Thursday, August 16, 2007

sartorially speaking...

At the YCW conference we had many engaging discussions, some that provoked heated responses within our group of fabulous clergy women. Among my favorite new phrases are these: “princess parts” and “negotiate for the sisterhood” and “preacher paparazzi.”

One of these engaging discussions involved clothing, makeup, and hair choices. Now, as one with amazing and beautiful hair (yes, I’m vain and high maintenance about this one thing—just let me have it, okay?), I understand the need for a good haircut and good hair products. As one who has been told in the past that no preacher with curly hair can be taken seriously because “curly haired girls are very sexual” I also tend to bristle when the topic comes up. Luckily, none of that was heard in this discussion—just the usual things like “if you can’t stop touching your hair in the pulpit, pull it up!”

In the midst of this discussion we talked much about dressing as your congregation dresses, or perhaps a little bit better. In an area like mine, and I suspect in many areas, this is not a financially responsible thing to attempt—as was pointed out by a lovely young woman who lives near my area. Even at the outlet mall or on sale. Also, in my context, it’s relatively unnecessary. RCLPC is a pretty laid-back place for the most part, people are relaxed…I’ve only seen one woman wear a hat and only a handful of families wear what I would call “traditional church clothes.” I do tend to dress well, not just on Sundays but everyday because I do have preacher paparazzi. There’s a lot going on in our congregation, much of it noteworthy, and so we are often in the newspaper which means photographs designed to “put a face on” the ministry, program, or event. It’s exciting that this is a vibrant enough place to warrant the paparazzi. I feel good about that and I dress accordingly…which is a good thing because I often run into people who say “I saw you in the paper!” At a wedding I did a few months ago one of the groomsmen looked at me and said “I see you in the paper every week!” and I said, “yes, yes you do. There’s a lot going on at RCLPC!”

Back to the point. In this discussion I felt that we were told (this may not have been what was said or what others heard, so it’s my hearing here) that we needed to have a variety of outfits at varied levels of fancy-ness. That we should have good-looking casual clothes, tailored and pulled together every-day wear, and high-quality Sunday-wear. That if people in our churches wear a different outfit every day of the month, so should we. That if people in our churches wear designer clothes, so should we.

Well….I really am going to have to disagree. Perhaps this comes from my experience as a YAV when we talked incessantly about living simply. the cliché “live simply so others may simply live” seems to apply here…as does the whole conversation we are constantly having about boundaries and modeling healthy behavior for our congregations. I mean, think about it. We supposedly model good time boundaries, setting aside Sabbath time and play time and family time and friend time and work time, keeping a good balance. Why do we not also model good boundaries with materialism? Why do we have to have 30 designer outfits? Can I be just as effective a pastor if I have 8 outfits? If I buy my clothes on sale at Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft? Can I wear the same exact outfits every week (or maybe mix and match from the same 16 pieces)? If someone comments on it, can I say that I am trying not to be a slave to materialism, that it’s important to me to live simply and part of that is not having a closet full of clothes?

Since living simply is part of my life now (it has been for a while since I was so ridiculously unable to manage money in college), and since I’ve lived with people for whom living lavishly is not an option, I’m going to choose to answer yes to all of these questions. I’ve been here almost a year and no one has commented on my clothes besides to say “that’s a cute skirt” or some such thing…I’ve not had anyone say “didn’t you wear that last week?” or “hmm, I don’t think that’s the color for you” or anything negative at all about my clothes. I mix up my pieces but all told I seriously have about 8-10 options…a few pairs of pants in various colors, a pair of jeans, a few skirts (three summer and three winter), and about 10 tops of various styles (not counting the ubiquitous free t-shirt that comes with doing youth ministry or missionary work). And you know what? I’m okay with that. And I’m even in the paper every week.


  1. Amen. I'm wearing a t-shirt and jeans today, and I'm going to a Presbytery meeting where I'll be helping lead worship and spending time with Joan Gray. And you know what? I don't care. Because Peter didn't put on a designer tunic to go out and heal people. Ministry is the work of everyday life, so you get me as I am everyday. Besides, you can wear a $1,000 suit and still be a crappy person. I'm more concerned about being clothed in Christ.

  2. Well written, Teri. I tend to agree with you. I have more comments, but I'm fried. Glad you had a great time at the conference.

  3. Even Clinton and Stacy (What Not To Wear) say to have a few simple, classic pieces that go with several other things. I think as long as you look well-put-together, the price of your clothes is not important, nor the quantity of items in your closet.

