Something didn’t seem right. Here I was spending all this money and time and energy on clothes because some external standard was telling me that I should look in a particular way. Now the tricky part of being a minister is that external standards are part of a public life. It’s costuming, if you will–clothes affect the way people see and respond to all of us, but more so if you hold a public/leadership type role. At the same time, ministry is a profession that’s all about values: finding them, refining them, living them. It’s hard to lead with integrity if you’re not practicing what you (literally!) preach.
Some of my colleagues hold very strong opinions about appropriate dress for ministers, coming, it seems to me, from a place that’s very aware of the impact clothing has on people’s perception of us. It’s a valid concern, and very real. My experience, though, is that I’m not particularly well-suited to the world of suits and ties. Not just because I’m not at ease in a suit, but because the minister that I am in a suit isn’t the minister I want to be. And being the minister I believe in is far more central to my ability to serve than being seen as the kind of minister who wears suits. In addition, my personal faith has values attached that make it hard to buy suits, especially on a budget. Non-sweatshop, fairly-traded manufacture and materials, comfort, attractiveness…I couldn’t afford to have my clothes hand-sewn, but it started to seem like I’d need to.
Because this was about a religious context of dress, I immediately started thinking about monks and nuns and other vowed religious from an assortment of faiths. What do they wear? Robes, basically. They are religious all the time. Who else dresses according to their faith? Some Muslims, some Jews, some Hindus, some conservative Christians of various stripes, The Amish, some Mennonites, a few Quakers…
Of course, as I started thinking about this, I started researching it.
What I have found in my wanderings around the internet is very revealing. I am (thank goodness!) not the only one thinking about this. For those following Timothy and Paul, there are entire online stores devoted to selling clothes and patterns, generally under the heading “modest clothing”. They have dresses (usually 19th century designs) and leggings and bloomers and old-fashioned aprons and skirts and slips; for the men they have broadfall pants and high-buttoned vests; for both they have headcoverings ranging from caps to slat bonnets and heavy outerwear.
Fair enough. But I’m less interested in Biblical definitions of modesty than I am in my own definitions of elegance, practicality, professionalism, and faith-based. Many, many years ago someone asked me (I had ordered a plain bagel with plain cream cheese) if I had taken vows of simplicity. I hadn’t, but the thought has stuck and stuck and stuck. Blended as I am, I don’t feel called to fulltime vows of simplicity–the bright colors and rich variety of my Indian side would be entirely shafted–but having a usual work wardrobe that I can do everything in and to: wash, dry, put on in any combination, play with children, preach to adults, shovel snow, wield mops, write, counsel, go home and walk the dog…
yes, that would make sense.
And that would not be a suit.
I am grateful to be serving where I am; Ellsworth is a practical place before it is a fashionable one, and the fashions that hold sway here have been shaped as much by weather and good sense as anything. So now that I have a workplace that will allow for it and an idea of what it should do, what should this theoretical wardrobe look like, and where am I going to find it?