Ed West speaks to a Catholic mother and former model about what modesty means
There is a growing feeling on both sides of the Atlantic that immodesty has gone too far. The clothes of Versace, the music videos of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and sexualised childhood toys like Bratz have created an atmosphere where any woman who covers up anything is deemed a frump.
Not so Colleen Hammond, a celebrated model and TV presenter who gave it all up to become a Catholic mother. author and campaigner for feminine clothing. Her book, Dressing With Dignity. was a best-selling attack on the fashion industry's obsession with "hooker chic", while her radio show is listened to by millions. From her home in Texas she has successively lobbied for the clothing industry to raise its standards, an example of how the little people can fight back.
"I get letters from manufacturers saying they have 'hot and modest' clothing. I'd go to these websites and they'd have these clothes promoted as modest, and I'd think, compared to what? A hooker? Yet when you look at Jewish, Catholic and Islamic standards, they're pretty much all the same, so there is natural law."
Colleen grew up in Detroit, in a Catholic family of English and Irish origin. Her first inkling of the changes that would cause her family to drift away from the Church was when the Latin Mass was abolished.
"As a five-year-old I remembered it distinctly, because I was proud of wearing that mantilla. I was very upset that they ripped it off my head. My mother took us from church to church after that, while our priest got married to the nun who was director of education, in the spirit of Vatican IP" By the time she went to college Colleen was "iffy" about her faith, and no longer attending Mass, although she had a solid Catholic upbringing ("I can feel guilt. I think Catholic guilt is a good thing"). She had started modelling and acting at 14 — "how I paid for college"— and studied medicine. In her final year she was offered a television job and left university with a term to go.
A successful model and presenter for the Weather Channel, she was soon married, but her relationship went through difficulties: "We started to have problems, and at the root of it was the fact there was no spirituality in our life at all." Husband Dennis was a nonCatholic . "I decided to get a divorce, and I had already seen an attorney when I found out I was pregnant. So I went to get an abortion."
It was, in fact, the start of her journey home. She sat in the clinic wondering what she was doing, listening as they explained how the "tissue" would be removed. "I was a medical student, I knew at this point that it wasn't just tissue, it was a baby," she recalls. "I began to feel nauseated and put my head down to faint, and the lady next to me leaned over and asked if I was ok. When I said, 'no, I have to get out of here', she answered, 'Me too, I'm coming with you'."
To her shock, Colleen was now told she wasn't pregnant after all: "I knew that was a miracle, because I had three blood tests done and I was pregnant."
Outside in the waiting room Colleen told her husband to take her to the nearest church: "I had eight years of sins to confess,1 fell down at the feet of this glorious priest and he heard my confession for two hours. At the end he was smiling and crying, and said 'this is one of the happiest days of my life. Welcome home'. It was fantastic." Colleen and Dennis have been married for 22 years now, with four children.
As for the woman beside her, she left the clinic without having an abortion: "I never saw her again; didn't even know her name "My husband was upset about the change in my life. He married this fun girl, and now he was married to this nun. I had new friends. Probably he might have been thinking about divorce. I offered all my Masses for my husband's conversion, and less than a year later he came into the Church. Now he leads the family in the Rosary every evening, and makes sure we go to Confession twice a month. And considering he started out as a Viking." She explains this is what might be called a "lad" in Britain.
Hammond calls mixed marriages "a huge obstacle" and advises anyone getting wed to seek the approval of their parents. She is a regular speaker and writer on issues such as marriage, parenting, and the family. But she is best known for her work promoting modest clothing, and her book Dressing With Dignity.
"Because I worked in fashion I wanted to look nice and follow the trends." she says. "But I thought things were looking a bit too hooker-chic. I wanted to look fashionable and dignified, I was modelling and acting and I hadn't had children yet. Femininity is not a weakness, but an unbelievable strength. I met the author and philosopher Alice von Hildebrand, we got talking on these issues of 'modesty. and I Said you ought to write a book about this. She said. 'No, you do it. No one will listen to a grey haired little old lady..."
Colleen's faith has been her guide throughout. "Pius )U1 said that you have the objective standards of modesty of the Church," she explains. "Nothing tight, nothing clingy, make sure your knees and elbows are covered. And nothing more than a couple of inches below the collar bone.
"It's an act of charity for a woman to follow the fashion trends, up to the point where those modesty guidelines exist. But some people want to prove how modest they are, and it shows a lack of humility. For some in Islam this is not an act of virtue but the subjection of women; it's a control issue. When you go on the Tube in London. the first thing you notice is a woman in a burqa. So if people dress that way to prove how modest they are. that's a lack of humility. If you're going to wear a boob tube and miniskirt, or a hijab, you're drawing undue attention to yourself. That's why Pius XII said virtue falls in the middle course.
"A woman wants to be taken seriously for her mind, but sometimes all you can see is her body. As a woman I find myself looking. It's almost like a train wreck, you watch this horrible accident and you can't avert your eyes from the horror. It's the same thing when you see women dressed so immodestly. And it's not fair to our men to do this to them."
Colleen's next book deals with the subject of manners, something that is sadly lacking in the old coun try. "I really looked forward to going to England because I have always found that my family from Engla_nd have a really strong sense of social grace and propriety," she says. 'Then I arrived and wondered what happened. I was shocked and disappointed by how rude people were. There seems to be a sense of me, axe, me. Manners are an act of charity. they are Catholic virtues. You're being mindful of others."
She thinks of the woman who she met in the abortion clinic, and how their mutual pact saved that woman's child and her faith. 'This is what being Catholic is about; we help each other, we're not in life to be on eur own. We all have a personal relationship with Christ, of course' but we're a family. That's part of being charitable and not selfish. In that clinic we helped each other a.nd it brought me back to the