PART ONE: Enticing Men
Naturally I have the Summa Theologica in both English and Latin, so I bounced up at once to review dear old Q 169.2. Naturally I skipped straight to the Respondeo, which can be summed up as follows:
1. A woman's apparel sometimes has the power to incite men to lust.
2. Nevertheless a married woman may dress in such a way as to "please" (cough, cough, ahem) her husband. A married woman can do this without sin.
3. But unmarried women, and women who do not wish to marry, or nuns, "cannot without sin desire to give lustful pleasure to those men who see them, because this is to incite them to sin."
4. Women who do dress with the intention of inciting men to sin, sin mortally.
5. Women are inspired by frivolity or ostentation in their clothing choices--e.g. blowing the rent money on an Armani dress just to show off--do not necessarily sin mortally but sometimes venially. (Really, it's about your intentions.)
6. The same applies to men in this respect. Blowing the rent money to impress the chicks with your expensive suit is a sin.
You'll never guess who it was who was okay with women dressing up with gold and costly attire. You'll never, ever guess. Saint Augustine. It's right there in dear old 169.2
7. CULTURAL EXCEPTION!!! In the case of frivolity and ostentation, some might be excused from sin when they wear frivolous or ostantatious clothes not out of vanity but out of some contrary custom.
8. Thomas doesn't think much of such a contrary custom.
Meanwhile, I'll tell you what Thomas did not rule on: spaghetti straps, hemlines and necklines. Because "modest dress" is a cultural construct and changes from culture to culture, era to era. Naturally Thomas, not being used to the sight of women's legs, would have been very disturbed by the forest of female legs now on the streets of Paris. However, being of his own century, he would not have noticed scooped necklines much. He probably would have found it odd that we allow our hair to float about unbraided and uncovered, and most definitely odd that we cut it short. In fact, he would have been severely annoyed that, by twelfth century standards, we dress like men. This would have bothered him a lot more than public breast-feeding, which almost every mother everywhere used to do. Prominent breasts---no big deal. Shoulders--bigger deal. Ankles--Eeek! Eeek! Eeek!
But to get right back to Thomas's point, it's about intention. If you put on a strapless sundress because it is hot out and you want to look feminine and pretty as you putter around downtown with your shopping bag, then all power to you. If you put on a strapless sundress because you're in Morocco and want to anger/incite to lust all the Arab men around, then you're an idiot. If you put on a black dress with slits up both sides to go to a college Hallowe'en party as a sexy vampire, then bad. If you put on a black dress with slits up both sides to go to a tango milonga, then okay.
Sundress and tango dress mean different things in different places. And naturally nobody should ever harass you because of your clothes although of course they will if you offend community standards in a place that believes in both community standards and yelling at strangers. I saw a woman in the mall yesterday who was outrageously offensive to community standards, for she had a black mask tied over her face to go with her hijab and robe. However, Edinburghers do not yell at strangers, unless either party is drunk, so I merely rolled my eyes.
PART TWO: ...to a Nice Conversation.
It would be a lie to say that men have never stopped me in the street for a conversation, so I won't pretend this never happens. Strangers have approached me in the street since I was a child to talk about my hair. It is never about my clothes; it is always about my hair. This is because I have unusual hair. I have spent my life feeling very self-conscious about my hair. However, I can now see the benefits of having hair that interests people. It makes for an easy topic of conversation, even cross-cultural ones, as people from more outgoing cultures try to reconcile their beliefs about "white people hair" with my hair. Believe me, I don't have big hair to incite anyone to lust; I have big hair because of genetics.
However, even these hair-chats have been unusual occurrences because I have not lived in countries where (white) men just walk up to (white) women and start talking. Even in super-chatty Scotland, you have to be standing beside them at a bus stop or something. And then the man is usually not as interested in meeting you as he is in talking. Really, I have never been around such a chatty people in all my life. It solves the mystery of why my Scottish-Canadian granny used to talk to bus-drivers all the time.
Thus, if your first language is English, and your expectation of social life is that young men are going to stare at you appreciatively or wolf whistle or say "Looking good" or humbly introduce themselves to you on the bus or subway, you watch way too many movies. Meanwhile, it used to be utterly unheard of for gentlemen to talk to unknown ladies in public. And women who spoke to unknown gentlemen in public were assumed to be hookers. You just didn't do it. Once upon a time, when men were more interested in women, in part because women looked up to men as demi-gods and saviours, nice young men would scramble to find someone to introduce them to a certain young lady at a PARTY or after MASS. If desperate, he would go gulping up to her mother, excusing himself and saying that he believed Mrs X was a friend of his mother Mrs Y, and he hoped Mrs X wouldn't mind if he said good morning and perhaps (gulp, gulp) came to call. We have not made the transition from British/American formality to foreign bonhommerie with grace.
Therefore if you want to meet young men, and naturally you do--even I don't mind it, as to widen my social circle--you must forget all about meeting them on busses and trains and the street and possibly even the beach--and go to social events, preferably local ones. And I suggest that, while preparing for them, you dress with a certain amount of originality and flair. At recent dances, I remember a girl standing out from the crowd (literally) because she was wearing a crinoline, another because she had very defined curls, and another because she was wearing an unusual grey bell-skirted wool dress with a ghost pin. It was a cute little wee ghost; a real conversation starter.
If you are interested in meeting certain young men from sub-cultures, for example, if you are a committed Goth, then naturally wearing full Goth rig-out will get you noticed by the brotherhood, especially if (at a Goth gig) you have some bit of Goth kit nobody else has, or show up in a ruined wedding dress. Actually, taking any effort to dress creatively for any social event can get you noticed. I went to a Balkan music event--one quite notorious for wild dancing and drinking--in full pretend Gypsy rig-out and was approached for conversation by men and women alike.
Then there are the homesick. Nine years ago in Boston a sad, sad Gael asked me in a bar in heartrending tones if I were Irish. If you are partial to Czechs (et alia), you can wander around your town with a Czech (etc.) dictionary and homesick Czechs may just suddenly ask you if you are learning Czech and why. (At swing dance, the coolest of the Cool Girls did a double take in the ladies' when while unpacking my handbag to get out of my lipstick, I set my Polish dictionary by the sink, and now we are on greeting terms.) When abroad, you can go to places where the men of your nation hang out. (In Rome, Canadians and Americans go to the Scholar's Pub, which is nominally Irish.)
To return to Saint Thomas, he would have been confused by the concept of women going out by themselves hoping to meet men. In Thomas's day, and in every day until the 20th century, young women whose fathers could read (or could employ someone to read for them) never went out by themselves hoping to meet men. Young women who went out among men unchaperoned were almost always prostitutes. In Thomas's day, your parents sorted out your marriages themselves, or at least supervised the process with due diligence.
Thus, although Thomas was assuredly right about not dressing or acting in such a way because you intend to incite men to lust, he doesn't have much to say as to how to encourage them to talk to you in the first place, as nice men making friends with nice women for nice reasons.
I will say, however, that conventional, mass-produced boring old clothes from H&M, et alia, no matter how short, long, clingy or tight, are unlikely to spark anyone's interest in you whatsoever. You will be just another girl in a spaghetti strap top and a denim skirt or khaki trousers. (Zzzzzz.)
Meanwhile, looking interesting is not enough. You must BE interesting, too. Fortunately, women can very often be interesting just by being good listeners and reading up a bit on their friends' interests, so as to ask intelligent questions. However, let's face it, at social events it is very unlikely that men will discover you are interesting unless you LOOK interesting, too. And naturally that does not mean looking like a stripper, except to the sort of men you don't want to meet anyway.