Monday, August 24, 2009

Slacks vs. Dresses

Occasionally on the internet and elsewhere, there are discussions about whether slacks are modest enough for women to wear to church, or are dresses and skirts preferable. As anyone can see, slacks, as long as they are not skin-tight, are certainly more modest than short skirts or revealing dresses. However, one day I decided to see if there was any teaching by a saint or any official personage about women's apparel, other than all the writings on modesty.

Let me digress and say that in my final year of college (1984) I decided that I did not like to wear slacks anymore. Perhaps it was a form of rebellion against the feminist movement which I felt was ruining many people's lives. I found jeans to be uncomfortable, anyway, except for one shabby pair of overalls. Skirts looked better on me and I decided to start wearing only dresses and skirts, and have continued to do so.

Although I prefer more traditional feminine clothing, I think other women should wear whatever they like. Since the chosen apparel of most of the devout mothers with families at daily Mass in our town seems to be jeans and a blousy tee-shirt, I have almost come to see such costume as a badge of piety. I am a bit amused, however, when I go to a play group in an unremarkable sweater and skirt, and am met with the exclamation: "You're dressed up!" A skirt, no matter how cheap or old or covered with pills, is considered formal attire by many.

I found an article by Father Hathaway, FSSP.
Now concerning women wearing pants at church: On June 12, 1960 Giuseppe Card. Siri authored the document Notification Concerning Men’s Dress Worn By Women. Card. Siri says wearing pants is not a grave offense against modesty as such what to him seems the gravest issue with pants is that it affects the woman’s identity in how she understands herself, in how she relates to her husband, and in how she relates to her children.

I recognize that since Card. Siri’s time there are now modest feminine pants on the market. And I recognize that there are certain occupations for which pants may be more suited than a dress. It is my belief, however, that a woman should wear a dress more often than pants... namely for the reasons Card. Siri mentions and especially at holy Mass as a dress more identifies the woman....
I wanted to read more about what Cardinal Siri said and found it in Colleen Hammond's excellent book Dressing With Dignity. Dressing With Dignity (TAN Books and Publishers, 2005) is a life-changing book, inspired by Colleen's conversations with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand. Even reading a few pages will open the reader's eyes to some of the issues at the heart of the culture of death, namely, the decline of modest and feminine dress and manners. It is a positive, challenging book with many creative ideas and I think it is a good companion to Genevieve Kineke's The Authentic Catholic Woman.

Colleen has the entire Notification Concerning Men's Dress Worn by Women in the appendices of Dressing With Dignity. Apparently, the cardinal was concerned about lady tourists wandering around Rome in slacks and Capri pants during the summer of 1960. The cardinal feared that more masculine apparel would effect the psychology of women: "....The clothing a person wears...modifies that person's gestures, attitudes and comes to impose a particular frame of mind on the inside." (p.129)

Cardinal Siri prophesied that the masculinization of women's attire would alter their relationships with men, since the attraction between men and women is due to their diversity; they complement and complete each other. "If then this diversity becomes less obvious because one of its major external signs is eliminated...what results is the alteration of a fundamental factor in the relationship." The de-feminization of women will diminish the relationships between men and women to "pure sensuality, devoid of all mutual respect or esteem." (pp130-131)

The cardinal insisted the male dress would harm the dignity of the mother in her children's eyes. "What matters is to preserve modesty, together with the eternal sense of femininity which, more than anything else, all children will continue to associate with the face of their mother." (p.134) He mentions how the violation of the natural order, even in small ways, leads to social disorder.

Aligned on the wrecking of the eternal norms are to be found the broken families, lives cut short before their time, hearths and homes gone cold, old people cast to one side, youngsters willfully degenerate and, at the end of the line, souls in despair and taking their own lives.... (p.133)
Well, all of the above has certainly happened since the sexual and feminist revolution of the 1960's and 70's. Women wearing slacks to church was a minor change, although a cardinal of the Church seemed to think that female attire plays no small part in the general scheme of things.


papabear said...

I won't address whether a homogenization of clothing means a blurring of sex differences. (I do think that there is something to be said for that.)

Still, I just want to point out that pants on women becomes problematic when they are form-fitting, and that it also seems that given female anatomy that it is difficult to make pants for women form-fitting without being immodest?

