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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ask The Matriarch: What is considered appropriate clergy apparel?

Helen, our Lead Matriarch is out with a pinched nerve, and for someone who works with computers for one's paycheck, that is bad place to be. Hope you heal Helen, and get that massage.

Today's question has to do with one we all deal with and that is how to dress as clergy;
What is considered appropriate clergy apparel?

I typically wear black slacks (many different cuts and fabrics) or mom jeans with a turtleneck (usually white) or a shell and a jacket (usually with a mandarin collar).

I was recently at a clergy meeting where one of the other clergywomen caused quite a sensation. She's recently divorced, 50 years old and quite attractive (very nice figure). She attended this meeting in a very low cut pair of jeans, a midriff shirt and platform heels. (mind you, this is a gathering of clergy and the rest of us were in our "Sunday" clothes.) What caused all the twittering was her tat -- what is called by my youth group a "tramp stamp" and the fact that her thong "handles" were hanging out. I really don't think we got much business done that day.

The elder in charge said nothing, in fact, nothing was said until an older gentlemen looked at her said, "And this is the reason that women shouldn't be clergy." After that, as the saying goes, all hell broke out. I thought that people were going to be hurt....

So, I ask, what is appropriate clothing? I know I probably dress too conservatively, but I think I should err on the side of caution. Then again, do we have to look like nuns? I was reprimanded once for dingle-dangle earrings (well, it WAS communion and they WERE grapes!) Where do we draw the line?

And now for the Matriarchs’ answers:

Matriarch 1: Appropriate clergy attire is professional attire. Think about what comparable professionals in your community wear to work and/or when representing their organization at public events. What would you expect a college professor to wear to class? A librarian to wear behind the reference desk? An M.D. to wear when seeing patients? A counselor to wear when meeting with clients? A real estate agent when showing homes? A news reporter interviewing for a major story? Chances are you're not thinking bare midriff and visible thong underwear. On the other hand, you're also probably not thinking jeans and a sweatshirt or a wrinkled jumper thrown over a stained t-shirt. IMHO clergy tend to err on the frumpy side more frequently than on the too sexy side.

Matriarch 2: It depends on several factors, what denomination you are serving, what part of the country you are in, rural or urban, the event, and you can factor in size if you want.

Living in the South, the churches want you to wear robes on Sunday except in the Summer. Most people do not dress up as much as they used to, and so casual slacks and appropriate blouse or turtle neck is fine. Its good to dress up a little more if going to the hospital, other functions, conferences, other churches, funerals. Nice, clean, and non-holey Jeans are fine to wear here too.

Some of the female clergy in my denomination have begun to wear the clergy shirt and collar with slacks or skirts. Earrings and jewelry, should be kept to a minimum as to not draw attention to those items in the pulpit. But its okay to wear them like you want elsewhere.

The situation you described was over the line, way over or under as the case maybe in other words inappropriate.

Now for some recommendations: PeaceBang's Beauty Tips For Ministers is a good read, sometimes helpful, sometimes tongue in cheek, and helpful to learn about not being frumpy as clergy. Closet Smarts is a title of a book and website that PeaceBang's referred to in one of her posts. It's not about clergy women, but it is about dressing well.

Thank you Matriarchs, we know you must be the best dressed Matriarchs around! (said with tongue in cheek.) Now if the rest of you will talk amongst yourselves and put in your thoughts about dressing well as a clergywoman, you too can join the best dressed Matriarchs! (Hey maybe Nightline will do a piece on us too! Nah.)


  1. Thanks for helping out, Abi!

    I think the tat/thong woman would be a source of Talk wherever she appeared.

  2. I agree with St. Cass! There is obviously more going on there than Stacy and Clinton of TLC's "What Not to Wear" could handle.

    So much of this issue is about regional expecations. When we lived in Cali, the teachers wore jeans, and so did some of the clergy.

    Heck, I wore (new, trouser-cut, dark wash) jeans to the office yesterday, but I did it with a fabulous tan embroidered corduroy jacket, a really excellent pair of bronze pointy-toed shoes, and my new spring/summer tote bag (straw-ish with brown leather straps). It works here, but would not compute at Big Steeple in town.

