I guess I was never a dyed-in-the-wool fashionista, but I sure had a lot of clothes. My size didn’t change much from the time I was about twenty years old, so I accumulated quite a few things. Even when I got rid of a few articles, more would quickly creep back in, since the thrift shops, department store sales and boutiques often would have my size at a good price. When I moved to my second parish (mind you, an Anglican priest, not exactly leading edge Vogue material) I filled the bedroom closet, the guest room closet and overflowed into trunks in the basement. Many pairs of shoes, not jetsetter quantity, but enough that some pairs I had not worn in a year.
I liked clothes. I considered my appearance to be artistic expression. I had lots of jewelry, mostly silver and garnets, very little costume and almost no gold. Well, you have to draw the line somewhere.
When I left the parish I dumped a lot of clothes on the church rummage sale. They were glad to have them, a good variety of American styles in a petite size. That stuff sells! yeah, I know, because I’d bought them.
Over the course of the next winter I started to feel as if something was wrong about my appearance. I felt – shallow. Hollow, perhaps, a shell of a human being, a pretend woman. I threw away the makeup – did I need to paint a mask? I gained some weight (mostly muscle, God be praised) that meant the Twiggy clothes just didn’t work anymore. (Do any of you remember Twiggy?) And although my hair was long and undyed, I felt exposed if I wasn’t wearing a hat or cap. What was going on?
I was very aware of my body in public. I began to wonder if my appearance really expressed who I was. I began to own some of the tragedy that had happened to me in the past, began to reconcile myself to the journey God had given me, and I found that I was not who I had pretended to be.
I thought about religious orders, and even googled some that admitted married women. They seemed a little too “let’s pretend”. You’re a nun or you’re not. You can’t be a part-time, once a year at synod nun, which is what some of these third orders seemed to be. On Sunday and at the order’s convention, you put on your nun suit. It was like being a religious Trekkie.
But I thought about my plain-dressed friends in the meantime – Mennonites and Conservative Quakers. There was something about them I truly admired. They were solid women. They looked and acted like women, and they were convicted in following Christ. They made no bones about praying. They just did it, talked about it, didn’t theologize. They prayed, they raised children and sheep and chickens, they cooked, they cleaned. They served the Lord where they were sent.
It was a slow step at first. Plain black dresses I already had, a black shawl for shoulders or head. Then a prayer cap. I looked at countless pictures of Amish, Mennonite, Brethren and Quaker women. I thought about ordering a prayer covering for myself, but I found directions for sewing one, and it was very easy. The head covering became part of the image in the mirror.
Finally, I felt some peace with following Jesus. It took more than a theological education, more than ordination and public ministry! I could face the world (being in it but not of it) with a sense of integrity that I was offering the face of a Christian woman.
Look, with plain dress there’s no slipping under the radar publically. You not only shame yourself with bad behaviour, but you shame all the other plain women who have lived. And worst of all, your shame is right before Christ. He can look at you in your sin and say, “I thought you were with me. That’s what you’re telling everyone, including yourself.”
The collar and cross were not enough to show that I took my Christianity seriously. I needed more, perhaps because of my own weakness. The plain dress witness is sometimes uncomfortable, because other people are not always open-minded. There are a few jeers and insults. But I am learning “to give the bonnet” – look away as if indifferent – and say “God bless you” to those who need it most.