Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Black Camisole in the Sanctuary

This post may definitely leave me open to accusations of mad traddery. I am not sure. However, we all love a discussion of women's dress, do we not?

When I was a teenage Trekkie, my mother remarked that the heating system on the Starship Enterprise must have been rather strange, as the men wore heavy jerseys and trousers whereas the women wore mini-dresses. I thought of this yesterday in a Catholic church as I listened to a choir sing Vespers and noticed fumed that although the men were soberly attired in black button-down shirts, covered from neck to wrist, there was a young woman in the very center wearing what appeared to be a black camisole. There was also two female instrumentalists with bare arms. Really, I had not seen so much skin on display in a Catholic church, let alone in the sanctuary, for so long, that I was seriously taken aback.

Bare arms, bare shoulders... It really doesn't seem like much to cause a distraction. They're just arms. They're just shoulders. (We'll get to the upper chest later.) And yet the male choristers didn't appear in the sanctuary in tank tops. I couldn't see their arms or their shoulders, and I would certainly have found it startling if I could. I am just no longer used to seeing bare arms and bare shoulders in church. Indeed, I am no longer used to seeing women in the sanctuary, so seeing women--women under the age of 60, that is, for I occasionally go to Mass in the Ordinary Form--in the sanctuary was itself a bit of a rarity. Speaking as a woman, I wish all the women had dressed as decorously as the men.  Speaking as a woman, I was embarrassed.

To be strictly fair, I should note that B.A. didn't even notice. He was much more interested in which composers' works were going to be used for this Vespers, which was both a Christian celebration and yet also a performance in an arts festival. And also to be strictly fair, the woman showing the most flesh had a lovely, professionally-trained voice. For a moment, it made me forget the vast expanse of pale flesh contrasting so dramatically with all the black clothing. I suppose it would be most charitable to assume that she didn't know she was going to be performing in a Christian church, or at least, that she didn't know she was going to be appearing at the very front of the Christian church. However, I doubt such an assumption would be intellectually honest.

It is much more likely that neither she nor her conductor thought there was anything wrong with women choristers wearing black camisoles during Christian services (although presumably they would have objected to male choristers doing the same), and if any Christian were offended by this, that was the Christian's problem, not theirs.

And maybe it is. However, I can't get past the contrast between the men who were covered from neck to wrist, from neck to floor, and the women who weren't. I feel something similar when I see a man wearing shorts and a T-shirt while his wife, clad in hijab and a black abaya, pushes a pram beside him. Why does the man wear western clothes when his wife does not? Why don't women cover up for church when men do?

I mean, really. Put yourself in my shoes. I am in a large Catholic church, and all the men and women I see in the congregation seem to be soberly dressed. It is not a hot day although I certainly feel warm wearing my coat indoors. There are perhaps 15 men on the altar, a half-dozen in clerical choir dress, perhaps three of those in chasubles or dalmatics as well. The rest of the men are in decorous black. The women, too, are in black, except for the flash of arm playing the cello and--in the very centre, right behind the altar, right before the tabernacle--an expanse of bare female chest.

Am I getting old? Would I have noticed this ten years ago? Is this what happens when you habitually worship among men who wear jackets and women who wear veils to Mass? Is human flesh really THAT distracting in a place of worship, or am I suddenly oversensitive?

As certain instruments demand freedom of movement, I could understand that musicians would prefer to wear sleeveless shirts during performances--except that men musicians don't. Somehow a convention has sprung up that men must not show any flesh but their faces, necks and hands in formal settings, but women may show our legs, arms, shoulders, cleavage, stomachs--anything at all, really, as long as it is not "bikini area", or too much all at once. Why? If it is to express proud femininity--well, there is such a thing as a skirt.

There are overwrought young Catholic men (or at least I know of an overwrought young Catholic man) who think women should dress as the Blessed Virgin Mary is depicted on statues, which I imagine would be extremely uncomfortable and inconvenient in urban Scotland, if sensible for first century Palestine. Let's not be ridiculous. However, let us not entirely discount the testimony of men who say they are distracted--quite against their will--by what flesh women flash in church. I am a middle-aged married woman and yet I too was quite distracted by what flesh women flashed in church. It entirely ruined any enjoyment or edification I might have experienced or true worship I might have expressed. To a certain extent, this is probably my fault. But only to a certain extent.


