Fashion-forward female clergy say ‘no’ to Wippell, ‘yes’ to Express

Young DIY priest-designers bringing "cute" to clericals

Source: Shutterstock

When I was ordained a deacon last December, I faced the daunting reality that I’d have to wear a clerical. As a 25-year-old deacon-almost-priest, I remember flipping through a clerical catalog that October and thinking, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that.” Something had to be done. There must be a way to be a priest without wearing what looked like a black Hefty bag. A broke seminary student with ordination approaching, I also couldn’t help but ask, “So, I have to buy the most unflattering shirt I’ve ever seen. Fine, I’ll be obedient to God. But 46 dollars for it?!” I reached a breaking point.

The concept that the clerical uniform is meant to draw attention away from priests, so we become walking catechisms, has always appealed to me. But I also feel that each minister also interprets the catechism in how she lives it. And I wanted to define my catechism through the clericals I chose.

I began by wandering around countless thrift stores, wishing that the shirt dresses I loved were made in clerical form. I had a black Express dress in my closet that seemed perfect, but clergy shirts need weird buttonholes to fit the collar. So I asked my friend Chris, who was a professional seamstress, to help. She fixed the dress, just as cute as it had always been, but now ready for a new accessory: the collar.

Collar attached, I was definitely the foxiest priest I’d ever seen. For my ordination, I paired it with a nice pair of black wedges and tights that ended at the ankle. I added large silver earrings to balance the attention on the collar. The way I felt about myself wasn’t nearly as exciting as the comments I received:

“I never in my life thought I’d see a young lady get ordained in a dress this cute, with leggings and heels! I love it!”

“Every female priest needs this dress.”

“You look hot in a collar. Just saying.”

“You make a gorgeous deacon!”

My insecurities show here; I admit I worry that every time someone looks at me in a store-bought clerical they’ll think, “So sorry you have to wear that. You look beautiful, it’s just a tough look to pull off,” or the most daunting, in the South, “Bless her sweet deacon heart.”

Yes, men don’t receive compliments on their clericals, but that’s because there hasn’t been an elephant in the room for years about how their shirts aren’t made to fit them. The way I felt in that dress was how I wanted to feel – and how every woman should feel in her clericals.

With the great reception I got from the first dress, I knew the doubt surrounding my clericals was valid – and that it wouldn’t define my fashion. It was time to fix things for myself, by making my own fashion-forward clerical wardrobe.

In this age of do-it-yourself (DIY), the first step was to learn how to knock out a few handmade clericals. My friend Jessie taught me that it was all about buttonholes, so I got to work fast. We went to Goodwill together, and I found beautiful Express tops for $10 each. Altered, they look phenomenal with my collar (and it didn’t hurt that they were just $10).

I couldn’t stop! Before a job interview in Waco, Texas, I hunted through the clearance rack until my friend Jessica pointed out an adorable silk Converse tank top – with ruffles.

I was sold. The style appropriately breaks the mold by keeping the black of the typical clerical, while adding in a good ruffle. Altered, it looks fantastic – and appropriate in the Texas heat.

My passion couldn’t end there. It had to be shared. I created a blog, Deacon to Diva // Priest to Posh, where I show other women how to alter shirts into clericals and share inspirations about my ideal clericals. It’s a small step, but it’s still a step forward.

When it comes to being the most confident clergyperson I can be, I took matters into my own hands. I don’t ever feel entirely defined by my clothes, but I do pick clothes carefully. And just as business suits can be feminine and appropriate for work, clericals could be designed in way to offer women a sense of authority and confidence that can, in turn, translate into positive leadership.

(The Rev. Erin Jean Warde is a graduate of Seminary of the Southwest and is the curate at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas, and the student center missioner for Baylor University.)

Comments

  1. Scott Elliott says:

    I get all my clerical shirts at Costco. I take new shirts to the cleaners and ask them to take the collar off and add a buttonhole in back. Voila!

  2. The Rev. Kathryn Macek says:

    I have clergy shirts but most of the time, I wear WomenSpirit’s “Janie” with knit tops, t-shirts, or blouses. I think a clerical collar looks just fine with a “regular” collared blouse – no different than wearing a clergy shirt with a suit jacket, in my opinion.

