“Oh My God, Is THAT A DRESS?” On Clergy Women Dissing Professionally Dressed Clergy Women

K. wrote this cri de couer, and it’s a goodie.

ok here’s my question and maybe you have addressed this–if so just direct me to the post. What is it with some (many?) clergy women and nice clothes? Specifically, I am a pastor in a northern state. So I get it’s cold up here. I get there are trees and woods and we all love to be woodsy and folksy and look like we just came off a nice camping trip. I get that. I love it. I really do. However, I think as a professional it’s important to also look put together. So when I go to assemblies, do presentations, lead worship, go to meetings, etc etc I dress professionally. I am after all a professional.

But then here’s what happens every time–and it’s always from the other WOMEN who choose to attend/do these things in jeans, sweatshirts, chacos and/or those Keane sandals. They say to me with almost dramatic flair: “WOW you are SO dressed UP!” “Why are you wearing a DRESS?” “ARE those HEELS?” and on and on. Seriously. It happens every time I’m at a church event with other colleagues who are female. Men never say a word–but these ladies, some of whom I consider friends, seem to think they need to school me. The thing is, I do not make an issue about their outfits.

I never comment on what anyone else is wearing or question their style choices. So why must an issue be made about mine? And even better, how does one respond to things like this that feel like attacks? I’ve tried laughing it off, heck I’ve even been direct but it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t stop. I am not a young clergy person (I’m in my mid 40’s) so I don’t feel like it’s some kind of power play. More like contempt but for what? For me? For clothes? For looking nice? (of course our male clergy run around in suits and none of these women give them any flack). This just happened again yesterday. I was leading a presentation. Chose a nice dress, heels, did my hair etc. Walked in and my co presenter looked at me in shock and said “oh…you are so dressed up!” It’s not like I don’t know how to be causal and truly I don’t feel like I’m over dressed-and I can dress comfortably when appropriate. This simply confuses me and I’m sick of it. So thanks for listening to my rant. Please advise if you have a moment. Many thanks.

As the late Joan Rivers would say, “Can we TAWK?”

I love this letter. I love the way it perfectly encapsulates the problem I have been toiling to address for almost a decade here at BTFM, and how far we still have to go in solving that problem.

You identify your ministry context as the northern states, where your colleagues like to look “woodsy and folksy and like we all came off of a nice camping trip.” Oh, how well I know what you’re saying. Where I live, in the Boston Metro area, the liberal clergy like to look woodsy and folksy and like we all came off a nice weekend in Nantucket where we had no more important work than to strum guitars and sing about peace to tiny groups of people who think just like we do.

Protestant ministers are in a time warp, and in a reality warp. What they know of the new reality they have decided doesn’t apply to them because they don’t approve of it. Maybe the world has become more visual. Clergy don’t care, because they’re certain that words will solve social issues and save the world. Why should they wear heels and professional attire when a well-meaning slogan on a T-shirt or a big cross around the neck should communicate what they’re about to the public?

Clergy today are defensive and arrogant about public image because they know nothing at all about it and therefore conclude that it must not be important. Even clergy who have jettisoned outworn theologies that oppress and exclude many of God’s children from full participation in the life of the church refuse to revise their own dated, unevolved attitudes about what it means to represent the institution in 2014. They (and I’m talking specifically about the Boomers whom I suspect comprise the largest segment of your eye-rolling sneerers) came of age in an era when grooming and attire were suspect as part of the Establishment, and many of them are still marching under the Frumpiness is Next To Godliness banner. Then there are the Starry-Eyed Evangelical Idealists with egg in their beards and nose hairs protruding from their nostrils who honestly believe that clergy appearance is not central to attracting people to the church, because they cling to a hopelessly dualistic Body/Spirit mentality.

Look at the drubbing poor Paul Walters received just the other day for writing that pastors should stop dressing like slobs. All the usual suspects are there in the comments section: the passive-aggressive pearls-clutcher who says he’ll be praying for Paul’s soul, the defensive sloppy dresser who caved to pressure when he was accused of “putting on airs” by dressing professionally for work (God forbid he do outreach pastoral ministry about the issue), the inevitable chorus of shame from the prim critics who honestly believe that inner beauty or spiritual purity excuse slovenliness for anyone outside their immediate circle of gospel purists… and so on and so on.

The women who slyly critique you for “dressing up so much” are engaging in a time-honored tradition of women oppressing other women by holding them to the status quo and schooling them on “knowing their place.” Look at where the Church has gone under their drab leadership! Why should you aim higher by preparing more carefully for public leadership? Who do you think you are, girly? Better than me, huh?

As you say, and I’m not at all surprised to hear it, the guys don’t catch any guff for dressing like leaders. Just the chickens clucking in the hen house. Peck, peck.

