When the Sartorial meets the Sacerdotal

February 9, 2010 at 4:06 pm 1 comment

My young(ish) clergy women friends and I were all a-flutter last week at the news that one of our own would be featured on an episode of What Not to Wear.

I know the show has its detractors, but I, for one, raced to set my DVR.

There was a lot to love about the episode- not least was an honest discussion of where fashion fits in, in a general way, in the life of a Spiritual Leader. The first women were ordained in my denomination on my 2nd birthday, but there is still a significant struggle to be taken seriously as leaders. (My local religious bookseller continues to inquire if I am the ministers’ wife, every time I buy Sunday School materials there!) So Yes! by all means, lets talk about the fact that the culture in which we work and move has certain expectations about how women might dress in order to visually identify themselves as leaders within the community of faith. Let’s talk about how, if we fail to meet cultural expectations, our qualifications and contributions can be more easily overlooked by colleagues, larger governing bodies, and parishioners alike. And yet, if we succeed too well at conforming to cultural standards, we are accused of vanity and paying excessive attention to unimportant earthly frippery.

Looking around my (mostly male) colleagues at a meeting this morning, there were any number of styles of dress represented- formal black suits, sports coats, dockers & Sweaters, jeans… all of these ‘looks’ were completed with a collared shirt. Take pretty much any fashion ‘look’ for men, replace “shirt and tie” with “shirt and collar” and boom, you have a well-dressed cleric.

It has long seemed to me that the cultural expectations of women in professional dress are significantly harder to adapt to clerical clothing. Not impossible, mind you, but harder. Witness the spring line at Reitmans, a retailer that prides themselves on being “designed for real life”. Behold the many many variations on “basic neutral trouser and colourful interesting top”.

So I thought Stacy and Clinton had a brilliant opportunity with Emily to talk about how to make their “fashion rules” work for people who, for whatever reason, find that “neutral trouser and blingy top” doesn’t work. Off the top of my head: clergy, nursing moms, people for religious, cultural or personal reasons prefer a more modest neckline than is often readily available, women with mastectomies or scars… there’s lots of reasons why not to wear a low-cut colourful blouse.

I felt like WNTW came so close, and then missed the mark. They did a little “how to put together an outfit” tutorial for Emily. (Actually they handed her a notepad and told her to take notes, which I found an irritatingly infantalizing way to treat a grown woman in a trusted position of authority within the community that knows her well).
1 basic + 1 interest piece + 1 completer piece = outfit.

Fine. But then there was room to say, OKAY, this black clerical shirt is always going to be your basic. If you look around you can find one in some other colours, but lets face it, this is never going to be the “interest” portion of your fabulous professional ensemble. THEN they could have talked about finding trousers with texture or pattern or interest, or great jackets, or jewellery, or something.

But no. They made Emily a custom clerical dicky- a signal to the rest of us that without the resources of a nationally syndicated tv show at our disposal, there’s just no way to walk that razor’s edge between “young and hip” and “professional and put together”. And then they put her in a scoop neck blouse overtop of that dicky. So the message became more like “here is the uniform. If you are sufficiently young and conventionally attractive, you can and will find a way to wear the uniform. And if you are not, then we were never talking to you in the first place”.

To say nothing of how they kept coming back to her single status, and the primary importance of signalling sexual availability at all times. Not that there’s anything wrong with a young woman wanting to dress like a sexy young woman. But between the “looking holy for work” and “putting it out there” in the off hours, the Madonna/Whore split was just far too much for my little brain to encompass, and surely far too much to ask any one young woman to incarnate.

I am fairly newly convinced that there are some really good reasons for clergy women to bother paying attention to what we wear- not least being that we are called to minister precisely with and through and in these earthly vessels. We are incarnated beings. We have bodies, and they don’t need to be hidden beneath shapeless or ill-fitting clothing. Bodies aren’t things to be ashamed of (at any size!) And clergy bodies in particular stand before the gathered community and represent something beyond ourselves to that community. We embody what we believe in a particular way, when we claim a place as ordained leaders. And in a massive variety of every-day choices– including the choice of how we dress those earthly vessels each day– we make a declaration of what we believe about ourselves and our creator. Or so it seems to me.

Clearly, I was hoping for too much from an hour of makeover television.

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Entry filed under: Incarnational, Sacerdotal. Tags: .

Food- certainly not poison Ow! OW! it HURTS!

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. PeaceBang  |  February 16, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Spot on!! A very irritating experience — especially, as you noted, the constant emphasis on how Emily needed to broadcast her sexual appeal and availability. There’s so much more to it than that, and you’ve highlighted it all in your final paragraphs. Thank you!

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