Clothing signifies who we think we are and where we belong in the social order, so it’s no wonder that religious communities have long been preoccupied with dress codes. While I do believe there is such a thing as dressing appropriately for an occasion, I struggle with how that issue becomes entangled with policing women’s sexuality.
To put it bluntly, women’s clothes are sexually coded in a way that men’s are not. Outside of beaches and nightclubs, men rarely wear anything provocative or revealing when they want to dress up. Men can wear a straightforward, professional suit to any special occasion, without worrying that they are sending the signal that they no longer think of themselves as young and desirable.
By contrast, women’s formal wear is all about sexual display. High heels, short skirts, makeup, low cleavage, rich fabrics, and form-fitting clothing are meant to show that a woman is toned, young, sexually confident and worth looking at.
Standards are also more lenient for men. Basically, all they have to do is shave, put on a clean shirt with no logos on it and match their socks correctly, and their wives and mothers breathe a sigh of relief as they settle into the pews.
Women’s clothing involves many more subtle, confusing gradations of formality, trendiness and sensuality. This variety certainly makes it more fun as a potential vehicle for self-expression, but it also opens us up to be judged more harshly according to ever-shifting standards.
Mixed messages about our clothing reflect the culture’s difficulty integrating the spiritual, physical and emotional aspects of womanhood. We learn, through the fashion choices available to us and their representation in the media, that being a strong, vital, self-confident woman includes proudly expressing our sexual nature. But suddenly, when we arrive in church, people have a whole lot of opinions about whether our lipstick is too red or our neckline is too low.
This can feel like a commentary on more than our fashion sense. In a cultural context where our strength, our value and our sexuality are enmeshed, unequal scrutiny of male and female fashions makes me worry that I’m capitulating to patriarchal theology when I put on a long skirt to visit my friend’s evangelical church. I just want to hear the gospel. Leave my ankles out of it.
Some of us, thanks to God and Herrell’s Ice Cream, are built such that anything tighter than a muu-muu will look provocative. I spent too much of my adolescence wearing granny dresses because I was afraid to attract sexual attention from rude, immature boys. Around my peers, who were sexually precocious and dressed accordingly, I felt like a little girl among grown-ups. No matter how smart you are, no one takes you seriously in Laura Ashley. You’re quaint, like a parrot who can sing the Marseillaise.
Now I’m a mature woman and I want to dress like one. This includes choosing clothes that flatter my figure and express my physical confidence. High-necked shirts make me look like a sack of potatoes. Beyond that, it takes a lot of effort to find age-appropriate, non-frilly clothing that would satisfy the conservative Christian dress code. A woman in her thirties who wears mother-of-the-bride dresses is sending a strong signal that she understands herself to be too old or too shy to be thought of as a sexual being. My booty is not ready for the rocking chair.
Meanwhile, in my liberal church–of course!–anything goes. Do I wish the teenage acolytes wouldn’t wear sneakers under their robes? Sadly, I do. Church clothes should be different from casual clothes for the same reason that the priest wears vestments: to demarcate a sacred time and place, set apart from the world’s business. Am I upset that the tanned, toned young girls sport belly-baring shirts? Only because I’m jealous that I didn’t look like that at their age, and now it would be ridiculous.
Women, let’s be honest about our anxieties about other women’s clothing. This is an area of competition for us. Sexuality is often a proxy for status, authenticity, and confidence. Some of us might like church to be a “safe space” where we get a break from fearing that someone else looks stronger, younger, or more successful. But such judgments can make the space feel unsafe for other women who find interpretations placed on their clothing against their will.
I don’t have a simple rule to solve this problem. Some would say that a certain dress code is part of the package, and if you don’t like it, don’t go to that church. Personally, I don’t see what sola scriptura has to do with polyester print dresses. We give in too easily to the cultural captivity of the gospel. Can we find a way to preserve the reverence of “putting on our Sunday best” while being critically aware of unequal pressures on men and women?