  3. Rev Bruce McCallum says:

    I came to this website looking for a little humorous content for a sermon. I guess I got that. Fashionista, Maxxinista and now Priestanista. I wonder how the Apostle Paul would advise dealing with this kind of crisis.

  4. Fr. Steve Scarcia says:

    I always thought that we are to be “In the world, not of it.” Fr. McCallum has hit the nail on the head when he said priestanista. Add the word to the Urban Dictionary. I was under the impression that the only impression that clergy were to make in their personal clothing was to draw attention to the Lord Jesus Christ and not their designer, clothier or whatever. What do they teach in some of those seminary courses about presenting one’s self as an ambassador of Christ and His Church? St. Peter (3:3-4) talks about all the externals as being worthless. It’s what’s inside that counts, not the braids or jewelry or fashions. Unfortunately, in the 21st Century this is not PC. Oh! that’s right, I forgot, we’re in the Episcopal Church, need I say more.

  5. Fr Michael Fuller says:

    I was definitely the foxiest priest I’d ever seen. The way I felt about myself wasn’t nearly as exciting as the comments I received:
    “I never in my life thought I’d see a young lady get ordained in a dress this cute, with leggings and heels! I love it!”

    Sorry to say this but I think you have missed the point somehow. Firstly it’s not about you, except of course that your whole blog was! Secondly, how does someone dragged up as you are think they are going to relate to a bereaved relative or disfunctional child? How do you give moral guidance aspiring to be ‘foxy’?

    You propogate a pantomine religion and the words ‘narcistic omnipotence’ spring immediately to mind. I’d pop down to the confessional and discuss with a priest, (let’s pray she is soberly atired) and talk about the sin of pride if I were you! Perhaps In Wacky Waco they no longer have confesions though??

    • Gentlemen of the Cloth,

      Thank you so much for your patience and understanding, for your kind words and support, and mostly for your listening to and learning from the experience of women clergy. You cannot know how wonderful it feels to know that you, with your vast knowledge of the constant judgment women receive on their appearance and attire, are so willing to consider the possibility that finding appropriate garments as a clergywoman is challenging, and that creative solutions are necessary to present a professional, modest, pastoral, feminine, and tailored appearance. I am sure that the women in your parish will appreciate your insights into the struggle of the professional woman as much as I do. Maybe you should talk to them about it.

    • Mary MacKenzie says:

      Dear Fathers,
      Imagine if you were looking to buy a new clerical shirt and all you could find were blouses that were clearly designed to fit the feminine body – with darts in odd places, too-short long sleeves, and adorned with ruffles and/or lace, in pink, yellow, lavender, and floral prints. Would you not protest and look for something that actually fit your body in fabrics suitable to your sex?
      And lest you think that male clerics are above fashion pride, just cast your eyes on all of the elaborately decorated and very expensive vestments in those catalogs (and church sacristies) not to mention the rabats and all sorts of garb to make the men look good.
      The men in my seminary would practically drool over the Wippell catalog when it arrived and then paw over the samples like women at a Black Friday Doorbuster sale when the vestment reps arrived on campus. Just sayin’

  6. Ruth Crompton says:

    Where does it say in the Bible that we as Priests should all become clones of one another? God made me female and also called me to the priesthood that does not mean that I deny those things i enjoy like fashion and looking female. Surely it is little diferent from male clergy emjoying train sets or football. It is not necessarily about being glamarous bit being who God created us to be in his image…loved and beautiful

  7. Sulwyn May says:

    My seminary actually gathered a group of the women students and some local women priests to discuss how to handle the kind of double standard expressed by the obviosly male and mysoginistic clergy above. As women, we are expected to both wear clothing that is not made to fit our bodies; we are expected to look professional, neat, tidy, and above all feminine. Otherwise we are accused of denying the truth of our bodies and hiding behind masculine, unflattering, and unattractive clothing.
    “…how does someone dragged up as you are think they are going to relate to a bereaved relative or disfunctional child? How do you give moral guidance aspiring to be ‘foxy’?” I would say that actually, by clearly dealing with the challenges of meeting a double standard, we might be better equipped to relate to the circumstances in the lives of the bereaved relatives and disfunctional children that we meet than someone who is unable to admit that he might be part of the problem that creates coversations like this among his women clergy colleagues.

