How Shall We Then Dress?

I listened with interest to this commentary on NPR last week, first of all because as a once and future (D.V.) educator of aspiring ministers, my ears always perk up at any mention of things "they don't teach you in seminary." I am committed to the proposition that seminary training should be relevant to parish ministry -- although I don't believe that this means the whole curriculum needs to be rethought. I firmly believe that Hebrew verb forms and third-century doctrinal controversies are eminently relevant to parish ministry. I just happen to also believe that no one should receive an M.Div. degree without knowing that church potlucks ought to be organized with lines going down both sides of the table(s). (I further believe that the rule against split infinitives is errant pedantry, in case any of my proofreading friends are reading.)

I continued to listen with interest because, as a recent seminary graduate myself, I have direct second-hand experience of the dressing dilemmas that face new clergywomen. Having gone shopping with and witnessed living room fashion shows of my newly- or soon-to-be ordained peers, I chuckled knowingly at the commentator's dilemma. I fondly remember fantasizing with my friends about enlisting the aid of one of those fashion makeover shows that run nonstop on cable TV to solve the sartorial problems unique to women ministers.

Some reactions:

1) Methinks the lady doth protest too much. If she really has a closet full of Ann Taylor Loft separates and can only pull together one suitable outfit, she's either being too picky or she's overdue for a wardrobe update. Ann Taylor brands, are, in fact, the unofficial clothiers for mainline clergywomen, offering stylish-but-not-overly-corporate professional wear.

2) That said, women clergy do have a unique set of wardrobe challenges. You would think that with a full generation plus of ordained women in mainline churches, the subculture would have come up with some generally agreed upon protocols, but, alas, no. It would certainly help matters if the manufacturers of overpriced clergy shirts could figure out how to create women's blouses that are not both ugly and uncomfortable. The worst effort I've seen -- seriously offered for sale in a leading clothier's catalog -- was a MINT GREEN polyester clergy blouse with RUFFLES. UGH!

3) Kudos to Drew Theological Seminary for teaching the (soon-to-be?) Reverend Gudger Raines the fine art of theological reflection on mundane realities like what to wear to church. It is appropriate to notice and consider the significance of clothing and its relation to the embodied reality of our faith and our proclamation. Yet it seems a bit naive to imagine that by displaying some skin or one's womanly figure in worship, a woman pastor might prompt her congregants to re-evaluate their assumptions about gender, humanity, and the nature of the divine.

I prefer the wisdom of another clergywoman, conveniently positioned in a tradition that dresses its worship leaders in liturgical robes. She intentionally minimizes physical gender markers when officiating at a service, to the point of eschewing high heels or colored nail polish and wearing only minimal make-up. It's not that she's trying to hide her femininity -- you'd never mistake her for a man -- but she doesn't want to draw attention to it as she exercises her priestly role. Her teaching richly explores the theological issues that Gudger Raines raises in her commentary, but she doesn't need to keep them front and center in her leadership in the acts at the heart of church life.

This, of course, doesn't help at all with the question of what to wear when not vested in vestments. A million matters go into those decisions -- climate, local culture, nature of the event, etc., etc. It's not that different from other women's clothing decisions, really. When in doubt, go with Ann Taylor.

4) I can imagine a seminary women's center coming up with a fun event on the question of wardrobe choices for women clergy. Invite in women clergy and have a fashion show, or stage a seminarian's version of a makeover show, or just throw a roundtable discussion over pizza about the joys and perils of dressing as a pastor. (Tip: If you're going to shop at church rummage sales, at least go to other people's churches, so that your parishioners won't notice their cast-offs in the pulpit week after week.) I bet people would come. I bet it would be fun. And then they won't be able to say that they never learned about what to wear in seminary.


Sarah said...

Mint green?!?!?!

Oh, the horror!!

I don't even look at the female clergy vestments in the Cokesbury catalogue anymore. Blech!

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