Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cardinal Siri Revisited

Cardinal Siri and his words about masculine attire for women have been discussed before on this blog and elsewhere on the internet.The Cardinal made some excellent points in 1960 when he composed his Notification Concerning Men's Dress Worn by Women. It is not dogma and was never even meant for public consumption but worthy of consideration nevertheless. The Cardinal did not think slacks on women were immodest but feared they were a symptom of the eventual and overall masculinization of women to the detriment of their role in the family and in society. In many ways, his words were prophetic. What the late prelate said is usually met with ridicule in the Catholic media but finally we have an intelligent article, and from the wonderful Catholic Herald. To quote:
Cardinal Siri’s argument is that “male dress tends to vitiate relationships between men and women”; when women wear trousers, it flattens out the natural distinction between the sexes and thus helps “to pull down the vital defence-works of the sense of shame”. He believes, in short, that “the changing of feminine psychology does fundamental, and in the long run, irreparable damage to the family, to conjugal fidelity, to human affections and to human society.”

This is a large claim. Yet when I described the Notification as a “wonderful document” I was not poking fun at it. Of course the language used is quaint and old-fashioned and I feel sure the late cardinal would have been somewhat out of sympathy with “the spirit of Vatican II”; that Council was just two years in the future when he wrote down his thoughts. Indeed, he might seem – to modern eyes – as a reactionary old blimp. But he was writing in the days when bishops and cardinals took seriously their responsibility before God of their fatherhood of their diocesan flock. And was he entirely wrong in what he wrote?

Several years ago (long before I realised that Cardinal Siri and I were on a similar wave-length) a friend gave me a book about purity and women’s dress. It actually persuaded me to chuck out all my trousers and slacks for good. Friends and family were naturally aghast: had I gone mad? I could see all the reasonable arguments against me: modest Muslim women are allowed to wear baggy trousers; women’s slacks are not the same as men’s trousers and can be feminine; in very cold countries they are the only way to keep one’s legs warm; what do you wear when you are skiing or riding etc.

But I stuck to my guns – if this isn’t too unfeminine a metaphor. Why? Well, when I was a student at Cambridge in the 1960s I had worn mini-skirts – then the fashion – most of the time; this was sheer immodesty, though I wouldn’t have thanked Cardinal Siri for pointing this out to me then. When I wasn’t wearing mini-skirts I was trying to look like a character from a Hemingway novel: T-shirt, jeans and keeping a crumpled packet of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes in my hip pocket. I was, as Siri points out, deliberately dressing “like a man”. (There was a very brief interlude when I went into shiny black PVC from top to toe; goodness knows what the cardinal would have made of that.)

I decided there and then I ought to make reparation for my sartorial sins and those of others. “Reparation” is a very Catholic idea: making amends and sacrifices to atone for sin. I know it doesn’t fit into a Darwinian scheme of things but it makes a lot of sense to me. And as soon as I began to wear skirts – midi and maxi this time – I began to notice the ugliness of modern female dress: most women I saw, unless they were very elderly, were wearing tight jeans with a large expanse of flesh exposed at the midriff; unflattering and unfeminine at the same time.

Feminism, a huge subject, also comes into this debate. I suspect Cardinal Siri was right to suggest that the women’s movement was not doing women any favours. I am not talking here about the right to vote and equal pay for equal work; I am talking about the situation today when, if you try to say publicly that a “right” to abortion harms women or that staying at home when one’s children are young might be a good thing, the fearsome army of the feminist sisterhood simply shouts one down. (Read entire article.)


MadMonarchist said...

My Great-Grandmother (may she rest in peace) had hair down to her ankles (always worn in a bun) and she wore a dress every day of her life. When she was in her mid-90's and felt the cold more she finally compromised by wearing sweat pants underneath her dress. She lived to be almost 99 so, anyone with girls who complain about wearing address can honestly assure them: It won't kill you.

I will admit, I'm not very perceptive when it comes to "modesty" issues. For me, it's all a matter of context. For instance, I see nothing wrong with a girl wearing jeans -I just don't think they should wear them to Church. It's one day a week, girls can wear a dress and boys can put on a jacket for an hour.

Mercury said...

Nice article, though it has attracted the usual crowd:

People quoting Bishop Williamson, people saying not just pants but all swimsuits that don't fit the standards of 1910 are sinful, someone saying that pants are worse than miniskirts, some saying that any woman who wears pants is contributing to the culture of death, including abortion.

It's attracted a guy quoting all kinds of old texts about the objective sinfulness of dancing the waltz (dear to my heart since I love Strauss' music), of women wearing shorts EVER, etc.

One gem:
"Consider the immodest pose taken in the Waltz, and if you are not already blinded by lust, you will have to admit that it is a direct violation of the, Sixth Commandment and diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ and His immaculate Church."

So I get to go to bed tonight wondering is the waltz is a sin :)

And then of course there's the obligatory quotation of Fatima 1917 and saying that pants on women is what the Blessed Mother meant.

One guy even has a biblical quote that seems to indicate that dressing pretty is a sin in the first place.

Mercury said...

Sorry, I just get really nervous when things we take for granted without a second thought (trousers, shorts, bathing suits, dancing), and could go all our lives innocently with, are shown to be the very stuff of hell by preachers of previous generations.

If those who say so are correct, we're all in big trouble :(.

elena maria vidal said...

Not wearing corsets was once considered grossly immodest as was showing one's ankles. However, the point here is not with modesty. The Cardinal did not think slacks on women were immodest but feared they were a symptom of the eventual and overall masculinization of women to the detriment of their role in the family and in society. It is good to read what he actually said and not what people say he said.

Mercury said...

Oh, Elena, I read what he said, and it is food for thought. I am in no way condemning the opinions of the good Cardinal. In many ways he may be right, but I think if there is anything to it, it is much more a symptom than a cause.

I do condemn the insane opinions of bishops Castro-Mayer and Williamson, as cited in the comments section there. This goes along the lines of "if you wear pants, you are directly attacking the family and indirectly responsible for widespread fornication, contraception, and abortion." I think such nonsense needs to be dismissed out of hand.

Btw, Mad Monarchist - my great grandmother was a pious, card-playing Cajun Catholic. She had short hair and wore pants since at least the 1970s, haha.

elena maria vidal said...

Mercury, honey, I should have cautioned you not to read the comments. They do nothing but cause agitation.

Flambeaux said...

This is one of the few blogs on which I do read the comments, for that very reason.

I'll pass this post my wife's way. I know she'll appreciate it, having come to embrace skirts as her primary mode of dress over the last few years (much to the dismay and vociferous objection of her mother).

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Flambeaux. I have noticed that women who do not wear skirts seem to resent the fact that other women do.