“Ask a Priest: Are Pants Appropriate for Women?”

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Q: Could you please clarify the Church’s guidelines on modesty for women? I’ve read several sites that state women cannot wear pants, shirts lower than the two fingers below the pit of the throat, or sleeves above the elbow, but I was not sure if this was an actual teaching. Also, I do rowing, a sport which requires the athletes to wear Spandex so clothing does not get stuck in the seat track. I wanted to know a priest’s perspective on wearing such clothing for physical activity when required (not for the intention of attracting attention). Thank you so much for your time! -A.E.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Clothing for women is a topic that could ignite debates that rage for years — with no definitive resolution. With that in mind I will try to outline some general criteria that you might find helpful.

First, the Church doesn’t spell out specific criteria for dress for women. True, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome there is usually a small poster showing the kinds of outfits that are not appropriate for women entering the historic church. But the criteria reflect what should be a common-sense approach to attire for someone entering a sacred place.

Second, the Church encourages women (and men, for that matter) to dress modestly for several reasons. Modesty helps others to live chastely. Modesty helps bring out the beauty of the spirit of the person rather than draw undue attention to the flesh. Modesty can also engender as well as express a healthy self-image in a woman. She is first and foremost a daughter of God, a person with dignity and an immortal soul, a human being who reflects the glory of the Almighty in a special way — not merely an object to be ogled for base pleasure.

Third, clothes are influenced strongly (though not always healthily) by the wider culture, and standards vary from place to place and time to time. All these factors should be taken into account.

A woman working or relaxing at home might dress one way, but she prudently wouldn’t dress the same way for office work or a shopping trip. Likewise she might dress one way for the beach but another for a picnic.

A woman would also want to take into account the people around her. Wise is the woman who takes into account the impact that her attire might have on men, especially if she is in prolonged contact with them, as in an office setting. Visual things have a stronger impact on the male brain than on the female brain. What a woman might think makes her “look terrific” might come across as provocative to a man. If she dresses “terrifically” but provocatively day after day, well, that can lead to all kinds of unforeseen problems.

As far as some of the specifics you ask about, I’d say, it all depends. If a woman is at home, a lower-cut blouse might not pose any problems for others. If she is working as a cashier at a gas station, that is another case.

What about sleeves above the elbow? Well, they might be OK if the collar is high and the accompanying skirt is longish. And, again, the location would be a factor. And pants? Here, the question a woman would want to ask herself is, is she wearing pants in such a way as to draw attention to her figure? Or is it for practicality (such as situations where a skirt could be snagged on machinery)? Are the pants tight? Or are they complemented with a jacket?

One idea that might be worth mentioning here is this: Modesty enhances the beauty of a woman and draws people to her as a person. Clothes that draw attention to the face — the countenance reveals the person — will help others to relate to a woman at a higher level. Clothes that draw attention to the body can do a disservice to the woman, because they can encourage others to look more toward the flesh and less toward the spirit.

Unfortunately the media have done a lot to lower standards in dress and demeanor. And women, often unwittingly, have added fuel to the very fires that scorch their dignity as daughters of God.

An apostolate that tries to help women, especially young women, to use prudence in dress is Pure Fashion. Its website offers guidelines on dress, though these shouldn’t be taken as official Church teaching. (And don’t be surprised if you find yourself disagreeing with some of the criteria listed there!)

From a priestly perspective, I would paraphrase an old adage this way: Dress in the light of eternity. Dress so as to reflect the glory of God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?) (1 Corinthians 6:19). Dress in a way that helps others recognize your dignity — and their own.

I hope some of this helps. God bless.

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One Comment
  1. Men that I know do not get hot and bothered by a woman in a swooped neck shirt (menopause, sweaty), shorts or jeans that are not sleazy, or in my case, nursing scrubs (pants& tops because no one wants to wear skirts and nylons when body fluids may fly).

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