This is actually a small culture war, my dear. And I encourage you to fight it with exactly the same weapons that are being used against you: sarcasm, dramatic over-attention and scrutiny. When someone stops you and says, “Is that a DRESS? Are those HEELS? You’re SO dressed up!” I hope you will respond by saying, “Why YES they are! Are THOSE cotton chinos and are THOSE Chaco sandals? You’re so inappropriately dressed!”

Turn the mirror right back to them. And then when the hostility and snarkiness have been outed for what they really are (don’t you back down for a second if someone insists she was “just kidding”), you can invite your colleagues to have an actual conversation about public image and religious leadership.

Invite me. I’ll wear a DRESS and HEELS.

24 Replies to ““Oh My God, Is THAT A DRESS?” On Clergy Women Dissing Professionally Dressed Clergy Women”

  1. My favorite response is to say something like, “Oh no, don’t worry about what I’ve chosen to wear. You look great!” [But if the person making the remark is throwing shade, I hope that ‘you look great’ is delivered with a big, fake smile! – PB]

  2. So you don’t like it when women talk about your style of dress? Now you know how the people who don’t agree with the opinions both you and Paul Walter shared. Just as it was inappropriate for the clergy women to judge you, I would say likewise.

    So perhaps we should just all stop with the insults and not-so-subtle put downs of others who approach their ministry in a different way. And are just as faithful and just as “successful” as you. [This isn’t about being faithful or successful — people who dress sloppily and people who dress professionally can be either — it’s about PUBLIC IMAGE as a reality that ministers do not understand or want to deal with, just as you do not. The conversation is not about “judging.” It is about savvy, about understanding the world in which the Church is dying and responding to that world as people who love the church and get that the era of people coming to us to find God is pretty much over. When we speak in public, appear in public, have a religious viewpoint in public, the general, unchurched public is constantly validated in their supposition that “those religious people” are out of touch, living in the past, irrelevant and not in any way connected to what those people are thinking about and doing. – PB]

  3. I use, “Yes, I chose to present in this way because what we are doing today is important to me (or “to us”, depending on the occasion) and I don’t want anyone to underestimate that importance.” [That’s a GREAT response. Love it! Much more mature than what I suggested. – PB]

  4. I think this is one of those things where you reply to the fool at the level of his folly.

    Last weekend I was at a wedding. The music leader from our church turned up to play the guitar wearing some ratty shirt that he hadn’t even bothered to iron as far as I could tell.

    On the other hand, my fiancé and I were playing piano and cello respectively and were appropriately attired for the occasion (blazer, tailored trousers, smart white shirt and bow tie for him, formal dress for me – and finding a nice dress that one can modestly play the cello in is HARD, which is why I got my sewing machine out a while back and made one myself. I had made an Effort.)

    He looked kind of uncomfortable and did the “oh, you’re all dressed up…” comment. We looked as if we didn’t understand and with a perfectly straight face said, “Well yes. This is a *wedding*. Duh, getting dressed up is what you do for a wedding.” I think he was suitably embarrassed and he’ll make an effort to iron his shirt next time. [Perfect. Just as the letter writer said, “I’m a professional,” implying that someone with professional duties and obligations and leadership expectations would dress in such a manner. Duh, indeed. – PB]

  5. It has been interesting how many people want to think the world judges them on their fruits or by their words or any number of other things and want to think clothes do not matter. What you wear matters. What you wear and the clothes you choose send a message to the people you encounter. You may not like it but that is the case. So decide the message you want to send and choose your clothing accordingly.

    Sometimes the truth is hard to hear.

  6. As PeaceBang knows, I was embarrassed on behalf of the religious education professional at a recent Big Fancy Ceremony in our local denominational church (which is in the Land of LL Bean, and that’s how everyone dresses all year long).

    In attendance were:
    our denomination’s national President
    local interfaith clergy from five different congregations
    about twenty clergy from our own denomination
    many, many laypeople from near and afar

    The religious ed professional (paid staff) took the pulpit for her role wearing:
    badly wrinkled, rolled-up cargo pants
    a wrinkled, untucked plaid shirt
    Birkenstock sandals
    sunglasses on top of her head


    But her supervising minister doesn’t heed, let alone read, this blog. When I murmured a comment to a colleague next to me (“She shouldn’t be dressed like that.”) I could tell that I’d been perceived as being judgmental. Am I really to call up my colleague, who would scoff at a post like this, to say, “Perhaps your staff member would benefit from taking her image more seriously”? Am I really to initiate this conversation at, say, a clergy cluster meeting? (I’ve made comments before; people roll their eyes.)

    Seriously. I’m putting my name on this comment even though this conversation is absolutely loaded, the hottest of all potatoes.

