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

Young DIY priest-designers bringing "cute" to clericals

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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.)