Pants have been worn by women in other cultures (I'm thinking in particular of Chinese fashion)--but what is new and original is the whole "shirt and pants" being a complete ensemble unto itself? Before, men would wear a jacket or coat over a shirt, or the outer garment would be long enough to go below the waist. In Chinese fashion this applied to women as well--pants were accompanied by a jacket.

So when all one is wearing is just a [short] shirt and pants/jeans, much can be revealed, either deliberately or "unintentionally."

elena maria vidal said...

Great points, papabear. The Chinese fashion is very modest compared to the western mode of wearing slacks.

Jeffrey Smith said...

I thought I was the last person on earth to find jeans uncomfortable. Haven't owned a pair in thirty years.

a thorn in the pew said...

I try to wear skirts to Mass whenever I absolutely can. I always wear a dress or skirt to the Tridentine Mass. It's preference to me, I suppose. I know years ago they used to have "paper skirts" at the vatican in case a women came in slacks or shorts. I remember the tour we took there, we were told in advance so it was a non-issue at the time. Are they still doing this? This was over 11 years ago.

Suzanne said...

Great Post, Elena. I'm going to add it to my "Practically Pretty Modesty Sidebar!"

I, too, found Dressing With Dignity wonderful and eye-opening. I made the transition to skirts and dresses about 4 years ago. And, I am another person who finds jeans horribly uncomfortable:)

There are some great quotes, articles, etc. at

papabear said...

Some thoughts about the introduction of pants for women in the Western world--undoubtedly there were some feminists who deliberately wore pants in order to make some sort of statement. But did it become more widespread as industrialization progressed and women became workers in factories and such? It is one thing for a man and a woman to be working side by side on a farm or in their crafts shop--it's another when women are seen as nothing more than instruments of production, just like men.

This is clearly different from servants working for a great house during the medieval period up until the 19th century--sex differences were preserved.

I think Allan Carlson has done an admirable job of looking at the consequences of "industrialization" (not merely the appearance of factories and rise of mass production, but the effects that those having economic and political poer had on their societies) upon the household, and how it contributed to the rise of mid-20th ce feminism.

Once one's role and identity have been separated from a foundation in the home and family, and re-established instead on contributing to the national economy, it should not be surprising if women lose authentic femininity (and men are in some measure "emasculated" by "industrialization" as well, though perhaps they are not harmed as much). So we see that the practical consequences of unrestrained capitalism find its counterpart in the Communist ideal of a sex less society composed of workers?

Florestan said...

I haven't worn jeans for at least ten years until recently; the thing with jeans certainly isn't comfort but convenience.

elena maria vidal said...

Jeffrey, I am glad that I am not the only one!

Thorn, I do not know if they still have those paper skirts. I don't know abot Rome, but I know that the are still strict about modesty at EWTN and the Hanceville shrine.

Thanks, Suzanne! I always found jeans seemed to inhibit freedom of movement.

Papabear, those are excellent reflections on the effects of industrialization.

Florestan,I see jeans as purely utilitarian. They were originally designed for miners and are great for certain kinds of work.

Elisa said...

To answer A Thorn in the Pew's question, I went to the Vatican with a tour group three years ago. One of the gentlemen in the group had to don "paper slacks" because he was wearing shorts.
In Pisa, paper shawls were given to women with bare shoulders.
If you're visiting catherdals and churches in France, so long as you're decently dressed, you can tour.
As for jeans, I love wearing them! Of course, it depends on the place and occasion. At Sunday evening student Masses in college and grad school, most students didn't dress up. Since I was involved with litgurical ministry, I took care to dress up a little bit when I was scheduled for lectoring.

Anonymous said...

Oh, why can't I live where people offer paper clothes??

Some dresses make one feel matronly (which is just as bad as feeling like a linebacker, or like Ellen, in those uber shoulder-padded jackets of a few years back, especially when paired with trousers replete with buttoned back pocket).

I argue with myself every Sunday morn--and always lose: I almost always wear slacks, because that is what I have.. but I'm not happy with it.

You folks may've convinced me to go shopping this Spring.


Anonymous said...

Recently, I bought very nice dress from Brooks Brothers store through It is so comfortable....