  1. Princess Alexandra is a modest lady, and dressed modestly for her wedding in 1963. A (female) journalist remarked on this quite positively at the time, which would have been pointless, were standards being maintained. But many barriers had already been breached by then. See pictures here:

    If your singer had not wanted to stand out by dressing the way she did, she would have relied on her vocal performance to gain brownie points. But sex sells better. It is very modern to be ignorant or indifferent regarding the fact that both commerce and sexual allure are totally out of place in a Catholic church, especially so during a Service.
    Such performers show themselves to be ignorant philistines.

    My own Achilles heel is beautiful hair. I think St Paul knew a lot about these susceptibilities. Women who dishonour themselves in church, can hardly expect spiritual benefit from the exercise. However, no modernist, male or female, cares to be taught by St Paul, for in the 21st century mankind knows better.
    Such is the foolishness of our times.

  2. Oh, what a relief. I thought for sure the first comment would lob verbal stones at me for a perceived lack of charity. Thank you for the photos of Princess Alexandra, which I had not seen before. She does look lovely in them.

    The singer might have been just ignorant of how her appearance might repel her audience, but I think you have touched on one of the problems of our time: the inability to grasp that "sexual allure" (excellent phrase) is totally out of place at Mass, totally out of place at work, totally out of place during an athletic competition, etc., etc.

  3. Yes I suspect that she had no idea it was even a problem. She would have thought she was dressed nicely for the occasion. To be honest, when I was a teenager I would have thought the same thing. I would never have thought it was inappropriate, especially in Australian summer. I first came into contact with the trad community at age 17 and was mortified when after Mass a whole lot of girls in long floral dresses told me that my skirt (which stopped at the top of my knee ) was inappropriate but in less kind words. I certainly didn't think I was drawing attention to myself. Later that year I went to a formal dance with the same group of trads and was wearing a long formal dress with thick straps but no sleeves. Again I was given a hard time but it was the only formal dress I owned and my mum had helped me choose it!
    I would guess that nobody has ever told the singer that no sleeves is inappropriate for church and sleeves for men is the current fashion and social norm.

    Aussie girl in NZ

  4. Oh, yes, the Marian dress movement, lol! Growing up, my homeschool group had a small but vocal group in favor of taking a long piece of fabric, cutting a hole in the center and sewing the sides together (leaving armholes) and then wearing that over a long-sleeved, high necked shirts with some kind of sash around the waist. Because apparently the way Our Lady dressed was the only way to dress modestly, and that was the closest to ancient Palestinian garb they could get.

    And aw, that was so mean of them, Aussie girl!! Your dress and skirt sound perfectly reasonable to me. (Although I am willing to grant that wearing things that make one conspicuous in a particular environment may not be modest, even if the item of clothing in question is.)

    The ‘*Gasp* I can see your knees!’ obsession with modesty is part of the reason that I really don’t like to be associated with traddery/homeschoolers, etc. Sigh. Aren’t kindness and charity important virtues too? Or does one’s entire spiritual development consist in whether or not one’s neckline is no more than two fingers below one’s collarbone?

    I should probably mention that I do think modesty is an important virtue too. :) I just wish modern Catholic modesty (at least, in my experience!) wasn’t so firmly based in enforcing ‘modesty rules’ cobbled together from random quotes from various popes/Padre Pio, etc., the way women dressed in ‘Leave It To Beaver’, and a smattering of ‘Love and Responsibility’ thrown in for good measure.

    I would love to see a book or talk on modesty that actually:

    A. Is written/given by someone who actually knows something about the history of fashion.

    B. Acknowledges the fact that, although some basic things are universal, whether or not something is modest does depend partly on time, place, culture, etc. (Like, for example, that one ought to dress more modestly for Mass then is strictly necessary at the beach.) Which I’m actually fairly certain St. Pope John Paul II’s writings do.

