Thursday, August 30, 2007

My contribution to the skirt wars

It's a hot topic of debate among Catholic women: Should we wear skirts all the time or just on Sunday?

I've been thinking (and, indeed, praying) about my take on the whole debate for some time. There are women I admire and respect on both sides of the issue. I've heard arguments about modesty, femininity, Marian imitation, and cultural revolution--all on both sides. I've read so much on this topic, that I'm afraid I won't be able to link back to all the women who have influenced my thought. For this, I apologize. Had I known that I would have a blog when I started reading this debate, I might have been more diligent about saving links to posts.

When I consider how to dress I ask myself several questions: Is it modest? Is it feminine? Is it appropriate to the occasion?

Modesty is a very difficult area to judge. Some think skirts are always more modest because they disguise the curves of a woman's body. Some think pants are more modest because they can't fly up in a revealing way. Some believe that a modest woman always covers her elbows, while others are okay with sleeveless shirts. Some would never be seen in a bathing suit while others think a tankini can work just fine. I think modest clothing is different for different body types and different situations. But, if anyone ever asked me for a rule of thumb as an aid to discerning modesty I think I would say that any clothing that communicates something about your underwear is probably immodest. If your skirt is so short that your underwear, or lack thereof, is noticeable, then the skirt is immodest. If your pants are so tight that the brand of your underwear is readable, that is immodest. If your shirt sleeves expose undergarment straps, or if your top makes it obvious that you aren't wearing any undergarments, that's usually immodest.

I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule and I invite readers to submit some, because I'd really like to refine my thinking in this area. Even as I write, I can think of two different brides I have seen in strapless gowns. One bride was decidedly more modest than the other.

The question of femininity is next. I really believe that women should dress like women. I don't have a "rule of thumb" worked out for this, yet. I do think part of this is not wearing your husband's clothes (I've known this to happen with pregnant women). Certainly, this also means that skirts and dresses should have a certain pride of place in a woman's wardrobe because these articles are still distinctively feminine dress. I might even go so far as to say that "unisex" clothing should be avoided as much as possible (by men and women). Jeans and t-shirts are casual clothing. They look fine on a construction site, but I wouldn't mind if these things became a bit less of a cultural uniform. I also think women should take an honest look at what is flattering on their body type and, perhaps, seek out some good outside advice. I'm fortunate that my husband seems to have a pretty good eye for this kind of thing. I look rather hideous in sleeveless tops and even most short-sleeved tops. When the weather allows, I try to stick to 3/4 length sleeves because I think this is the most flattering for me. I have a friend who looks great in sleeveless tops and never seems immodest.

Finally, my last question: Is it appropriate? This question addresses a lot of smaller points. Women should dress appropriate to their vocation and age. I don't want moms in habits or nuns in slacks. Women should dress according to the occasion. A cocktail party for your husband's workplace and Sunday Mass require very different clothing choices. Coaching your daughter's soccer team and grocery shopping require different clothing choices.

I wear skirts as much as possible. Sometimes a skirt doesn't seem appropriate to the occasion, but most of my non-skirt days are the result of a small wardrobe. I can't afford to replace pants with skirts when my wardrobe is large parts gifts and hand-me-downs. I don't think that skirts are always more modest, always more feminine, and always more appropriate. I do think that our culture has swung too far along the clothing spectrum in the direction of casual. So, when a skirt and a pair of pants seem equally appropriate and are both available, I will usually pick the skirt. I'm so glad to live in one of the only cities in the U.S. (so says my father-in-law) where suits are the norm for the work week and ball gowns are seen at the opera. I am always so sad to see khakis and polos at Sunday Mass on the men who wear suits all week to Daily Mass. Never mind what some of the other folks are wearing (I really don't need to know which kids have soccer games after Mass). I'd like to see less people wearing work-out clothes on airplanes, and I hope my husband doesn't have to deal with students wearing their pajamas to final exams.

Some women feel called to practice "extreme modesty" to counteract the culture. I guess you could say that I feel called to hold the line on "dressing up." When I appear in public, I want to put my best foot forward. I think that, especially as the mom (someday, I hope) of several children, the last thing I want to show strangers is a worn, bedraggled woman. It's a sign of respect for the others in your environment to be neatly, and nicely dressed. The way I dress affects my attitude towards myself and my work, as well. I don't dust in high heels, but right after Margaret was born I was wearing sweats all the time. Eventually I realized that I felt more depressed when I dressed like a slob.

I've gone on a bit more than I intended, but I may revisit this topic in the future. Please challenge me with your thoughts on the subject!


Robyn said...

Hey Q. I liked this.

I usually dress according to how many people will see me. Like today, I was going to wear one thing, realized I was going into the city tonight, so changed what I was going to wear. I realize this probably isn't ideal. I mean, I should look nice even just for Dave and Andrew, word? It's hard to be motivated to look nice for the people I see every day. Word? Is that hard for you too?

Robyn said...

Sorry I used 'word' twice in that comment. That is really embarrassing.