  4. I didn't hear that in the conversation, but I was so reeling from some of the earlier bits that I may have missed it.

    Here is my take on clergy clothes--14 years into this, and having worked at everything from dirt poor to literally millionaire places: you need to look like you're at work. And what that looks like is going to vary place to place, but the thing is that it is your job to be there, so you have to show up ready to work. You also don't want to be too far away from what your congregation wears--in formality, not in quality.So if the congo is rocking out suits every day, I would try to wear a suit, but you know JC Penney is just fine. You don't have their income, so I think quality tit for tat is a waste of time. And I actually found that my working class congergation put a big emphasis on dressing up--much more so than my wealthy church did. They once had a puplit supply pastor show up in kakhis and a polo, no robe and were SO offended--they thought he hadn't taken them seriously.

    I don't think a wide variety of clothes is necessary at all. I grew up with Rev. Ken who had 2 suits. We saw them over and over and over again. And if there was a new tie after Christmas, we knew it was new. And I think there is something to be said for a stability of ward-robe. One of the rationales for collars is that you're not thinking about what the pastor is wearing, and I think the same can be said for pastors who simply have a small wardrobe--whether by choice or because their incomes prohibit it.

    I have a huge wardrobe. I admit. My sister and mom are always sending me clothes. And I have worked in such a wide variety of places that there are a lot of clothes taht I don't really wear that much anymore, but I'm going to hang on to them until I know where I'm going next. Despite this big wardrobe, other than the odd conference, I pretty much wear the same 5 or 6 outfits in teh spring/summer and a different 5 in the fall/winter.

    And I've never heard that about curly headed girls! My niece wishes she had curly hair because "curly headed girls have smiling hair."

  5. I think how you dress should communicate to the folks in your parish that you respect them and take your work seriously. If you are in a place where jeans and a t-shirt can communicate that, fine. If not, you need to adjust. You don't have to spend tons of money and get a place with walk in closets, but you need to dress in a way that says, "I think you are important and this work we're in together is important."

  6. PPB and PCIT: I agree that people should dress as though they are at work and as though they take their work (and the people with whom they work) seriously. I think I do that, and I'm relatively certain that I would hear about it if I didn't (at least from SP). But if I buy my clothes on sale at Ann Taylor Loft (yes I often get them altered in order to fit me, many thanks to a seamstress member who also work with the middle school youth!), and I have only 8 outfits that I rotate, does that communicate something as well? I do look nice, my clothes are both cute and appropriate, but I don't have loads of them, and I don't feel that I need to. If people were ever to ask me about it, I would most likely say something about fighting materialism.

    A funny moment happened after I'd been here about 8 months. I wore jeans one night to confirmation class (my one pair of jeans are tailored, well-fitted, dark wash, not icky or too big or too small or anything like that) and one of the 9th graders in the class said "you own jeans?????" It was quite hilarious. (since the class was on Sunday nights I tended to wear my Sunday clothes the whole day...that day I had had a chance to go home in the afternoon and so had changed.)

  7. Teri,
    I've done it with a few carefully chosen outfits from yard sales and the Goodwill, (augmented by some gifts from family). I think I was having a bit of a bad reaction to the "Jeans and T-shirt are more Christ-like" attitude in the first comment. In some contexts they might be. But it's also just barely possible that what you are communicating is not Christ-like simplicity but "I don't care enough about my congregation to bother to dress nicely when I am representing them in a public way."

  8. Whoa whoa whoa. I NEVER said that jeans and a t-shirt were "more Christ like," and if anyone ever questions the level of love and care I have for my congregation based on what CLOTHES I wear, then they obviously have no idea of the amount of time and energy I pour into my ministry with them. What I said was that I was more concerned about being clothed in Christ and living my faith in this community than I am with what clothes I am doing that in. We shouldn't rely on our clothes to communicate our love and respect for our congregations. We should be doing that with our words, actions, and time.

  9. I think a small, professional wardrobe that fits well, looks good and conveys the spirit that the pastor cares that she looks as if she is there to work, but is not so wrapped up in wardrobe that she is a clotheshorse sounds perfect!

    I had a sartorial "oops" moment yesterday that I regret. I wore jean capris to the office, to clean and organize. They are very nice ones, but still read "casual", even though I was wearing them with a nice silk T-shirt and some really cute bronze flats. Of course I got a call that one of the beloved widows of the church was in the hospital with a stroke. I wasn't crazy about how I looked, but I dropped what I was doing, powdered my nose and headed off to the hospital.

