Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Skirting the Issue

I'm one of those women who tends to wear skirts and dresses pretty exclusively. While I own one or two pairs of pants, I never wear them except in extremely cold weather (or what seems like extremely cold weather deep in the heart of you-know-where). I have nice, dressy skirts for Sunday Mass, casual skirts for everyday wear, and one or two really comfy knit dresses that I enjoy wearing around the house but wouldn't be caught dead outdoors in unless I was fleeing from a house fire.

And there's not one single solitary virtuous thing about that.

Wearing skirts doesn't make me more of a woman, more feminine, or more truly a model of our Lady. Donning a loose-fitting dress instead of a cute pair of shorts to wear around the house is in no way a sign that I'm holy, or even trying to be. Skipping the racks of capri pants in the local discount store and making a beeline for the breezy cotton waves of loose, flowing fabric that boast an elastic waist and a scalloped or handkerchief hem doesn't mean I'm a member of some kind of inner circle of Catholic women who've made some great mysterious connection between skirts and sanctification.

What it means is that as a short but round woman I've totally given up on expecting fashion designers to realize that just because a woman is under 5'4" she is not automatically a skinny hipless flat-stomached, flat-bottomed gamin of a figure. And as a M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T. I lack the ability to buy the regular sized slacks that would fit me in the waist and hips, chop off the bottom three to eight inches of 'leg' and hem the slacks to fit--and I'm far too cheap to pay someone else to do it for me, especially when skirts are so affordable and so comfortable for someone shaped like I am.

I've been wearing skirts instead of slacks since I first realized how much more comfortable they are for a woman with my figure. Maybe someday if I lost all the weight I'd like to lose the cute pairs of petite 'gamin' pants might fit, but even then I'd probably opt for the skirt from sheer force of habit.

But because I know this about myself, because comfort dictates my choice of skirts rather than some deep spiritual longing to find the most virtuous apparel possible, I get a little bothered when the inevitable "skirts vs. pants" discussion comes up among Catholic women. There tends to be a default position that of course it's an act of pure virtue to wear a skirt, that if our hearts are truly fixed on holy ideals we'll inevitably choose the skirt or dress option, that there are really no circumstances which make it necessary to wear slacks, and that we can't more easily please the Blessed Mother than by imitating her style of dress.

Quite apart from the fact that if we really imitated our Lady's style of dress, we'd probably find ourselves under observation in the psychiatric ward of our local hospital, there remains the fact that wearing a skirt or dress isn't necessarily a virtuous option. It can be, of course, especially if a woman is the sort who really prefers pants, but who chooses to wear a skirt a few times a week as an act of private mortification, an offering to God that no one knows about but her. But deciding that the mere act of donning a skirt is always and everywhere an act of virtue is to overlook the simple but obvious truth that it's no such thing.

For someone like me, wearing a skirt is a clothing choice I make with comfort as the supreme consideration. A tall woman with lovely legs might choose to wear skirts in the serene conviction that nothing will be more flattering to her. A woman I know made several jumpers to wear to work when she had her first teaching job, because jumpers were an easy and practical "uniform" for the type of work she was doing. Other women might choose skirts or dresses because they are more chic, more stylish at a given point in time, more readily available, more professional for office wear, or for dozens of reasons that have nothing at all to do with a desire to be virtuous by avoiding slacks.

Which raises a question: is it virtuous for women to avoid wearing pants?

To answer that question in the affirmative is to affirm that it is somehow less than virtuous for women to wear slacks. It is almost to imply that there is something actually sinful for a woman to choose to wear a pair of pants instead of a skirt of dress. But can we say, or even hint, that?

