Modesty forbids – An Irishman’s Diary on the crusade against ‘immodest’ fashion in a newly independent Ireland
Dedicated Irish ascetics appreciated Benito Mussolini’s campaign against suggestive fashions
In bygone times Irish women were confronted by a repressive social environment that frowned on perceived “immodesty” in fashion and bearing. The Catholic Church in the early years of the independent Irish State was considerably more preoccupied with questions of sexual immorality than matters of social, economic or political reform.
This outlook was partly shaped by the remarkably conservative gender ideology of Pope Pius XI. Troubled by signs of sexual revolution, throughout his pontificate (1922-39) Pius waged a relentless war against what he termed the “tyranny of fashion” which offered “everybody, especially the young, occasion for stimulation of the senses”.
Working to combat licentiousness on their own patch, Ireland’s bishops published the Decrees of the Maynooth Synod of 1927. Perhaps the most important position paper of the inter-war Irish church, this document thundered against sexual and social emancipation. As far as the Irish bishops were concerned, a heady cocktail of immodest fashions, dances, alcohol, cinema-going and titillating literature led invariably to promiscuous sex and the modern practice of contraception.
Over time, most of the perils outlined in the Maynooth decrees received some degree of legislative attention.
Immodesty was the exception, with Irish politicians having enough sense to leave female voters to their own devices when it came to matters of fashion and personal deportment.
Dedicated Irish ascetics, who noted that the fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, had no inhibitions about telling Italian women how to dress themselves, resented this omission. Although a notorious womaniser, Mussolini shunned sexual freedom in the interest of demographic growth. The number of Italians killed in the first World War surpassed 650,000, and so fascism mounted a crusade against suggestive fashions and mannerisms that threatened women’s “natural role” as wives and frequent mothers.
Other factors affecting the Italian modesty campaign were jingoism and economic nationalism, with lectures, competitions, and relentless propaganda all endeavouring to “develop a taste for national material and national costumes” that would signify a “new creation of the national revival of Italy”.
By the late 1920s, a time of excellent relations between the Quirinal and the Holy See, the modesty crusade in Italy peaked as Mussolini readily indulged the fashion concerns of Pius XI.
Accordingly, while the Italian church denied physical and sacramental access to “improperly” dressed women, the dictatorship railed against “empty ephemeral popularity” and “feminine vanity” as it banned beauty pageants, regulated female swimwear, closed theatres that staged scantily clad artistes, and encouraged employers to compel employees to dress conservatively.
These measures appealed to cranks in Ireland. Writing in scandalised tones about an Irish womanhood apparently impervious to patriarchal wisdom, the Irish Independent praised Mussolini for “fixing the length of skirts, prohibiting tight-fitting or transparent dresses, and decreeing that short-sleeves and flesh-coloured stockings must be abolished”.
Of course, the purveyors of naked necks, arms, and legs did not simply confound the husbands and priests of Ireland. In truth, the most active opponents of immodesty were women themselves. The women of Ireland who responded to the shared concerns of Rome and Maynooth converged upon the Modest Dress and Deportment Crusade. Begun in the Mary Immaculate Teacher Training College, Limerick, and enthusiastically endorsed by both the Irish clergy and the Vatican, this was a vibrant national organisation that fulminated loudly about hemlines, female smoking, and the apparent lustful goings-on in Irish hedgerows after dark.
In fretting about such matters, the Crusaders were wont to denounce public representatives who remained immune to moral panic. This cohort included Senator William Butler Yeats, who was then a leading opponent of the controversial 1929 Censorship of Publications Act that sought to purge Catholic Ireland of “evil literature”.
Debates around censorship were especially abrasive, with aspersive minds casting Yeats and other dissidents alongside pornographers and social subversives more generally. In a kinder moment, the head of the Modest Dress and Deportment Crusade opined that “Mr Yeats fears the Censorship Bill will make Ireland the laughing stock of the world. This is evidently a case where great minds do not think alike – Mussolini’s and Mr Yeats’s!”
Given his politics – although a liberal in intellectual matters, Yeats, like his fellow poet and friend Ezra Pound, was an admirer of fascism – this particular barb may have cut deep.
Either way, the outburst illustrates that fascism, a highly chauvinistic creed that classed immodesty as one of many “deviancies” (others included alcohol abuse, gambling, modern dancing, pornography and divorce), struck a very resonant chord in an Ireland then obsessed with matters of the flesh.