    If I wore a suit on a weekday that didn't include a funeral, people would wonder where my interview is...

    Today I'm wearing my new black pants, a white cami with a purple cardigan over it, and black flats.

  3. Ok, I'm "JUST" an intern, but I have always followed the principle "when in Rome..."

    Our church is very casual. Before the first church member walks in the door, I've helped set up a portable stage, wiring for a sound system, etc etc etc. To wear heels and a skirt would be impractical.

    However, once I'm on duty, I don't want to look like a roadie, either. My compromise is to change shirts once set-up is done. I wear a tshirt to work, and sometimes sneakers, and then change to nicer flats and a nicer shirt (with my jeans) when sound check and tech meeting is done.

    I was on staff at another church and jeans were verboten except after hours (i.e. OK for a rehearsal, not OK for working in the office). Def. not on the platform. And, I was at another church where "pants" was not acceptable attire for females at any time. Uh, neither was preaching but we won't go there...

    Have to say I do love worshipping in jeans, though...


  4. I agree that context is everything. Though I can't imagine a context in which a 50ish clergywoman could get away with a midriff shirt and thong handles. Crikey.

    I also agree that clergywomen sometimes tend toward the frumpy. It's a tough needle to thread. I have struggled to find my personal style, as a 35-year-old associate who enjoys being put together but has neither the time nor the interest in spending a lot of time on my appearance. I also work for a female 60-ish head of staff who dresses extremely conservatively, including a collar on Sundays, and I'm always aware of that dynamic as well. Wearing something even moderately "flirty" could look downright slutty next to her.

    Today, for this spring-like day at Suburban Church in which I will be around the office all day, I am wearing cropped olive-colored pants, a light blue tank top underneath a crisp striped button-down shirt (unbuttoned), and brown mules.

  5. I agree that context is everything. As a college employee, I have to dress up for work way more than most ministers--although the level of that has varied by college. I've never worn jeans or shorts to the office. But that's what you get for working in a place where there are lots of professionals at your level---you have more norms to be met. A rule of thumb given to me by a seminary professor was--don't wear anything to work that you would feel uncomfortable wearing should you be suddenly called to the hospital or to make a comment on TV. Seems a good rule of thumb. Same prof advocated for women to keep a blazer in the office to suddenly "dress up" an outfit for such ocassions. I think every classmate's office I've visited has had a plain navy or black blazer hung in with the robes!

    Speaking of collar wearers, I found a page that might appeal to the more fashion conscious collar wearers out there. Check this out. It's a page written by a couple young clergy about remodeling other blouses into clergy blouses, which makes sense given that most clergy blouses are just not flattering.

  6. OK maybe the thong wearer in question had a hot date to get to after the meeting? whatever...

    I feel frumpified - definitely. Lately it has been always black slacks; collar; blazer for Sundays. Substitute other blouse for visits. My luxury in boonieville is having the office at the parsonage... so today it's jeans; V-neck T; cardigan sweater and I'm barefoot right now. But... if that ER call were to come in, jeans would be swapped for the amazingly slimming black slacks.

    And really truly wearing jumpers is just as bad as your thong hanging out!

  7. Most days I see few people in my office -- small church, just me and the secretary. I tend to go casual, jeans and a nice sweater in the winter, capris and a nice top or top and cmai int he summer, cute shoes, kakis, that kind of thing. For the hospital, visits ot the presbytery office and other "public" events I don't wear jeans and tend to dress up more. Sunday wear is always nicer. I see most people then, and it makes me feel more professional (even under the robe). But in the summer when it is HOT and my church has no AC it is usually a cute shirt, cute top, no hose, and appropriate shoes, (no robe). I am jealous of the kids in shorts and tank tops!

  8. we should dress appropriately ... for me that means no cleavage, midriff or upper thighs.

    I wouldn't wear jeans to a professional event - so I don't think clergy should either.

    PS I love peacebang's column!

  9. Uhhh, knittinpreacher, I'm guessing you meant to say "cute skirt" instead of shirt, otherwise you have on two shirts, no hose and appropriate shoes.....but hey, if it works for you in the summer, okay!