  7. Rev Erika –

    Her supervising minister doesn’t, but her supervising minister’s prospective intern does.

    And yes, I was thinking similar things.

  8. There is a huge boomer culture in our churches – especially a boomer academic culture. As one who began college in 1979, I well recall the “go-to-hell chic” sported by many of my professors at the University of MN. It may have appeared to be dressing for comfort, but it too was a deliberately crafted image, “I am no better than you. Call me by my first name. I’m such a deep, intellectual thinker that I have no time to waste on my appearance. Only a self-important prig would wear a suit, and I am no prig. Power to the people!” Etc. This has changed somewhat in academia, or at least in some settings, but still exists. To wit: my stylist is married to a professor, and when I told her I wanted a haircut that looked great but looked like I took no time with my appearance,” she smiled and knew exactly what to give me. [Yes. Very interesting. This stuff is not personal. We need to remember that and get off the “don’t judge” rote reaction. Systems, systems, systems! Culture, culture, culture! – PB]

  9. On the other hand, as one whose church is doing a weekly vigil, I bless 100-fold my boomers, who feel absolutely natural standing on our street corner holding signs. Some of them would do it every day if I asked. (Interesting side note – I make sure to take and post photos and reports on social media, and it’s the busy, social media-active younger folks who comment most.)

  10. I teach at a college affiliated with a denomination and colleagues often comment about how I look (female, older – often boomer, never men, never the younger set). I have a profession! I am proud of it! Today I made a faux pax when I did not dress formally enough for an outing, but, I will rectify that in the future.

  11. I am a super-casual dresser and senior pastor of a California beach town church. I rarely wear socks. Have preached in board shorts. But Paul Walters’ article got my attention. I think we as pastors all tend to equate our very subjective style sense with the will of God. And we are very defensive about our tastes. There are some other insights I have had; one is that outdoor beach wear (or any kind of non-super-formal dressing) is not necessarily slobby. My flip flops I just bought yesterday cost $40 and all the cool kids make sure they match with everything they wear. I’ve seen slobby guys in suits with a layer of dandruff on their shoulders, greasy hair, and a big belly hanging over an old belt. I am in transition with my dressing as a church leader–not sure where I am headed, but Paul’s article was helpful for me in this process. Paul Walters’ article can be found here, if you haven’t already seen it: http://www.davidhousholder.com/dress-for-the-job-pastors/
    [We talk a lot on here about context, and being polished and well-groomed in your particular context. So how are your toenails looking in those flip flops, pastor? – PB]

  12. I get this comment often at evening church board meetings. I generally say “Yeah, I had a work thing tonight.” People don’t always remember this is my J.O.B. because it is their hobby.

  13. Clearly, “hobby” is an insufficient word to refer to someone’s religious commitment, please forgive the cheek.

  14. Love what Rev. Gidget said about her casual-dressing professors: “It may have appeared to be dressing for comfort, but it too was a deliberately crafted image.”

    This is the thing: Almost all the time, what any of us wears in public is part of a deliberately crafted image. We dress to fit in with the people we want to fit in with, and to look like the kind of people we want people to think we are.

  15. I’m 3 months into a new position, and have to come to find out that the fact that I wear a robe in worship and dress professionally in the office has made a tremendously good impression on folks. I’m in a rural context – mix of casual and formal. I’m more dressed, day to day, than most. Turns out they had a recent pastor who was a wonderful person and great preacher, but often showed up sloppy looking for worship, with occasional visible stains, and he was generally not so presentable – it was an issue with folks but they didn’t know how to approach him about it. I’ve met him. His look is not carefully crafted. I feel I was sooner able to dig into ministry here because I made a sharper, more organized and capable impression right off the bat, and yes, very purposefully. And I believe it’s a grand conspiracy to make people think jeans are the most comfortable pants, when, after a year of professional dress I finally realized that I didn’t want to change in to jeans when I got home from work.

  16. Bravi Helen and Bella, for examples of the high road.

    People ragging on you are showing how insecure they are; don’t give them ammunition to also think ‘She thinks she’s better than me.’ The truth is, you did not dress in a professional manner in order to show them up, but for some good professional reason.

    So feel free to take a couple of beats of polite puzzlement, to figure out what on earth they could be talking about, and then respond with something that owns your own choice.

    Possible true I-statements:
    “There are people in the world (and perhaps in this room) who can hear me better if I present a certain way, and I’ll take any advantage I can get, to help them hear my message.”
    “Sometimes I like to step up my image game, and challenge myself to live up to it.”
    “It gives me one less thing to worry about.”
    “I find it works for me.”

