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I have to confess that one of my guilty pleasures on days off is reading fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. It’s not so much that I aspire to high fashion, but I find the photography beautiful and can appreciate the creativity and craftsmanship of fine clothes. (There’s a lot that’s wrong with fashion and the clothing industry, but that’s a subject for another blogpost.)

Fashion is not just a matter of aesthetics, however, and to reduce it to such would be incredibly naive. As most women are well aware, it is an issue which spans politics, history, culture, religion and gender. Our clothing choices are freighted with centuries of domination and oppression, class assumptions, gender roles and expectations. Even today, it is a near constant negotiation of our own managed identities and others’ projections.

Styling a clerical collar? It’s just as fraught.

The winter was easy because I was always wearing a scarf. Walking down the street with my clerical collar hidden, to the general public I looked just like any other person. But then spring came, and off came the scarf. I began to notice the funny looks. Lots of double takes. A few jokes. The odd rude comment.

The past few days, however, it’s become more pronounced because I’ve been taking every opportunity I can get to be outside in the sun. I was sitting in Princes Street Gardens last week working on my sermon, and a man kept bumping into people as he walked past because he was too busy staring at me to pay attention to where he was going. Another man actually stopped directly in front of me and gaped, and, when after a good two or three minutes I finally asked if I could help him, he ran away (literally ran!).

The collar draws attention. I am fully aware of that. Being a young(ish) woman in a clerical collar possibly increases the attention. Therefore, all my other clothing choices are made with that and my role in mind. I do not simply get up in the morning and put on whatever I feel like wearing. I cannot just go to the shops and buy the latest trends.

Instead, each morning as I dress, or each time I go shopping for ‘work’ clothes, I find myself asking:

  • What does this outfit say?
  • Can it carry the weight of the collar?
  • Is my skirt too short (for a priest)?
  • Is this dress too tight (for a priest)?
  • Are these shoes too sexy (for a priest)? (I never considered this until a man told me at a funeral that my conservative 2 inch heels were too raunchy for the occasion.)
  • Do I look like an adult who can handle the responsibility of my calling?
  • Do I look feminine without looking girly?
  • Or do I look like I’m trying to play down my femininity to fit in in what often still feels like a man’s world?

And after all these questions, I ask finally: Do I feel like myself? Because if, in the apparently simple act of getting dressed, I lose sight of who I am, I cannot be who I am called to be, and I cannot do the work that I am called to do.

I was told often as I was going through the discernment and training process that God calls us each as we are to be who we are, that women are made in God’s image and reflect the feminine face of God. And yet when we are ordained, more often than not, we are presented with shirts made to the men’s patterns only smaller, sending the not so subliminal message that we are entering a male profession, and that in order to be good, proper, acceptable priests, we should leave our femininity behind, hide our bodies under baggy clothing, and should look and behave like the men do.

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Nothing speaks of a fear of the female body, a misunderstanding of women’s ministry, or simply a sheer hatred of women quite like a frumpy clergy shirt. In one fell swoop, confidence, calling and authority are all undermined.

There are blogs, online communities, forums and Facebook pages devoted to the frustrations women face when trying to style a clerical collar. What I’m saying here is hardly new.

But I think what I have come to see more recently is that part of what makes it so complicated is not merely the dire selection of clerical clothing but a rather complex collision of (a) the historical, social, political, religious, gendered and cultural baggage of fashion, (b) unhealthy theologies of and attitudes toward the body – particularly the female body – in the Church and (c) a still-emerging understanding of women’s ministry. To further complicate matters, simply throw into the mix other people’s interpretations of and views on these issues which they then subconsciously project onto us.

When all I want when I get dressed in the morning is to try to visually express who I am – as a person, as a woman, as a (almost) priest, that’s a lot to negotiate. There are some days when it’s just too much, and I find myself reaching for the scarf again …

7 thoughts on “collared

  1. Kate – great post, very thought-provoking. I’ve encountered a lot of this, though in a church tradition where clergy clobber is not compulsory, I rarely wear the collar except for services. Not wearing robes, I have the added difficulty: what do you wear to lead worship? I opt for the most boring black/dark grey suit I can find & wear the same ones every time: I reckon people (including me) have enough trouble worshipping without being distracted by what the minister is wearing. Although you’d be surprised at how restricting it is to find a jacket that works with clergy shirt & collar.

    Everyday clothing is more difficult – I like clothes, and the “is it too short/tight/sexy” question surfaces often, although perhaps not much more often than it would as a Christian woman in any profession. Heels are compulsory for me & anyone who doesn’t like it can lump it – I usually take funerals in 3-inch heels and no-one has ever commented (I hope you laughed at him). I do, though, have a lot of boring dark clothes in my wardrobe.

    Reading your post has made me reflect that my attitude has changed over the 8 years I’ve been doing this. I’ve become more relaxed and less conservative about what I wear and I find that as I’ve got tot know the congregation better, some of them like that – oddly enough, mainly older women. It’s been commented that “It’s good to see you in a colour” and I realise that they don’t expect me to suppress my personality in my clothes. Yesterday I visited a housebound elderly woman well known to me who loves clothes, and deliberately wore something a bit shorter than I’d usually wear for pastoral visiting. She noticed instantly with great approval & said it gave her a lift to see me looking nice. I also remember for the funeral of another elderly lady who was always immaculate – I bought and wore a new lipstick for the occasion, and told the congregation that – she would have loved it!

    So it works both ways. I’ve been finding myself in this as in all things, and having done that, holding my ground as I’ll never please everyone anyway. Although having to wear the collar every day would drive me bonkers. There aren’t many advantages to being Presbyterian but there are some!

    All best wishes for your ordination. I pray it will be a special occasion.

    1. Lynne, thank you so much for your comment. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this. I particularly love your encounters with the older women in your congregation (I had a similar experience yesterday when I wore red heels on a visit – I wore them because I knew it would make the person smile). One of the joys I’ve found (there are some!) has been speaking with women after the service and having conversations which have been equal parts theology/bible and makeup/nail polish/hair tips. I find that it’s the ‘shallow’ comments that can quickly lead into much deeper conversations about body insecurities, fear of ageing, or all kinds of other anxieties.

      I don’t envy you having to find suits to go with the collar. I have one and never wear it. And I would find it so tricky to know how to dress for worship. I am very grateful on Sunday mornings when I know that whatever I wear will be covered up by layers of other kit (mostly made to fit much larger men, of course…). At least that day getting dressed is easy!

  2. Excellent blog. I’ve no doubt that a lot of the stares are because you are a young, good-looking and well-dressed woman – in a collar. It must be exhausting to be the focus of so much attention – especially when the attention has that voyeuristic quality that quickly passes superficial judgements. But the flip side is that just by walking down the street you challenge the popular perception of the church (and God) as exclusively old, frumpy and male – something that many clergy struggle to find ways of doing. PS, heels are fine!

    1. ‘But the flip side is that just by walking down the street you challenge the popular perception of the church (and God) as exclusively old, frumpy and male – something that many clergy struggle to find ways of doing.’

      Bless you, Tom. This is what I needed to be reminded of.

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