    I have been thinking about this topic lately, but from a different angle. I have to decide when my (post-bilateral mastectomy) expanders have enough saline in them to switch out for implants. So what is appropriate clergy breast size?? And what kind of shirts will I wear afterwards? Give me a day or two and I might even blog about it (but my track record is not so good lately).

  10. Queen Mum --
    Definitely not Anna Nicole Smith sized. I'd go with what you were before, if you are comfortable with that.

  11. I'm wearing black Clarks, Nice (read, not faded) mom jeans, a white small-ribbed v-neck top with 3/4 sleeves. I've been to class and before I go to the hospital, I'm going to put on a Thai raw-silk over-blouse in gold with embroidery in browns and tans. I love raw silk jackets and blouses that can be machine washed and hung to dry. It doesn't wrinkle like linen.

    It sounds to me that thong and tat embellished clergy woman is having her mid-life crisis....

  12. Well I must admit I am a bit miffed at the elder who made that comment about the woman. Seems to me a wiser elder might have spoken to her on the side and asked how she was feeling (ie being 50 and recently divorced are two tough things to face). So, yes inappropriate attire, but that begs for a pastoral response to her.

    Regarding my attire: I work for small church, usually just me here. So if I am just doing admin stuff I am in jeans or slacks and t-neck or t-shirt. On Sundays and Wednesday when we have worship services with Holy Eucharist I am always in collar and suit (pants or skirt). Ditto when I make hospital or home visits. But I also live and work in a fairly casual suburb. When I worked at BIG church in CEO town I was ALWAYS in collar and always dressed professionally.

    ALso, I really try to not be frumpy. Even when in jeans my hair is done,kept short, so easy too, make up on, and nails done. (Not too much). I think as clergy its ok to look like a woman, we are after all. But, yes, professional too.

  13. Seems to me that I've seen some men in frumpy enough clothing at clergy events to warrant a comment..."that's why men shouldn't be clergy." That really was a terrible thing to say, even though Pastor Thong obviously needed a 'come to Jesus' chat about her attire.

    I rebel against all frumpiness when it comes to clergy attire. Here in the wild West, jeans are pretty okay - I tend to wear them on Fridays - but even then, I wear nice, tailored jeans (never, ever, ever 'mom jeans'). I stick with the "would you feel comfortable if you had to go to the hospital in this" rule. I like to dress nicely, but I try not to have my clothing be an object of discussion. It's a fine line. But I would, personally, rather be a little too dressy than frumpy.

  14. PS also meant to say that what to wear is also cultural or geographical. E.g. in Finland it is perfectly ok for women (in all professions, including teaching, nursing and ministry) to wear trousers. Also in Northern Europe the trend is to dress more casually than in (some parts of ) the US

    My husband - although a business man - doesn't wear a tie (let alone a suit!) to work -and it's only when a guest / client from overseas is visiting that he'll put on a shirt and tie (still not usually a suit, but nice trousers of course!)

    Moreover it's quite usual for people inside offices to wear slippers (not the furry kind, but more like sandles) at work - because the custom is to take off outside shoes / boots rather than tramp snow and mud everywhere.

    These cultural /regional differences are interesting ... but perhaps the universal requirement is that people should look clean and smell nice - and that applies to their clothes too!

  15. As a young clergywoman, I appreciate all the conversation about what is appropriate and what is not. I've struggled with the sense of having to dress the way I "ought to" (my mother's words!) versus what allows me to be truly who I am. I love sneakers in all shapes and colors. They've become a trademark of sorts for me-- I'm known as the "sneaker preacher lady." It is about context and it is also about being yourself. I want people to experience an authentic me, in hopes that they are authentically them. Clothing says a lot about us, whether we like to think that way or not!

  16. Ah, the age old question... Can one be a Rev and still look like a Gal? I wear collars for services and visits, but at the office I just try to look nice. I'm 24, so my college and seminary wardrobe of warm-ups and t-shirts with holey jeans has moved to the back of the closet. (At least until next year, when I finish my last year at sem!) Today I've got stylish chinos with a snazzy "tie belt" and a fitted bright t-shirt, topped with a brown linen blazer; because though its warm outside, my office is Siberia. :o)

    As far as the thongs and tattoos - In my eyes both of those things are acceptable to have, but I don't want the first thing people notice about me to be my underwear choice!