Considering that female tourists in the Vatican may enter St. Peter's if they are wearing pants or jeans, but not if they are wearing a skirt that is too short, it seems clear that it is impossible to say that it is a sin for a woman to wear pants or jeans. (The issue of wearing skin-tight slacks is not the one we're discussing today, but let's just get this out there: it is clearly not right for a woman to wear either a skirt or dress, or slacks of any kind, if these garments are skin-tight. The tightness of the garment rather than its category is what makes it inappropriate.) If it were a sin for a woman to wear slacks of any type in public, then I think good priests from the Vatican to our local parishes would be making sure we knew that.

So, if it is not a sin for a good, holy, Catholic woman to garb herself in a pair of slacks from time to time, how can it be "more virtuous" to wear a skirt? Saying that one of two options is better or holier automatically implies that the other option is not as good or less holy, but it would seem that the Church considers the wearing of slacks by females to be a morally neutral act. Is it possible to say that wearing slacks is morally neutral, but wearing skirts is morally good?

No. I'm sorry, but there it is. The morality of our clothing choices has to do with our intentions in wearing the clothes, not in the specifics of the garments themselves (specifically and obviously immodest garments excluded). Skirts are just as morally neutral as slacks; what makes the choice of a skirt over a pair of slacks a morally good act is the intention of the wearer--but this works both ways.

For example, a woman could choose to wear a skirt instead of a pair of slacks even though, as I said above, she generally prefers slacks. If she is choosing the skirt as a tiny act of sacrifice, the choice becomes a morally good act.

A woman like me who generally wears skirts could make a similar choice to wear a pair of slacks as an act of sacrifice, though. The moral goodness of my choice of slacks would be the fact that though I find them confining and uncomfortable I am choosing to wear them as an offering to our Lord, perhaps offering my discomfort for the poor souls in Purgatory.

What if the first woman chooses to wear that skirt, however, because she's going to a homeschool group meeting and doesn't want to risk the censure of the group for wearing slacks? In that instance her choice might even be an act of hypocrisy, which is never good.

And what if I'm wearing the slacks to fit in with a style trend? Vanity's not so good, either.

The point is that virtue arises out of the heart, not out of the closet. We can't assume that one type of clothing elevates its wearer above other people, making her more holy and more good. And if there lurks in our hearts the tiniest scrap of judgment toward those who don't choose to dress as we do then any good we were trying to do by choosing the skirt option was erased before we even selected a coordinating blouse.


AnnonyMouse said...

We had a similar discussion at one of our Catholic Homeschooling groups and I (who was wearing slacks because it was cold) got a little offended by the implication that it was less "holy" to wear slacks. I also got irritated with the same lady because her child was jumping on a trampoline with an ankle length skirt and I just knew she was either going to 1) hurt herself because of the length of the skirt or 2) really embarrass herself, all the while I am being chastised for wearing slacks. sheesh.
BUT, I do like skirts and my husband likes them too. HE thinks I look more femine and I do like the way the long ones flow especially the pretty ones but as I am typing this, I have on capris and a t-shirt.
I agree with you. Modesty needs to rule. One rule we have is the shorts can not come up higher than your fingertips when your arms are placed at your side.
I DO HAVE A SERIOUS PROBLEM WITH SOME OF THE FASHIONS AND THE YOUNG WOMEN AND MEN AT MASS THO and I think a gentle suggestion or a workshop for dressing modestly would help a great deal!
When you are behind someone and you can see the cheeks of their butt b/c their shorts are sooo short, something is wrong and I do think in that case someone needs to say something!

nutmeg said...

You know, I was brought up thinking (and really believing) that women who wore skirts all the time were more holy. I have such a hard time NOT thinking that. Maybe it keeps me humble, since I don't wear skirts all the time, when I meet someone who does, it immediately elevates them in my mind. I elevate them above myself on the holiness factor. I can't help it, it's like an unconscious reaction.

Yet I know intellectually that it really doesn't matter if we wear pants or skirts as long as we are modest and our intentions are pure.

And what about vanity? I admit, I DO like to wear the latest style (within reason, of course... not ALL of the latest styles are appealing to me) is that vain? Really, I need to know.


Anonymous said...

