Filed under: Catholic Liturgy, Culture and Catholicism, Muslim feminism | Tags: Catholic values, culture, feminism, freedom, Islam, Latin mass, liturgy, SSPX, traditional mass, Vatican II, veil, what to wear at mass
“I really love that dress,” one handsome senior citizen comments to another as they sit, sorting baby clothes at the local crisis pregnancy center. “It looks so comfortable!” She herself could hardly have been dressed more comfortably, in grey sweats, but still she looked with admiration at her companion, as did the four other ladies sitting and working with them. They also were dressed in various degrees of informality– loose jeans, loose tee shirts, even a pair of pajama bottoms!
The woman in the dress stood and twirled around and said she’d made it. She called attention to the roomy pockets that peeked out of the inseams (bright green, contrasting nicely with the soft navy blue of the main dress fabric–a thoughtful touch you couldn’t buy, not cheap anyway). She called attention to the construction of the dress, the ‘disappearing princess seams’ that slimmed the bust and shoulders and, opening into graceful pleats, skimmed over the parts that needed skimmed over. That’s what made the dress as comfortable as sweats–in fact, even more comfortable, with nothing binding the waist. The sleeves, a forgiving three-quarter length hiding tattle-tale elbow aging and upper arm flab, were partially lined with the same green as the pockets, and revealed, upon inspection, tiny purple flowers around the interior edge which the woman explained had been an experiment with free-hand machine embroidery, and didn’t it work!? and wasn’t it easy! She had, in fact, aided by pattern-drafting software on the computer, designed from scratch and sewn the dress, and the clincher, the coup de grace in women’s fashion olympics, for less than fifteen dollars. It was so fun!
The other seniors sighed. They could not fathom anyone putting so much time into clothing when one could buy a serviceable pair of sweats for about the same, and save all that bother. Besides, where did they go to wear a dress?
If you think this is a tale of creativity versus capitulation, of energy versus sloth, you are only partly right. It is also a tale about religious faith. Five of the six ladies in the conversation are either liberal protestant or novus ordo Catholics–liberal Catholics. The woman in the dress is a traditional Catholic. Each these general groups of religious women follow a dress code, more or less consciously, that can be as different as the differences among dress-observant Muslim women, and just as intense. It’s just not talked about.
The novus ordo fashion statement is familiar, if seldom noted as ‘fashion’. Why would it be? One comes to church dressed in anything one wishes except a dress. One comes in jeans or shorts, ready to hit the beach or the trail immediately following mass. One comes in a halter top and combat boots–those are the fashionable ones! Most come in the same sweats or jeans they wore yesterday, and will wear tomorrow, as they declare themselves liberated of the whole fashion thing. Or either, just too tired, worked to death under the New Feminism. One of the two.
That’s the faithful in the novus ordo pews. If one is among the “extraordinary ministers” in the sacristy actually celebrating mass, one will be in tailored trousers and blazer–the ubiquitous Hillary Clinton look you can pay a little or a lot for and still look like hell. Consecrated women religious, if any, will likely be in the same outfit. Most will have severe uni-sex hair styles (“easy to care for” and ugly as sin). As far as dresses go, you can count them on one hand.
The thing is, unless they are covered by a tunic, pants unfortunately show it all, front and rear, and seem to require a contrary and perhaps balancing masculinization of the women wearers in terms of other fashion indicators, like make-up, hair couture or lack thereof, and shoe choice. In fact, most wear tennis shoes.
The woman in the dress goes to traditional mass. That’s the old Latin mass, retained in its fullness in outposts like the SSPX communities, or the incredibly rare tradition-minded novus ordo community, where you will find many instances of the old fashion ways. Traditionalists evidently believe that women should dress like women, men like men. There, to take just one example, women (even little girls), cover their heads. But you might think of it this way: they get to cover their heads.
The result is rich! In the pew in the traditional church, you’ll find a sweet little scarf tied gypsy style, two berets( one of silky cranberry cotton, one black velvet with a heartbreaking velvet rose); a generous mantilla with Our Lady of Guadalupe crocheted into the pattern, that falls in graceful folds around the fascinating, shaded face, a wool fedora with a peacock feather, and a cowboy hat. The traditionalist culture requires only that a hat be worn; the variety is natural talent, an expression of the freedom of Catholicism and the skill and heart of women. It is in no way puritan, or protestant. It is elegant and simple by turns. To wear a hat is required by custom, but the expression of the rule is up to the individual, so that the most creative and fashionable of women are actually given both an opportunity and a venue, and they rise to the occasion. You could never ever get away with it anywhere else, in today’s neutered basic-black workplace. A woman in a hat indoors might as well be an alien–except here, in tradition. Here she is safe.
So here, they wear dresses or skirts. Most of the dresses are home-made (since one cannot buy ‘everyday’ or even many ‘Sunday” dresses anymore, dresses being apparently confined to weddings and being as a result too dressy in fabric and cut to actually wear, to actually live in).They wear sleeves. Their culture asks them not only to dress this way for mass, but to dress so after mass as well, so that although they too come dressed for activities after mass, like the gals in the novus ordo, they will perform those activities in a dress or skirt. They only take off the head-covering; the modesty remains.
