This is not a reason to abandon civilized customs; rather they should be practiced with a vigilant eye turned toward curbing and controlling one’s vanity.

A civilized man presents himself as clean and decent with the dignity that his social condition requires. Doing this, he demonstrates the respect he has for himself and the respect he has for God, in whose presence he always is. Each one of us is worthy of respect for we were created in the image and likeness of God, baptized in the Catholic Church, transformed into a temple of the Holy Spirit, and chosen by Our Lady to serve her. Therefore we must present ourselves in accordance with this dignity.

Question: What are the more profound motives that oblige me to dress well?

Answer: The first profound motive is that it is proper for things that are good to reflect their internal goodness in their appearances. The most magnificent expression of this is the divine majesty and virile beauty reflected in the face of Our Lord in the Holy Shroud of Turin.

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The face of Christ reflects His Divinity
Jesus Christ’s face is a fitting translation of the hypostatic union of His human nature with God. On the Shroud He appears good, affable, dignified, distinguished, majestic, and sovereign in His human nature, in a way that makes His Divine Beauty transparent in His face.

This principle, valid for the face and body, it is also applicable to dress. The apparel is a complement of the body. For men conceived in original sin, clothing is indispensable. It should be, then, a complement to the body that reflects the seriousness, dignity, and distinction of the soul. Therefore, it should be serious, dignified, and distinguished.

The second motive for dressing well is that it is proper for the appearance of a thing to correspond to its reality. The apparel of a person should show what he is. Therefore, the attire, which should always be dignified, should also be more or less refined and finely made according to the social and economic position of the person. There are persons who need to be very well dressed because they belong to a high social position. Other persons do not need to dress at that level.

Each one should dress in harmony with his social level: Neither above his level nor below it. Clothing is not supposed to make a person look like something he isn’t. There is no reason for anyone to be ashamed of his social level. We should be content with the social level in which Divine Providence placed us at birth. A man or a woman should be authentic and dress in accordance with his or her level.

Question: There are some moments when a person would like to be at ease and relax. Is it all right to follow this natural tendency?

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The West Point uniform reflects the honor of the military life
Answer: Each one of us is conceived in original sin. For this reason, there is something in each of us that would like to set aside the rules of civilization and return to barbarism. We would like to take off the coat, loosen the tie, open the collar, take off the shoes, send away the person sitting in the chair next to us so we can put our feet there, yawn in boredom and tell the person speaking to be quiet because we are tired and want a break. Human nature asks for these things, but we should control and conquer them by making the necessary effort.

Our nature is revolted against courtesy, refined manners, and also, dignified dress. Why should one restrain these reactions? We should do so as an obligation of charity toward our neighbor, and also as an obligation of justice toward him. One owes respect to his neighbor. To present oneself well in society and treat our neighbor well is not something we do only because we want to show him goodness, but also because he has the right to receive a dignified treatment. He is also made in the image and likeness of God.

To behave without placing restraints on our bad spontaneity is to march straight toward barbarism. It is to deny the fruit of thousands of years of Catholic effort to correct bad human tendencies to build a civilization. It is to renounce the conquests of culture that were made over decadent human nature in order to imitate Our Lord. In final analysis, it is to deny one of the fruits of His Blood, Christendom.

Posted February 27, 2006

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