WHEN I was at theological college, a rumour circulated about the women in the year behind me. Word had it that, in the course of their module “Sexuality and the Church”, they had decided each to invest in some red silk underwear, to be worn on the day of their ordination. “It’s an act of subversion,” one ordinand confided. “Underneath my black wool cassock and black clerical shirt, I will know that I’m all woman.”
That was 15 years ago; although I was not an ordinand at the time, I sympathised with my sisters who were going before me. I’d spotted their problem eight years earlier as I sat in the common room at school, listening on the radio as the General Synod voted to recognise women’s call to ordained ministry.
My friend, Victoria, started it. “I think I’d like to be a lady vicar,” she said, wistfully.
And the horrible picture arose in my mind of Vicky, with her long blonde hair cascading down the oversized, black poly-cotton shirt bequeathed from the wardrobe of a middle-aged man-vicar. Never mind the long awaited, prayed- and fought-for result for women, the mighty celebration erupting from that vote was immediately quashed by the vision of women spending the rest of their lives wearing old men’s shirts.
“Really, who would want to do that?”
IT TURNS out that many don’t. From red silk undies to lace-panelled bib-stocks, dozens of women, whether clerics or not, have felt compelled and moved to do something about the unholy clash of male poly-cotton garb with 21st-century femininity. And so few have managed it. Even Trinny and Susannah struggled.
I attempted my own foray into the world of clerical redesign soon after my ordination. With a little distance, I can look back — fondly, but mainly with amusement — on the choker collar I had tailored to sit behind the open neck of a black dress. It sort of worked, until one of my congregation referred to it, with a wink, as my dominatrix collar. . . and I consigned it a box labelled Never To Be Worn Again.
Yet trying to wrestle with the uniform was a very public way of entering into the conversation about what it means, and feels like, and looks like, to be a priest who is a woman, where there had only been male ones before.
WE HAD to begin somewhere, and it wasn’t just a sartorial question. It was about finding oneself as a woman, called to ordained ministry, with only male images of what that had previously looked like.
Part of this inevitably involves acknowledging that the clothes that we wear affect how we feel about ourselves in the world. It is powerful, and it is also different for men and for women. It isn’t that men are not in any way affected by how they feel in certain clothes, but that the connection between a woman and her physical appearance resonates differently.
As John Berger writes, “A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. . . The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual — but its object is always exterior to the man. By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, taste; indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.”
On a practical level, of course women are going to feel awkward and ill at ease effectively wearing men’s clothes: they don’t fit the female form. Nobody would consider it sensible for male clerics to make do with women’s blouses and trousers — that would be distracting and absurd. God bless Maria Sjodin of The Casual Priest and the company Hem of the Garment, who have produced ranges available for every body shape, ensuring that women are ordained wearing a uniform in which we can feel smart, professional, and confident.
And so we should. What do we tell the world about God and the Church if we turn up looking baggy and frumpy? I remember my dismay at trying on my newly made-to-measure clerical shirts, only to find them unwearable because the designer “had a policy of adding two inches to all women’s measurements — for modesty’s sake”. It isn’t that we want Lycra clericals that emphasise every curve: we just want something that doesn’t deny the curves altogether.
THE world has different expectations of men’s fashion and women’s fashion, which is perhaps why the ordination of women has brought welcome and long-overdue attention and energy to the whole question of clerical wear. For a start, “short-cassock syndrome” seems much less likely to slip by unnoticed. The appearance of “chino-ankles”, or tights and stilettos under a stunted robe, is widely accepted as a faux pas on every level.
The red trainers in which I spent my twenties were shown no mercy after I processed up the aisle of my college chapel, their rosy nubuck poking out from underneath a cassock-alb; that they fitted with the liturgical colour of the season was neither here nor there. I quickly learned that brogues are the only shoe to match a cassock, and began to embrace their understated elegance.
“Get out of the way when you’re leading worship” was the mantra drummed into us by the college vice-principal. “The key to leading well is to be invisible.” But, while he was referring chiefly to our gestures and tone of voice, his advice was also heard by the female students as an aesthetic direction. The problem of Women Being A Distraction continued to hang over from the ‘80s and ‘90s, if only in our own consciousness.
