Zoom out a bit further: why would the husband have say in how his wife presents herself? Typically, we think of our “rights” (that is, what we have a say in) with things that affect us directly. And therein lies the first “sinister” assumption: that what a woman wears affects her husband. That it can make him do something. The chain going something like this: “If my wife doesn’t take care of herself, that makes me less interested in her. Since I have to be interested in someone (or something), what my wife wears can make me lose interest in her and gain interest in someone (or something) else. When I express that interest intimately, I’ve cheated on my wife, and therefore, how my wife takes care of herself and what she wears makes me cheat on her.”
If you think that line of reasoning is over-wrought, I want you to go back up a couple paragraphs and ask yourself, if how a wife takes care of herself isn’t capable of making the husband do anything, why would he (and by extension, Challies) have any say in it at all? If he does have a say, he must be assuming that, somewhere down the line, how his wife takes care of herself is capable of making him do something or act a certain way.
The short response is that not everything that affects us determines our responses. We don’t have to descend into the vagaries of free will to see that when the wife says something nice to me I have a range of options before me. I can play the curmudgeon and shoo her off or accept the affection happily. That’s not clothing, of course, but the parallels seem pretty clear.
What’s more, Tim’s critique unfortunately reduces Challies’ position to the language of “rights,” language which should be the last resort in a relationship constituted by love. Forget what I said about the context into which the advice was given for a second and presume the woman has the right to wear burlap sacks and ashes. The better way of framing Challies’ position is as a prudential admonition grounded in the mutual self-giving of love, rather than as a defense against immorality.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that men get to dictate to women precisely what they should look like. That’s an unhealthy attitude, if ever. And men bear the responsibility of reforming our aesthetic judgments with respect to women such that they fit our wives, rather than the other way ’round. But the possibility of prudential advice about clothing rests on the reality that in marriage, neither our lives nor our bodies are our own, and what we do in them and to them inevitably affects (without determining) the life of the other.
(Someone oughta write a book on this stuff!)