Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. I hope you all had a glorious Pascha and radiant Bright Week.
In this podcast, I would like to depart from discussing historical garment traditions and instead, spend a little time exploring our modern dress, particularly how we dress for church.
One of the ways that becoming an Orthodox Christian changed me, was in the way I dress. I remember attending Liturgy the first few times and being quietly awed by the way Middle Eastern women dressed. They were carefully and thoughtfully dressed, obviously wearing their best for the Divine Liturgy. They were polished and beautiful, complete with makeup and matching handbags. I had rarely seen so much feminine fashion in one place except in the pages of fashion magazines and my initial reaction was to think it was a little over the top. So, I went on wearing what I now like to think of as my “muumuu” dresses, no makeup, and sandals. During the course of Orthros and Liturgy I was going to be standing for 3 hours, for goodness sake, and I wanted to be comfortable. Who cared how I looked? And besides, wasn’t it a little vain to give that much attention to how I dressed?
Once I was the khouria of a parish, however, I began to notice how parishioners responded to me. On the rare occasions I dressed up, say Christmas or Pascha, I was treated with a shade more respect and deference. It was a subtle thing and it certainly wasn’t like anyone mistreated me at any other time—my parish is really delightful and I’ve always felt very blessed to be khouria to so many wonderful people—it was just that there was a little something special about dressing up that I began to pay attention to. My own attire changed slowly: I began wearing lipstick on Sundays, then I bought my first tailored skirt, then I got a subscription to Vogue. I laughed at myself, because while I was completely enamoured of textiles, here I was having to educate myself how to dress! And I noticed that my parishioners responded favorably to these changes—they began treating me as a grown-up, not just a young “greenhorn” khouria. Again, my parishioners loved me no matter what I wore, but it seemed to make them more comfortable when I dressed the part of a khouria. It was similar to how they treated my husband when he wore his cassock—with deference and respect. Of course, I worried that I was becoming too in love with fashion—this dressing up thing was pretty great!—but I realized that the reason for my dressing up was to underscore, in a very small way, the dignity of the church, the same way that my husband wore a clean and pressed cassock to underscore his role as father of this community. And then it clicked—I was dressing like a mother! By my very garments, I was embracing and validating the life we had decided to live as the priest and khouria of a parish.
In the early days of my “khouria makeover”, I had very limited funds, but a growing personal standard of classic, well-tailored dress, so I applied the same principles to my own wardrobe that I advised my clients—less is more and buy quality. One of the first items I needed when we were assigned to our parish was a all-black suit for funerals, so I purchased the best one I could afford. I wore the dress part of the suit almost every Sunday for a year or more because it was the “best” thing I owned. I wore different sweaters or jewelry with it, but basically, it was my uniform for quite awhile. To add some color and liven things up a bit, I began to collect vintage costume jewelry, since it could be purchased for a few dollars at estate sales and antique shops and I loved its connection to a time and place when women dressed like ladies and femininity was a thing to be cherished, not scorned.
Where my children were concerned, we had one basic rule regarding clothing: you have to dress up for church. The rest of the week sometimes saw my daughters going to the grocery store in their favorite pink tutu or a red tshirt with green flowered skirt and pink shoes, but when it came to Sunday, we taught them that they had to dress up, out of respect for God and the Church and respect for others. During our first parish assignment in seminary, I learned from Mat.. Anna Hughes the Russian custom of having an all-new outfit for Pascha. So, now, our family has an annual tradition of going Pascha dress shopping with my father. He loves getting the girls hats or purses to match their outfits, which always makes me laugh since he has worn the exact same style of Levis for almost 50 years and hasn’t a clue about fashion! We all enjoy the day together and it’s made him feel more included in our celebration of Pascha.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about modern fashion. I look at a fashion magazine the way a car-crazy guy looks at Car and Driver Magazine—I want to study the styles and the interesting construction techniques, the new fabrics, what colors are being featured this season. But, as time goes on, I am dismayed by several things I see happening in modern fashion, particularly the deep infatuation with novelty in which something is worn only a handful of times and then discarded for the Next Big Thing, the general immodesty—why can’t women look like ladies anymore?, and the wastefulness and rampant consumerism.
No wonder so many Orthodox Christians just give up altogether on looking their best for church. It seems that it’s a black and white world—you are either a credit-card-wielding fashionista or you are on a loftier plane, disregarding fashion completely, not caring what you look like. The first attitude worries me as this kind of seeking after the world is so spiritually damaging, but the second attitude worries me as well, because once someone abandons beauty in their personal dress, then it’s not too far before they began questioning the necessity of beauty in the Church.
I was discussing this subject a few days ago with my father-in-law, who was raised in a staunch Baptist household in farming country in California. He told me that his parents forbid him wearing jeans to church and that his mother always said, “Wear your best for Jesus!”. He pointed out that his mother didn’t expect people to be wearing expensive or fancy clothing, but simply to wear their best. He recounted a certain man who wore his overalls to church every Sunday, but that the overalls were clean and pressed. Imagine ironing overalls in this day and age?! But, I can easily envision an entire community of farmers, some in pressed overalls, others in shirt and tie, the women in dresses and hats, and the cumulative effect of that much dignity in one place. No one had to ask if what they were about was serious business, because all you had to do was look around—these folks were “wearing their best for Jesus”. Some particular areas that have become hot-button issues in the Church today, like the issue of women wearing head-coverings, would have simply been a non-issue. Every women in the 50s and even the 60s wore a hat to church—it was unthinkable not to. A good friend of mine, who grew up in the Episcopal Church, remembers her father insisting on her wearing a hat to church well into the 1970s.