    C. Doesn’t leave very young children constantly thinking about the modesty of random woman they encounter and/or women feeling like they’re causing every man around them to sin if they aren’t wearing long, super-loose dresses, jumpers or skirts with high-necked shirts.

    D. Concentrates on showing women how to find and wear cute, reasonably modest *modern* clothing instead of bashing them over the head with rules like ‘Your skirt absolutely must fall at least to the crease in the back of your knee or you’ll be tempting all the guys around you to think unchaste thoughts. And don’t even *think* about wearing shorts of any kind, you hussy, you!’

  5. Well, I suspect the conductor was remiss and just told everyone "black trousers and black shirt". (Notice I wasn't the least bothered by women-wearing-trousers. Unless they are skin-tight, I really cannot see why anyone objects to women wearing trousers, unless what they object to is women wearing trousers ALL THE TIME, which I personally think get very frumpy. Lot of trad women in Scotland [at very least] wear trousers to Mass.)

    The guards outside St. Peter's Basilica in Rome don't allow anyone wearing shorts or a tank-top--male or female--to go inside, even if it is 90 degrees F in the shade. I think this would be a good rule of thumb for any Catholic church. St. Peter's is not holier than any other church which houses the Blessed Sacrament.

    Part 1 (See Part 2 below)

  6. Oh darn. I lost part 2. Well, in short, modesty is not so much about preventing sexual thoughts (a very narrow definition)--which is almost impossible to do anyway, especially in a place where women who don't wear hijab are considered "uncovered meat" nobody blames a cat for eating--but about not making people feel uncomfortable. The best thing to do is to dress according to the norms of a place, and if the norms of the place shock you to your core, not to go there. If I thought it would guarantee me some protection (doubtful, from what I hear), I would wear a headscarf in most-women-here-wear-headscarves countries, but I simply wouldn't go to countries in which women have to cover their faces. Nor would I go to a nudist beach or resort.

    I had a revelation while writing Part 2 about the Rough Bus. As long as I don't wear a hated symbol of class-treason, as I am afraid a vintage hat seems to be, I am okay. I can wear a pretty knee-length dress or an ankle-length linen skirt, and nobody minds or seems to notice. I don't HAVE to wear faux-yoga clothes from Primark. In fact, it would be immodest of me to wear the vintage hats or fur stoles, for doing so would draw attention to myself and make other people feel uncomfortable.

    I worry very much about girls and young women wearing trad-wear to mainstream parties, for the saddest email I ever received was from a rape survivor who was singled out by her rapist because she was wearing unusually modest clothes and was clearly feeling like a fish out of water. it was as if she had "Vulnerable" stamped on her forehead. Because of her email, I have never been able to think about modesty and women's clothing without thinking about her. Above all else, clothes are supposed to protect us.

    Aussie Girl, I'm sorry you were bullied. It just goes to show that bullying can happen in trad Catholic communities, too. I'm reminded of the bullies in "Napoleon Dynamite" who were quite clearly also dorks from a non-Mormon point of view. Possibly those girls got bullied at family weddings for their ankle-length floral numbers and therefore felt that church was the sole territory of the ankle-length.

    Personally, I cannot see the point of shorts, unless the person is engaged in athletics or is on the beach or is running around throwing frisbees in a park or is an old-fashioned plays-a-lot child under 12. Men make fun of men for wearing shorts, especially if they think the shorts are too short. I never wear shorts because legs use up so much sunscreen, and I have found that long thin linen skirts are the coolest option.

    Anyway, my take-home point is that modesty is about not distracting and making other people uncomfortable with your appearance. A woman wearing a burkha in a western country is therefore incredibly immodest and provocative, whether or not she intends it to be. My wearing a moth-eaten old fox stole on the Rough Bus is therefore also immodest and provocative, which I CERTAINLY never intended it to be. And, yes, wearing a camisole dead centre in the middle of the sanctuary of a Catholic church--especially during an actual worship service--is also immodest and provocative.

