I know that there is a Catholic standard of modesty in dress for women. But is there also a standard of dress for men?
Absolutely there is, for exactly the same principles apply for men as for women.
Modesty is a moral virtue, and a part of the virtue of temperance, by which a person brings moderation to his outward and inward actions (inasmuch as they can be reflected by certain exterior signs), in order to keep them under the control of right reason (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae Q.160, a.2). Saint Thomas Aquinas lists four kinds of modesty in ordinary matters, that are obligatory for everybody:
If all four aspects of modesty are equally important, there remains no doubt that the last two, which have no special name, are most commonly understood by the term modesty. Moreover, it is most especially the last that is referred to by modesty, on account of the disorder of fallen human nature, which is most easily overcome by a disordered attraction to the last kind of immodesty.
Clearly men have an equal duty as women to avoid provocative words or actions and to avoid any kind of dress that might show off their person or their body, leading to vanity. Like women, they are hence forbidden to display their bodies in public in an unseemly manner, or in a way that might produce a disordered attraction in the opposite sex. Men should always wear a shirt for gymnastics, and shorts should not be worn in public, but only be used for athletics, and should not be too brief or too tight. Likewise, men should dress modestly for Sunday Mass, with shirt, tie, jacket, trousers, all of which symbolize a man’s sense of responsibility, leading his family by the orderly self-discipline of modest dress, and doing his duty in the true worship of God.
However, there are two important differences in the application of these principles to men, as compared to women, and which are the reason why the Church’s documents on the subject refer to modesty in women. The first is that the nature of a woman makes her much more prone to the temptation of vanity, to show off her body, and the nature of a man makes him much more tempted by seeing this. Consequently, the gravest and most dangerous offenses against modesty, understood in its fourth and most restricted meaning, namely as against purity, are by women.
It is for this reason that the Church has been so much more adamant about women’s dress, as in the following quote from a decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council of January 18, 1930:
His Holiness, Pius XI, has never ceased to inculcate in word and writing that precept of Saint Paul (I Tim 2:5, 10) –"Women also in decent apparel; adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety…as it becometh women professing godliness with good works."
And on many occasions the same Supreme Pontiff has reproved and sharply condemned the immodesty in dress which today is everywhere in vogue; even among women and girls who are Catholics; a practice which does grave injury to the crowning virtue and glory of women, and moreover unfortunately leads not merely to their temporal disadvantage, but, what is worse, to their eternal ruin and that of other souls.
It is no wonder, then, that Bishops and other Ordinaries of places, as becomes ministers of Christ, have in their respective diocese unanimously resisted in every way this licentious and shameless fashion and in doing so have cheerfully and courageously borne the derision and ridicule sometimes directed at them by the ill-disposed….
There is a second reason why modesty of dress is especially applicable to women over men. It is that there is a special form of immodesty that is characteristic of our modern times, and it is the immodesty of women wearing men’s clothes, most notably pants and shorts. This undermines a woman’s psychological perception of herself, and of her difference from a man, which in turn de-feminizes her, erodes natural respect between men and women, removes the defense to over-familiarity, and eventually degrades the relationships between men and women to the level of sensuality. It is this form of immodesty which is ultimately by far the most destructive of human relationships and of the virtue of purity.
If, therefore, there is certainly a standard of modesty for men, it must always be remembered that the battle for women’s modesty is both much more crucial and much more difficult to win.
Real men will, however, teach and lead by their example. If they have a difficult time insisting on the modesty of their wife or daughters, they will remember to practice very precisely all the four kinds of modesty mentioned above, and their admonitions will bear fruit.
[Q&A from The Angelus – December 1999, by Father Scott]