"The point is that virtue arises out of the heart, not out of the closet." But the external form reveals the internal disposition. The way someone dresses does pertain to virtue. What they wear may be more modest or less modest. It is not only the intent but also the actual clothing worn. While I know you disagree, dresses and skirts are more modest. Does that mean the person is holier? No. Holiness is much larger than just what you wear or something like that. It could mean the person is holy but you'd never know it just by clothing choice.

Actually, I don't know why you post the same things over and over on your blog. I've read posts in the past that state the same things you state here.

We do need to think about what we wear and what is most proper for our gender and what is most modest. Comfort really shouldn't be high on our list. It may be on our list, but other issues definitely are far more important. What is trendy shouldn't be a huge concern either. Modesty and gender appropriateness far out rank them, and dresses are more modest and more feminine.

Knowing that you disagree, I'll leave you to your own thoughts.

Anonymous said...

"The morality of our clothing choices has to do with our intentions in wearing the clothes, not in the specifics of the garments themselves (specifically and obviously immodest garments excluded)."

Oh and by the way? That statement is wrong. Someone could dress in an immodest outfit but have the intention of purity but that doesn't make the outfit modest. And modesty pertains to virtue.

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous from the two comments above (assuming the same person wrote both) I wonder if you could point me to a Catholic document which states that skirts and dresses are more modest and therefore more proper than pants for women. Clearly the Vatican needs to be informed of this blanket rule, since they will admit women wearing pants and even jeans, but not skirts that are too short.

If you believe my blog is so repetitive I wonder that you continue to read it; you're more than welcome, of course, but if I find a blog too repetitive or too boring I usually don't bother with it.

To me, the issue of modesty in dress is more than merely skirts vs. pants, though, which is why I posted separately on each.

As far as your second comment, what part of "specifically and obviously immodest garments excluded" did you NOT understand? Obviously I'm not claiming that a virtuous woman can stroll around in public in a bikini and have her virtuous intentions count more than the clearly immodest nature of such a garment, whatever you may think.

Red Cardigan said...

Nutmeg, I enjoyed your comment, and plan to write a blog post on the subject of vanity vs. appropriate dress for one's state in life. It's going to involve a little research, though, and I'm afraid things in the Cardigan house are a bit busy today. Look for it tomorrow (God willing!).


freddy said...

Anonymous at 1:16:

You said, "...dresses and skirts are more modest."

No, they're not. There are many dresses and skirts that are much less modest than slacks and shorts.

There are many occasions in which shorts and slacks are more appropriate even if less comfortable. I have seven boys: I do not wear a skirt while playing rough and tumble on the living room floor, or hiking, or climbing, etc.

Many older women struggle with their own sensibilities when having to wear slacks to Mass because of bladder-control problems. Your statement just increased their self-consciousness and pain. (I know, they should offer it up, right? I'm sure they do!)

I think you're missing the point of this post. People in our culture can wear all sorts of clothing for all sorts of reasons and it isn't for us to judge others. If we're coming home from shopping, or the homeschool group meeting, or even Mass seething about "what so-and-so was wearing," then we're the ones who ought to be examining our conscience. No one's arguing that our culture isn't rife with impure, immodest or downright ugly clothes for women, but there's no one type of clothing that is inherently less modest.

freddy said...

I'm no expert, but I don't think it vanity to enjoy clothing. We appreciate the world God gave us in all sorts of ways! The problem of vanity comes in when we spend an inordinate amount of time or money on these things -- when they become passions instead of appreciations, or when we use them to elevate ourselves above others. Enjoying opera doesn't make one smarter than others; wearing only long sleeves and ankle-length skirts doesn't impart compassion; appreciating good food doesn't make us better than others.
However, appreciating God's gifts and the fruits of our labors or of others can make us more grateful, more humble and more open to the experiences of others. Enjoying clothes can stimulate creativity and can please not only ourselves but those around us as well.