    I won't go so far to say that wearing a turtleneck and a dirndl to an off-campus party is immodest and provocative, even unintentionally, but I do think it might be unsafe.

    One of the most important moments in my teenage life was rebelling against my mother who thought I should wear a pale-blue Sunday dress and dress shoes to my first high school dance. But I wore an outfit supplied by a worldly wise friend: a collared shirt, a purple jumper and grey trousers. (It was autumn in the mid-80s. Teenagers wore a lot in the 1980s.) THANK HEAVENS! Even now I shudder with horror to think how I would have felt had I worn a dress. But I also laugh to think that year it was completely normal to wear a jumper and trousers to a dance.

  7. “Well, in short, modesty is not so much about preventing sexual thoughts (a very narrow definition)--which is almost impossible to do anyway, especially in a place where women who don't wear hijab are considered "uncovered meat" nobody blames a cat for eating--but about not making people feel uncomfortable.”

    YES! I love this. Ooh, are you interested in writing a book on modesty? :)

    I wonder if the ‘guys making fun of other guys who wear shorts’ is a British or Canadian thing? Almost every single guy I know, Catholic or otherwise, wears shorts on a regular basis during the summer and nobody cares. (If they were super short shorts they would probably get a ribbing, but otherwise, the ones who stick out are the ones who wear pants all the time during the summer. And I don’t even live in a hot climate!)

    And I love wearing (reasonably length-ed, not super-short :) ) shorts, lol!! I tried for years and years to only wear skirts and dresses during the summer, except when I was exercising. And then I broke down and bought a pair of non-workout shorts this year, and wow. They’re tons easier to wear, much more comfortable and match with basically every shirt I have. I have a lot of cute, feminine shirts and some adorable shoes to wear with them, my husband thinks I look great and I think I look cute, so basically, I’m happy. I also love the jeans and boots combo during the fall/winter, so I think it’s just a personal taste/regional thing.

    I do still wear skirts and dresses on a fairly regular basis too.

    And to be fair, the past five years or so it has been incredibly difficult to find flattering dresses and skirts at all, much less ones that are flattering, modest and comfortable/sturdy enough to wear on a daily basis. Modern dress and skirt styles are just not my cup of tea. I do have a few cute maxi-skirts that I love, but that’s about it.

    Oh, and my first comment was mainly in response to those girls being mean to Aussie girl, not your post!

    1. (I'm worried it might have come across as criticizing your post, when that wasn't how it was meant!)

    2. Don't worry! I didn't think it was. And if you wanted to, you could. After all these years, you're allowed to make some protests!

  8. It's so funny you mention that men get teased for shorts in the UK because here in NZ it's practically the uniform in summer time. Some even wear them all year round! My 3 yr olds little friend is looked after by her stay-at-home Dad and he wears shorts and flip flops every day - even when it's 5 degrees outside and raining!
    I only started wearing shorts since I had toddlers as they are just so much easier and I don't have to worry about covering myself when on the floor with them.

    Btw, I never thought of what happened with those trad girls as bullying - but you are right! It was! And if that happened to my niece I would be furious! I am so glad I'm not a teenager anymore.

    Aussie Girl in NZ

  9. Small points regarding 1980s fashions: Mini-skirts were being worn in Toronto in student circles as early as 1980, following London punk styles. Also, female students wore their hair very short for much of the 1980s, in the Annie Lennox/Pat Benatar/Linda Evangelista mode. Long pouffy hair teased out with spray was a high-school girl phenomenon. Older girls spiked their short hair with sugar water (at first - this was also a punk thing) and later gel or mousse, once these were available.

    I like what you say about modesty being a mode of fitting in, and is not concerned only with how much flesh one shows. I would add that the essential point of modesty is not to boast, verbally, and not to flaunt oneself, physically. Thus if one is richly dressed in a setting in which this is inappropriate, one is being immodest, no matter how well-covered one may be.

    Alias Clio

    1. Agree. Hence women's worries about being "overdressed." This is a real problem in dowdy Edinburgh. (But once again I cry, "Why? There are such BEAUTIFUL things in the shops!")