    That is, it’s okay to acknowledge that there’s a performative aspect to all this, or that these are just tools from your kit that you’re trying to keep sharp. That might give the people who wanted to shame you more to latch onto, if they decide they might like to try it out.

    I speak as one who is near-complete apostate from the gospel of PeaceBang, wrt the sartorial details. I am so very glad that my professional life never calls for dresses or heels, and my makeup routine lasts about six seconds. But I have a deep investment in putting down snark with a deft combination of polite incomprehension and cool literalism.

  17. I used to get the, “oh, you’re so dressed up” comment from parishioners in my rural church and would just say, “well, this is how I dress for work.” I knew I was out of step with the culture and didn’t care. Only got that response from Boomers–not their elders or their youngers, who both also dressed up for church at least a little. Now in a more formal urban church everyone dresses up–just noticed yesterday at a lunch for lay leadership no one was wearing jeans or shorts.

    But I hear from other clergy “oh you’re so dressed up” ALL THE TIME. Mostly from women. Thank you for this post, Peacebang.

  18. I’m a boomer and I have learned a lot from your blog about dress and make up. I have to say, though, that the downturn in formality in dress at work (in most places, not just the ministry) came about the 1980’s and 90’s. I noticed it most beginning in about the mid-80’s by which time I had been in the workforce for a decade and a half. Despite growing up on the west coast and going to a hippy college, I noticed “inappropriate for work” attire frequently when I moved to a job in PA in 1987. People waiting on me in stores wore clothing too casual for painting the house. My DE preached at my church in a jean skirt and Birkenstocks. Whatever happened in the workplace, it happened after I had been in it for a good long time and the folks I noticed were younger than I am. We didn’t vacuum in high heels like Donna Reed, but we wore dresses (or pants suits) to work for many years. Wonder if some of the detractors of the writer’s dress may be women who weren’t in professional roles until late in life? Most boomer women who worked right out of college in the 70’s and early 80’s had to be careful what we wore to work. If it is older women making comments, I wonder if they arrived into ministry later in life after women were more entitled to be there and the dress code for everyone went?

  19. One last comment on Babyboomers: The first time I heard the BTM message articulated was in 1967 when Boomers who were out campaigning for Eugene McCarthy all were urged to get “clean for Gene” meaning that they all got shaves, haircuts, and clean cut clothing to represent their anti-war candidate in public.

  20. I am more of a casual dresser and always have been. I have been in ministry since 1981 and attend many “professional” events. It has never occurred to me to comment or judge anyone for their attire. I would look awkward and anything but professional if I attempted to wear heals. I also am not a “dress” kind of woman. Although I know women who love them (dresses & heals) and are very comfortable in them. When I was reading the blog and comments, I began wondering the role of “classism” in our culture and whether that was a factor. I appreciate people wearing what fits who they are because the inside beauty tends to shine through. If you like to dress more formally, blessings! If you don’t, blessings!
    [Not so easy as that, Rev. Dr. Sue. As we have discussed many times on this blog, people with less economic means tend to dress much more formally for church and ministry. It is a mark of privilege to be able to dress casually or sloppily and still expect people to take you and what you represent seriously. – PB]

  21. I think PeaceBang has a lot to offer her readership. I’m not a direct beneficiary of her advice to clergy women, as I am neither clergy or a woman. I would suggest that if her advice resonates with you, great. It’s a tool; use it. I would further suggest that if it doesn’t resonate with you, simply ignore it. Don’t feel attacked, just blow it off.

  22. So ironic that I’m reading this after considering Matthew’s interpretation of the parable of the wedding guest getting kicked out because of inappropriate attire! I’m a 60ish (therefore solidly Boomer) 2nd career Episcopal priest. I worked many years in the nonprofit & corporate sector and found that male or female, people take you more seriously when you dress appropriate to the situation, therefore: differently for doing a presentation to a board of directors from how I’d dress if I was working the soup kitchen.

    It is true that we have about 7 seconds to make an impression and I don’t want my appearance to stand in the way of the Word. I’ve developed a style of my own but also have respect for: my audience, my role, my message. That’s not fake nor anti-gospel but meeting people where they’re at, while being authentic. While in a big diocese in a major metropolitan area, I saw colleagues who were at all ends of the spectrum: from Birkenstocks with peasant skirts and mismatched tops to very professionally dressed. And I always wondered: why not take a bit of pride in how you are presenting yourself: do you not want your message to get across?

    As a younger woman, I remember railing against these ideas–“People should value me for who I am, what I have to say.” Now, I’d say to that younger person, “Yes. They should but face reality: you’ve got 7 seconds. Why put up barriers when your appearance can build a bridge?” It calls to mind Jesus’ exhortation to be innocent as doves and wise as foxes. Besides–we honor each other and the temples of the Spirit that our bodies are through beauty.

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