  8. PAMELA RW KANDT says:

    Scratch the surface of our male fashion critics here and I just bet you’ll discover they’re none too thrilled with the ordination of women either. Good God!! This is the 21st century. A fashion-forward “priestanista” is a gift to a church seeking to be relevant and appealing to the under-50 crowd. An aloof, holier-than-thou, set-apart-for-specialness attitude from our clergy is a diservice to the entire church. I actually prefer my priests to act like real humans.

    This was a fun and informative article, Erin. Thank you!

    • Ilze Kuplens-Ewart says:

      The under-50 crowd?
      I’m 60, ordained nearly 30 years, and, yes, for some reason folks in my wonderful congregations all this time have felt a need to comment on my appearance, sorry, men, that’s just the way it is. My take on it is, just as we have been created as unique individuals, by our appearance we signal openness to all. From my perspective, it means being clear about avoiding designer and brand names: it’s not a bandwagon I feel called to support – simply reinforces the prevalent worldview whereby peoples’ worth is demonstrated by the size of their pocketbook. Conversely, it means giving space to express who we are, and to delight in this. So, yup, while I’ll keep a low profile while leading worship, outside I’ll keep wearing my large earrings, crazy shoes, probably get that fuchsia streak in my, naturally, grey hair, and still keep hunting for clothes that are appropriate for what I represent, a beloved child of God, called to minister as the person I am. Just like you.
      Thanks for the opportunity to participate!

  9. And who made the rule that black is the clerical color? We should not position ourselves to be confused with RCs. I’d prefer that we break that image entirely. In 25 years of ordained life I owned one black shirt, the rest were gray, blue, striped, collar altered of various sorts. The point is not to call attention to ourselves, but to challenge preconceptions about what clergy are like in our increasingly anti clerical times.

    Wearing a collar at all draws attention to what we are, so of drawing attention is bad, we should join our more protestant colleagues who eschew even the collar.

  10. Fr. Joshua Gregory says:

    Greetings! As a young Priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church (one who is very modern lol) I think this is a wonderful idea…. we still have our own identity even under the black and behind the collar! Kudos to you for bringing such a modern twist to this sacred identity! Many blessings,

    Joshua+

  11. As a woman who is God willing going to be ordained in the near future in the Episcopal Church. I am struggling to find clergy shirts which would be appropriate and this post just reinforced something I have been finding all over the internet. Apart from a few sites (most of which are in Europe- so if I ordered from there they wouldn’t get here in time for my ordination) which cater to female clergy most shirts are “smaller” versions of mens shirts.

    Here is my unique thought on this process. My husband who is also a cleric in the Episcopal Church and I are roughly the same size. He is a few inches taller and my bust is a few inches wider but we wear essentially the same size cassock, surpilce, and alb. This makes sense when we are serving in a liturgical setting. When the focus is supposed to be on the sacraments the word and action of Jesus Christ.

    However- If I were to got to a job interview in his suit I would most certainly not get the job. The suit is not tailored to me. OR If he were to wear his father’s suit he would not get the job because that suit is not tailored to him. In seeking to be professional those of us who are called to wear the collar ought to do so with the respect and dignity befitting our age and our gender. I do not have a problem with the little black dress with collar, but I do wish that I had more options in regards to my clergy attire than what amounts to going into my husband’s closet and borrowing a shirt and trying to make it work with my black suit and heals.

    It might work, but it certainly wouldn’t be very professional looking.

  12. Stephanie Johnson says:

    I don’t know that I’m trying to be a “priestonista” so much as I want clerical wear to reflect my vocation both as a woman and as an ordained member of the clergy. The current demarkation of Christian clergy (black shirts with stiff white collars) is a modification of 17th and 18th century men’s apparel. Priests did not wear the winged collars of their other professional counter-parts, making this a simple and humble uniform that both made them easily recognizable as clergy and marked them as professionals.

    Where clergywomen struggle with this question of “what to wear” is how can we, also, find a “uniform” that carries this same image today? An image that reflects the current fashion of our professional, female counter parts that isn’t flashy, isn’t inappropriately “sexy”, but still honors both our femininity and our calling.

