St. Thomas warns of the perils of bling

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • March 19, 2008

{mosimage}The Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas has its fun parts. Buried right at the end of Part Two, in Question 169, Article 2, Thomas addresses the controversy of “Utrum Ornatus Mulierem Sit Sine Peccato (Whether the Adornment of Women is Devoid of Mortal Sin).”

I bet you had no idea that people worried about this. Sadly, Christian men once derived their thoughts about women from the story of Adam and Eve. Some churchmen thought that, like snakes, we should crawl upon our bellies in the dust for all time in shame for Eve’s sin. Showing indifference to our inherent feminine wickedness by braiding our hair, wearing makeup and jewels was to these men a no-no.

In Question 169, Thomas first marshals the arguments of the No Adornment of Women Party. The First Letter of Peter says “women’s adorning should not be braiding, wearing of gold or the putting on of clothes” (but in a “quiet spirit”). And Cyprian, commenting on this verse, says those who wear luxurious clothes and jewelry cannot sincerely “put on Christ.” Then Cyprian, who would be no fun at the MAC counter, lights into make-up: no women at all, he says, should wear cosmetics: “Nowise should they deface God’s work... with the aid of yellow pigments, black powders or rouge, or by applying any dye that alters the natural features.” If they do, they will not see God — “having no longer the eyes that God made, but those the devil has unmade.” And then, Cyprian warns, “with him shalt thou burn on whose account thou art bedecked.” So there’s the answer to the question of whether women look good for men or for other women: we look good for the devil. How depressing.

The third argument is about women not wearing men’s clothing, so you give your boyfriend back his shirt right now, Missy! The fourth suggests that the women’s fashion industry sins mortally by giving us all that adornment stuff. Sinners!

Happily for us women, Thomas gives that cranky Cyprian a talking-to in his response. Thomas is always polite to the Fathers of the Church, but he is on the side of kindness and moderation, which is why we love him. He likes women; he’s just afraid of them inciting lust. Proverbs says, “Behold a woman meeteth him in harlot’s attire, prepared to deceive souls,” thus predicting MTV. However, Thomas is on the side of marital love, and so rules that a married woman can adorn herself to please her husband. Hooray! All you married ladies may now rush to La Perla with a free heart.

The rest of us gals have to watch our step. If we adorn ourselves hoping to incite men to lust, we sin mortally. If we do it from frivolity or vanity, it might just be venial, but venial sins are still sins, you know. Then — shocker! Thomas whips around and upbraids the boys. The same applies to men, he says. Not only that, but Thomas brings out St. Augustine on our side. The dear bishop says, “I do not wish you to be hasty in the forbidding the wearing of gold or costly attire except in the case of those being neither married nor wishful to marry, should think how they might please God: whereas the others think on the things of the world. . . how they might please their wives . . . or . . . their husbands.

Having given his opinion, Thomas tackles the opposing arguments. To the first, he says that Cyprian (and St. Paul) were worried about married ladies tempting other men and did not mind them pleasing their husbands. He maintains, however, that it is OK for women to adorn themselves only soberly and moderately, not “excessively, shamelessly and immodestly. “

Regarding the second argument, Thomas worries about the use of makeup as lying. Augustine worried about this too and doubted that even husbands liked being fooled by foundation and blusher. But Thomas rules that wearing makeup doesn’t always involve mortal sin, only when it is done “for the sake of sensuous pleasure or in contempt of God.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but wearing a little lipstick has never won me an invitation to sensuous pleasure. Needless to say, I do not do so in contempt of God, either. Next, Thomas draws a fine line between faking beauty and covering up disfigurement “arising from some cause such as sickness or the like. For this is lawful,” according to 1 Cor. 12:23.

Now the cosmetics issue is a toughie. Certainly concealer must be OK, for dark underage shadows arise from illness or sleeplessness. But what of eye-shadow? Can I argue that having wee eyes is a kind of disfigurement? Or that having eyelashes that are red-blonde at the ends is a disfigurement? But this is for serious scholars to debate. Let’s go to the bit about men’s clothing.

Thomas says we should wear clothing according to our state in life, and drag therefore goes against that. However, we can wear drag to hide ourselves from enemies or through lack of other clothes or for other emergencies. So if you are fished from Lake Ontario and wrapped lovingly in your rescuer’s sweater, that is A-OK with Thomas.

Finally, Thomas says that because “women may lawfully adorn themselves, whether to maintain the fitness of their estate (e.g. wife of up-and-coming young Canadian politician) or even adding something thereto, in order to please their husbands,” it is OK to be in the women’s adornment industry. He bars, however, the invention of the “superfluous and fantastic.” Vogue, take note.

In conclusion, married ladies and girls who want to get married may wear nice clothes, jewelry and even disfigurement-covering make-up, as long as we are not trying to incite men to lust or are vain or frivolous. Looking like a call-girl is forbidden. You’re not going out looking like that, young lady.

(Cummings is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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