An interesting thing, the contrary thing, and perhaps it’s rude to say, is that there is clearly more ‘sexual energy’ however subtly expressed among the traditionalists, simply because the girls look like girls, the women look like women, so femininity is on the loose, and free, unfettered femininity is beautiful, and sexual. You can see marriage and children in the future here. It’s in the air. It’s good to feel sure there will be a future with fertile human sexuality and children in it, that being no longer an option in most European nations now. That is why wise cultures retain some control over matters so seemingly simple as clothing. Womanhood has a power, a necessary power to encourage the sexual instinct. That is why it is so often imitated by faux women, the only ones in the larger culture encouraged to dress like women now. “Woman” has become a synonym for a dirty joke conflated by injected estrogens. Here in the traditional parish one finds more flirtatious dressing of an innocent but charming undertone.
Whatever can be said of sexual energy between men and women to marry and reproduce, there are governments around the globe trying without success to revive it, now that they’ve spent roughly the last fifty years killing it with birth control and the enslavement of women in the labor market and pornography and solitary sexuality and easy divorce and all the sad, sick rest of it. But it lives here, and the proof is in those pretty frocks.
Of course, it’s not only dresses that express so much fashion. Shoes too are varied, to go with the dresses, strappy sandals with five inch heels, slim pumps, boots, and silver slippers. Sleeves! One will see among the traditional congregation fabulously ruched sleeves, and puff sleeves, and bells . . .and empire gowns (pronounced ‘um-peer’ in the vestibule where sewers have been known to trade tips) . . .and sweetheart necklines . . .and circle skirts draping dramatically and concealing everything that is better concealed . . .and graceful skirts in gores . . .summer wools and winter wools and rayons and knits and silks and velvets and prints and solids and pinafores on little girls and hats with flowers and veils . . . . They are almost of another species altogether–the feminine species. The Princess species. This is because their adopted mother, Mary, Mother of the Savior, is a Queen. (You may bet her statue will be close by, with a trendy yet modest cloak of stars.)
One cannot help but draw a surprising conclusion. The women kneeling in the traditional Catholic church in September in 2009 are not only more liturgically reverent than their novus ordo counterparts, they are just more fashionable! It is just about enough for a woman on the fence about liturgy but yearning for a place to wear an ordinary dress, to make the switch! It’s a woman thing.
And the phenomenon isn’t reserved for well-to-do traditional parishes in the US. Make the effort to find the traditional parish in Guadalajara, Mexico, and you will see the same fashion expression among women who are by no means financially middle class. They dress up for mass, each family to the best of their ability. They never wear trousers, and they cover their hair in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Their community insists on this observance, but the women obey with joy and spirit. Scraps of left-over cloth can become a pretty skirt with ‘handkerchief hemline’ (so-called, it has little points all around), a few ribbons transform a little square of lace into a girl’s dainty headdress. The old Mexican fabric skills are passed on here: stitched pin-tucks of a full skirt and daisies hand-painted on a peasant blouse. Their counterparts across town, mind you, in a novus ordo parish, will have on the same tee shirts and jeans as children at mass in, say, Oakland or Chicago or Hong Kong–oh wait, there are no children in Hong Kong, since the citizens there learned how to ‘plan the family.’ But the point stands. It is no longer the location on a globe; it is the faith. And it’s a happy faith indeed that encourages women to dress like women without paranoia over their resulting beauty. Their modesty, not protestant at all, but Catholic to the core and hence liberal in the only nice sense of the term, clearly differs from the burqa solution, and it certainly lacks the twin perversions of secular humanism, unisex or its evil other head, naked pornography. This Christian fashion option known now only in traditional communities may be, to fashion-frustrated women, as persuasive of the deleterious role of Vatican II as the definitive text Iota Unum. Persuasive of the truth of the traditionalists’ goal, to return the Church to its identity. This fashion is apostolic. Down with the pants suit and the burqa both. Let’s wear skirts! Consider yourself invited, sister.
Author’s note from 2013: Last year our parish participated in the rosary in the public square campaign, as we have in the past, and invited other ‘traditional’ (indult) parishes in our area to join us on a cold, rainy, windy day in late October. Several women from other parishes did, in pants, causing horror and aversion in one of our young men. This caused me much thought. The women, although in pants, were also wearing long coats. The pants were furthermore looser than stockings. The women were simply dressed modestly, if that is defined by the loose and unsuggestive covering of all body parts, and I felt the young man’s disgust (rather than my own feeling of hospitality toward them, and even joy that they were participating with us in this good work) was just plain wrong. It caused me to think long on the subject. And so I would like to amend this writing: I do not think the wearing of loose pants accompanied by a tunic top that covers what needs covered, especially in certain activities like bike riding or physical therapy, or in cold, nor the covering of women’s hair in our churches, is a central issue to either the question of modesty or the question of maintaining Catholic tradition. I think it might be that the separation of certain persons and their teaching or preferences on these matters from one traditional group may prompt us to rethink this issue, and others. To celebrate differences in dress between men and women as a welcome fruit of the complementarity of the sexes is one thing; to force a style of dressing, not necessarily a more modest one, on women, does not reflect prudence, does not recognize the diversity of modest dressing around the world nor of Catholics around the world, limits our apostolic mission abroad and at home, and may be unnecessary. What will we wear in space? We’re going, can we not focus on modesty?
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