    Happy to welcome suggestions from female and male clergy or our brothers and sisters in other professional circles!

  13. Chiming in as a sister clergy from the Presbyterian way to say just this: Though I don’t face the collar/clergy shirt dilemma, I can vouch for the reality that female clergy face some crazy stuff regarding clothing, hair and makeup. Until our male counterparts get the same number of comments like these, we are the only ones who can truly relate to this experience. For example, how many male clergy have to face comments like these on a weekly basis? (all of which I’ve heard)
    “Pastor, I notice you’re wearing lipstick today. You should do that more often. It makes you look pretty.”
    “Pastor, you sure looked great on Sunday. It was so nice to see you in a dress.”
    “Pastor, I like your hair better when you wear it down. It really frames your face.”
    “Pastor, I’m not sure I like seeing that shiny fingernail polish from the pulpit.” (this after having a manicure with clear – no color polish)
    and from the sound tech: “Pastor, since your alb doesn’t have pockets, can you put the remote mic power pack in your slacks pocket? Hanging it from your cincture is messing up the clip.” (answer: No. Women’s slacks often don’t have pockets that size. I’ve had to clip the power pack to any number of clothing parts to make it work.)

  14. oh. and one more thing… Have you visited WomenSpirit.com? They have albs and shirts cut for women.

  15. Elaine Wykes says:

    God called me to the priesthood here in the UK as a woman. He also made me a woman who cares about her appearance. I like to dress nicely, in clothes I like and which are fashionable. As women, are we clergy now supposed to adopt shapeless and unflattering clerical shirts now that we have become servants of The Lord? To deny who and what we are goes against our calling as women AND as clergy! And I’m willing to bet my last £ that these male critics look at themselves as they pass by a mirror, or comb their hair before they go out, or check their appearance when they don their clerical attire in the morning – am I wrong gentlemen? And I use the term gentlemen loosely because I have never read such rudeness and disrespect from people, aimed at people they don’t even know! Very unchristian of you indeed! (and I’m not quite clergy yet – I’m in training right now, and very disgusted that make chauvinism is alive and well in the Church and that I’ll probably have to deal with it for the rest if my ministerial life)

  16. To Niya Marie Scott-Smith says:

    I have a dear friend who is also a female minister by the name of Minister Denise Bigsby. She makes clerical attire tailored to & for us. It’s comfortable. It fits. It’s professional. And I feel as beautiful & humble as GOD made me. It’s the first time that no one had to tell me to quit tugging, scratching, pulling, etc. The name of her company is 3-D Designs. Her #s are (704)737-3238 or (770)362-4878. She also makes things for men. Unlike the few brothers that made ungodly comments above, Denise loves all. 🙂
    P.s.
    I am so very blessed by how almost all the brothers’ & sisters’ comments were kind, loving and above all Christ-like. I especially was blessed by the author of this blog. Oft times in life, we feel as if “I’m the only one” going through whatever it is. It’s good to see someone make light of the situation, offer positive & thrifty solutions and bring my focus back full circle to where it was & should be: on GOD.

  17. Rachelan Griffin says:

    I am a mother of three, and seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church, and I wonder when exactly the human body, particularly the female body, became an object of revulsion. When did dressing attractively become being unChristian? We are reflections of God, images of his own glory. Our existence, and the amazing beauty of the human form is nothing more than a testament to God’s phenomenal power, and perfection of design. The bible encourages us to dress in our finest, as a sign of respect. We would not dress unattractively to meet a head of state, why would we dress unattractively to serve at the altar of the King of Kings? Just as there is an appropriate state of dress for a job interview, a wedding, or any other occasion, so is there an appropriate state of dress for a church service. I would not give a sermon in the nude, or in a bikini, or jeans, but neither will I wear clothing that hides my femininity. God made me a woman, a mother, and I am proud to bear the body he gave me. I intend to dress in a way that glorifies God, by showing His marvelous design in an attractive and appropriate way, that I hope will display my respect to my Heavenly Father. Others will approve or disapprove, and there will be little I can do about it, but as long as I am pleased, and God is pleased, that will have to do. That might not look the same as some of my male, or female brethren, but to each their own. Blessings.

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