Much has been written about ministry and sex, sexuality, gender and, of most immediate and grave importance here, what to wear when you find yourself young, female and in ordained ministry. The question has been so well-traversed that it can be tiresome. Those of us who find ourselves “in the business” know the familiar line, for instance, that open-toed shoes or sandals are a bit, well, “gauche” when paired with the standard clerical robe. But where do we women priests and ministers draw the line when it comes to the clothing we wear out and about? If the question has been well-traversed, it is because it can lead to a rather breathtaking landscape of potentially angst-ridden, wardrobe decisions.
The other day a friend and I at her suggestion ducked into a boutique consignment store in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. My friend has nursed a love for New York fashion that, in keeping with a congressional staffer’s salary, is quick to spy the best in hot-off-the-runway deals and name-brand sample sales. Clothes shopping, which can quickly leave me sapped and a bit depressed, acquires a new novelty when I am watching her shop.
There we were in a hip boutique store browsing the racks when she pulled out the dress and thrust it in my hands. “Try it on!,” she ordered. If it was not the skimpiest, tightest, slinky little black dress I had ever seen, it was at least the skimpiest, tightest, slinky little black dress I had ever been encouraged to wear. If truth be told, my first impression was, “this looks slutty.”
I hemmed and hawed, but my friend insisted. “Humor me,” she said in her no-nonsense way.
And so I did. I tried the dress on, and to my great astonishment, the dress fit in a skimpy, tight, revealing and flattering way. It fit perfectly, so perfectly that my next knee-jerk protest to my friend’s offer to buy it for me (because I would never buy it for myself)- that maybe the dress made me look fat- fell on flat ears. I kept protesting that I didn’t need it, that $35 was still too much to spend on something I might rarely wear when the money could feed a whole family in Africa for months.
“And because you would never buy it for those reasons,” my friend said, “I’m going to buy it for you.”
My vanity couldn’t argue. The dress looked great in the mirror. And no, it didn’t make me look fat.
I was in a quandary. First there was the question of what we, as Christian feminists- (maybe not of the typical card-carrying sort, but feminists all the same)- were to do when it came to wearing something that made us feel sexually empowered but potentially objectified, too. And then there was the overhanging dilemma of my priestly identity. Within my Reformed understanding of the ordained minister as one called to a particular function, that of preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments, there was not a whole lot of help for discerning issues of what to wear on the job when performing this function- not to mention, when these duties were over. Sure, there was that good old book, the Bible, that we Christians hold dear, and passages like 1 Peter 3:3 (instructing women that our beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as “elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes”). But where in there is there mention of what to do about the simple but suggestive designer dress at a rock-bottom price?
In the end, I let my friend buy me the dress on the condition that I only wear the dress for my husband on a night out and that I send her a picture per her request. These days, when most of my “nights out” are to the tune of tomorrow’s spaghetti dinner fundraiser for my son’s school, fulfilling my friend’s request will demand a bit of creativity. Or, I could do as my stand-up-comedian friend suggested and wear the dress to the spaghetti dinner. We both chuckled at the scenario.
Still, now that I am beholden to fulfill my friend’s request, I find myself asking all Christians, feminists and/or ministers, male or female, in whatever combination, what they would have done in the circumstances. To be or not to be…in the dress. That is the question. Cast your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote here.