FINDING clerical shirts, dresses, and tunics that are practical, smart, and affordable has been slow progress. Throw into the computation the desire for a measure of personal flair, the need to be culturally appropriate within a ministerial context, and the hope that one might duck any accusations of vanity or slovenliness, and you have a wardrobe crisis never touched by Carrie Bradshaw. So it matters. The question is: what matters most, and for whom?
A woman’s appearance is always judged more sharply than a man’s, but the clergy are expected to meet additional expectations. There is also the question of contextual appropriateness. Take guests at a wedding, or some other special occasion: nobody complains, or accuses them of vainly primping and preening and making an effort to look their best.
Looking well-dressed and presentable is as much about responding to hospitality as it is about ourselves. Pretending that it doesn’t matter, or that we’re too spiritual to care, just backfires. As one woman, reflecting on her vicar’s seeming unwillingness to brush her hair, snapped with frustration to me recently, “Why does she think so little of us and so little of God that she’s prepared to stand up in the pulpit week after week looking like she’s just rolled out of bed?”
The awareness that our clothes and appearance say as much about our respect for others as our respect for ourselves cannot be shrugged off, but it can be put into perspective by the recollection that we are wearing a uniform. The focal point for our outfit is a given: black shirt or stock, with white clerical collar. As the Bishop of Dorking, Dr Jo Bailey-Wells, says, “It’s not a fashion statement: it’s a uniform. Take off the dangly earrings and preach your heart out.”
For her, recently consecrated, “the danger is that women, more than men, take liberties in assuming a flexibility when it isn’t about personal taste but about the role.”
Flexibility in style is more likely to be assumed of us because we’re women, and using that flexibility to sharpen the cut of our clericals can be a step forward. There is, however, the danger that in the effort to wrestle our femininity into the picture we risk undermining our vocation. Is our femininity so in need of affirmation as to be dependent on pink or floral clerical shirts? Is the fragility of our womanhood still so oppressed that we find ourselves a little bit restored by the addition of lace trim on our clericals? Of course not. Our womanhood is not contingent on stylistic fripperies, and our calling certainly isn’t.
Bishop Jo is right. And so was my pal who casually remarked that “We don’t see WPCs in pink-coloured uniforms; it wouldn’t really help gender equality if we did.” These pink, flowery, or frilly twists on the uniform are like gimmicks: the clerical version of schoolgirls rolling up the waistbands of their skirts, or schoolboys wearing their ties loosely, at half-mast. There are plenty of ways in which we can wear the uniform while accommodating the style or femininity which allow us to feel like ourselves within the role.
The dark or neutral shirt and white collar combination works because it is what everyone recognises as the sign of priesthood. It simply doesn’t say the same thing when the white collar is camouflaged by pale, floral, or Paisley patterns — and the point of uniform is to be recognisable for what you represent, rather than looking as if you are trying to argue with it.
There’s no doubt that the clerical shirt remains the frumpiest way to wear a blouse — EVER. But, now that The Casual Priest and other ranges are producing clothes that fit us, we can turn our attention to where we might legitimately recover some elegance. The jacket, the coat, the skirt, the shoes, our hair — these have traditionally been the places to get creative and inject a splash of style. Like many women in politics or the boardroom, here we can let it be known that we have more flair than our public office might give us credit for.
TWENTY-TWO years after the first women were priested, it may be time to wonder whether this sartorial conversation is merely a rite of passage which all clergy go through, or whether it is something that we need finally to make our peace with.
Bishop Jo’s story of her recycled chimere is a reminder of what it means to wear these clothes. “I discovered that the second-hand chimere I was having adjusted for me had actually been made for the Bishop of Melanesia in the 1940s. As the fifth bishop to wear this robe, I’m reminded of the story that I bear in the role I’m taking on. It’s about the privilege of this office — not about me.”
At times, it has felt for many women clergy as if they’re damned if they pay too much attention to what they’re wearing, and damned if they don’t pay enough. But, with the arrival of more clerical labels, and increasing ethical awareness in the production of these clothes, there is less cause for wardrobe angst and more freedom to fulfil the ministry to which we are called: curing souls, preaching the good news, and showing people Jesus, while looking smart, being credible — and leaving the lace trim out of it. Except perhaps when it comes to those red silk undies.
The Revd Joanna Jepson is the author of A Lot Like Eve (Bloomsbury, 2015).