And herein lies what I consider to be one of the myths of modern church dressing—you shouldn’t work at it. That spending any time on your personal appearance is somehow sinful and should be avoided at all costs. The old “if you spent as much time praying as you spend looking in the mirror” idea that appearance is somehow evil. But, in reality, this is a sly deception. If appearance is somehow evil, then matter is evil. And, as we all well know, the Orthodox Church does not believe that matter is evil. Spending TOO much time on your appearance or obsessing about your clothing or personal adornments, yes, that is evil. But it is evil because it takes the focus of our nous from God and directs it on ourselves, it is not evil because appearance itself is evil. We can self-righteously say to ourselves that spending time on our appearance is evil, then throw on a muumuu and go to church, and still stay completely focused on ourselves, rather than God. All of this has to do with the position of the heart, on where your nous is looking. Think of the holy monastics and saints who spent time caring for the holy vestments of the Church or kept their cassock or rhiassa in tip-top shape for decades. If you’ve ever taken wax out of a phelonion or folded a cassock, then you know that this is work! But it’s important work, because it’s done for the glory of God. Likewise, our dressing appropriately for church, should be done for the glory of God, not ourselves. Even the most lowly monastic who goes around in a tattered work cassock during the week will keep his church cassock in proper order for Divine Liturgy.
Dressing well doesn’t have to take tremendous time or effort, either. You can purchase one good outfit and wear it every Sunday until it wears out. My Greek tutor, Demetra, told me how growing up in Thessaloniki, her mother and many like her would purchase a new suit made by a dressmaker every 5-10 years as a “good suit” for church and any formal event.
And there’s a side note here: I have two daughters, and as they have grown up, I have noticed that they watch with great interest how I dress for any given situation. They ask me why I’m wearing a particular outfit or particular jewelry. If I’m wearing the pearls given to me by my husband’s grandmother, then they know it’s a very special occasion and they ask me about the pearls and we have a nice little chat about Grandmother and I tell them some stories about her and we might even sing her favorite hymn. If I’m wearing the Shrinky-Dink earrings that they gave me for my birthday a few years ago, then they know it’s a day to play, since I would never wear those to church or for a more formal event. And while it’s a little unnerving, they even watch me put on my lipstick and we have what I like to think of as the litany of lipstick—“When can I wear red lipstick?” to which the response is “Not until you’re married”, then follows, “Why?” to which the response is, “Because you need to be a grown-up to wear red lipstick.” By watching their mother dress, they have a window into an adult world, a world of responsibilities and formalities, not a world of children. They see where they are headed in life and what is expected, but at the same time, they remain in their comforting world of childhood, knowing the grown-ups are dressed and ready for anything. These situations also give me an opportunity to teach my daughters about how to dress—what is modest and what is immodest, what is seemly and what is unseemly. That there are certain things that are relegated to the adult world. I accidentally realized the power of this, when I jokingly mentioned to my husband that my youngest daughter was going to spend her rebellious teenage years wearing red lipstick, because to her that seemed the height of rebellion! She wasn’t going to get tattooed or pierced, because those things would interfere in her dressing the part of an adult. But, she might wear heels and red lipstick a few years early, and that I can certainly live with!
In our modern society, which tends more towards disrespect than respect and more towards casualness than formality, dressing up for church can be, ironically, one more way to distinguish ourselves from the world. It can show that we’re serious about this business of faith and of life. And, dressing up does put some of us in a more formal mindset, one that can be very conducive to prayer. Think how you would dress for an important job interview and how focused that can make you feel. I know this from personal experience, as it’s quite common among people who work from home, to dress up more than their office counterparts, since working from home can have more distractions and being dressed professionally reminds one of the task at hand and keeps one focused.
Every once in awhile, I drop by the great big, glossy organic super grocery store near my house for a carton of eggs after church. I walk in, heels clicking and matching handbag on my arm, sometimes a little hat perched on my head, and am instantly surrounded by miles and miles of green, brown, and gray Polar fleece performance clothes (I’m always tempted to ask, when did grocery shopping become an extreme expedition?). I stick out like Doris Day amongst the Amish and heads turn to watch the crazy lady. I get up to the counter with my eggs and the clerk eyes me suspiciously—does she know what city she’s in? I can see him thinking. Bravely starting up a conversation, he asks me, “So, where are you headed?” since I am obviously dressed for Something Big. “I’m coming home from Church” I answer, to which his puzzled face seems to show it would have been less fantastical to say I just returned from the moon. There’s always an awkward pause, since the mention of Church seems to make some people quite uncomfortable, and I’ve been thinking for awhile of some kind of catchy answer to this question. So, from now on, I’m going to think of my husband’s grandmother, smile, and answer, “Just wearing my best for Jesus.”