    I don't think she (church member) cared what I looked like, but I do try to look professional to the ICU desk volunteer when I am passing myself off as clergy. Yesterday was not one of my prouder days. Lesson learned.

  10. Here's what I'm talking about. I'd been at my previous church about six months when in a short period of time several members mentioned to me that they so appreciated my wearing a robe to lead worship. "Why wouldn't I wear a robe?" I asked. "Our last pastor never wore a robe," came the reply, "I guess he didn't think we were worth dressing up for."
    Now, I knew their former pastor and I'm SURE that what he intended to communicate by not wearing a robe was informality and intimacy. But that's obviously not the message that at least some in the congregation received. You're absolutely right that we can't count on our clothes to do all the work of showing love and respect for our congregations. But I do think we have to be aware that our choice of clothes might be sending signals we don't mean to send--especially to those from generations for whom dressing up equals honor and respect.

  11. That might be what you're talking about, but it's not what you said. You misquoted me, misrepresented me, and implied that I don't care about my congregation because I don't dress a certain way. An "I'm sorry" would have been fine instead of an "I'm proving my point." Maybe you should put the same thought into posting comments that you do into choosing your wardrobe.

  12. hmm, I think we can all see why this conversation at the conference rubbed me the wrong way! It's a complicated issue, particularly where women in ministry are concerned. When I noted to my SP the other day that a friend had gotten a comment on the length of a skirt she wore, he said (rightly, I think) that no one would ever dare say something about that to him as a man. He pointed out that the first time someone said "your pants are too tight/short/casual" he would probably shut them down with a comment about how inappropriate that was.

    But women can't just do that (without being bitchy, anyway). We have to spend time thinking about what we're wearing and what's communicated by what we're wearing. If we don't, we'll either hear about it or be talked about. PCIT, it sounds like in your case the male pastor was talked about as well, and I have to say that is the first time I've ever heard a story like that. I'm impressed that the congregation was able to articulate that--many can't.

    I didn't mean to spark a firestorm about what kind of clothes pastors wear, though I obviously did. I guess I just wanted to say that I felt a disconnect between the commitment to simplicity and the discussion we had at the YCW conference. And to say that I don't have issues with living simply and also looking appropriate for my context, and if questioned about it (which I have yet to be) saying exactly how my wardrobe fits into my faith and life. We talked about the witness sealing her life to her testimony. I guess that's what I'm trying to do by owning less.

    (PPB, I wish we had good thrift stores here, but alas no. It seems we are still denying that there are people around here who can't afford to shop at the name brand I head to the Ann Taylor/LOFT sale racks every couple of months to see what I can pick up, then take clothes from my closet to the shelter for women.)

  13. Ah, well, then have I got a secret for you, the elementary school where my mom used to work holds a "clothing exchange" where fancy name brand, wear to work in Chicago clothes are re-sold at ridiculous prices. It's not a constant thrift store, but a twice a year bonanza. About half my clothes are from there. If you're willing to road-trip to Naperville, let me know.

    I think you're just fine with your clothes, Teri. You're appropriate. Appropriate is, I think, all that can be asked---quality and quantity are such personal decisions based on circumstances, values, and income that I don't think they should even be up for debate (except amongst good friends, over drinks or coffee or some such fun.) (I define appropriate as not too casual & covering the princess parts without leading a reasonable person ---and we all know there are plenty of unreasonable persons out there--- to worry that anything is going to pop out...)

    Without creating another argument, I do think it's fair to say (and I can add that I've been researching this topic for 6 months now) that young women ministers get their clothes/formality/skirt length critiqued at least twice as often as the 3 other groups.

    I'm sorry the conversation went so haywire. That conversation had never been part of the plan. It's what Anna chose to put in and I wanted to leave the room by about half way (I suspect she might have felt the same way.) I gave up getting a word in and I probably was the minority view point. I totally apologize for that night.

  14. oh polar bear, do not worry. There is no need for apology--we all knew the conversation would happen at some point. The conversation didn't make me angry, really, just caused wondering. So I wondered here. What else is the internet for!?!

    Thanks for the tip about Naperville...I'll have to see if I can get over there. :-)

  15. This is exactly why I plan to embrace the clerical collar!