  17. Here in Vacationland, where life is "the way it should be," formality in dress is seldom seen. With the exception of a couple of men in the very tallest tall steeple churches in the biggest cities in the state, who wear dress clothes or dressy khakis at the very least, most of my male colleagues are frequently seen in jeans or less fabulous khakis. I find my female colleagues where a lot of slacks, but not jeans, usually with jackets. I see a lot of the granola look so fiercely criticized by Peacebang, as well.
    You'll find me in a fair amount of LLBean or Eddie Bauer, although every time I see St. Casserole, I seem to buy a great jacket to add to the mix.
    Today I am meeting with the search committee and have been in the office all day. I'm wearing a good-looking black skirt (knit material with a flair at the bottom, longish) and a black printed long-sleeved top, a couple of purchases from my last trip South. This is an outfit you would see me in on Sunday, too, since we don't do collars. I don't own any suits, but I do have jackets I coordinate with dresses or skirts. I think people consider me as dressed up most of the time, because when I turned up at a statewide learning event in jeans, several people remarked they had never seen me wearing them. I did wear jeans on certain days at Small Church (snowstorm, or if I was coming in at night for Bible Study). I was way more dressed up than the vast majority of that congregation almost all the time; they taught me to loosen up a bit. In my new setting, I expected things to be more formal, but I'm still more dressed up than most--which is fine. I think wearing a skirt or a dress always makes you seem more dressed up, whether you mean it that way or not!
    I like the rule of thumb about the hospital for work days, although theoretically those calls could come any time.

  18. P.S. I haven't yet done a funeral here, and I may be wishing I had a black suit when that happens. But I don't really have experience shopping for such a thing.

  19. I like the "what if you got called to the hospital" thing. That has happened to me--lived far away from the church, got called to the ER in not-quite-professional clothes, and had a big time trying to convince them I was really a minister.

    And, the only thing I have to add is that when I'm wearing more "professional" clothes, I tend to behave more professionally. When I'm wearing jeans, I tend to let my guard down, say things I shouldn't, etc. That may be just me, but my clothes help me put a filter on it.

  20. In some ways wearing a collar every day makes life MUCH easier. I usually wear a black clergy shirt and black trousers--dress pants or corduroys depending on what I'm doing that day, or sometimes a longish skirt. In the summer I tend to wear linen pants or capris. And I wear either cardigans or some sort of jacket.

    I totally agree with RevErikaG about being yourself. For me this means that my jackets/sweaters have are not totally plain (I dont' want to look totally frumpy and I love jackets from jjill or similar places) and that I wear my silver bracelets and earrings everyday.

    I do tend to wear my "best things" on Sunday although with vestments, no one will see what I have on except at coffee hour.

  21. Collars always, when I'm on duty,which means I can be pretty free and easy about other elements. I'm a great one for fair trade cotton, so it's usually skirt or trousers from somewhere like Bishopston Trading...
    I've never been very good at jackets - when dressing "up" a level, It tends to be more "pretty" than "smart".
    And I do wear my flowers Doc Martens an awful lot in the winter. Now I've worn them in, they are the comfiest footwear ever, and they actually seem to cheer people up - but not when leading worship.

  22. songbird: I'll take you suit shopping. I own at least a dozen of them! (career counselor anyone?)

  23. Obviously it's good to be appropriate and professional, as fits a given situation, but I can't stand Peacebang--she is so nasty and judgmental and plays into all the cultural pressure on women to conform with high heels, makeup, high fashion, etc. (Though she occasionally mentions or comments on men she is really all about laying down harsh requirements for women, as if we need any more of those.) Another version of the modesty harassment given to female but no male teenagers in evangelical circles.

    I love my collars with a skirt or suit or blazer and pants or a lovely jumper (take that, PB) but don't always wear them.

    I assisted with the Spanish speaking community of another Independent Catholic jurisdiction for about six months last year. Always wore a collar, first with a skirt suit (apparently a little too short) till the pastor took me aside and asked me to wear pants in future. Apparently when Madre Laura's legs were visible the hombres checked them out and the mujeres got p.o.'d! Have noticed myself teaching in nice pants and a blazer this semester where I used to do skirt suits--maybe this experience is partly why.


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