Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Dress Code for Consecrated Virgins?

Here’s a comment from reader on this post, which I received back in July:

“If consecrated virgins are to live a life that is readily identifiable as consecrated, what about their appearance? Should they wear some kind of habit, or at least have a dress code? While some consecrated virgins I know dress very simply and appropriately, others follow the fashions including make-up, jewelry, even immodest styles, or sloppy jeans and T-shirts.” —Curious

While questions of what to wear certainly aren’t the most profound or significant issues with which I have to contend in my life as a consecrated virgin, figuring out how to dress in a way appropriate with respect to my vocation isn’t totally unimportant, either.

For one thing, since I do have to get dressed every day, the question of what to wear is a necessary one, as it’s impossible to avoid. Also, what we wear does say something to the world about who we are and how we see ourselves. Hopefully it goes without saying here that clothes don’t make the man (or the woman). But because it is a kind of self-expression, our choice of clothing does merit at least some consideration.

First, a few words about the “elephant in the room” in any discussion on consecrated virgins’ clothing—consecrated virgins “living in the world” and religious habits:

I actually don’t think that non-monastic consecrated virgins should aspire to wear “habits” per se, because a habit is a mark of membership in the spiritual family of a religious Order or congregation. That is, I don’t think that consecrated virgins should attach a lot of importance to specific articles of clothing in the way that, for example: Dominicans and Carmelites treasure their respective scapulars; Franciscans wear a knotted cord cincture, or the way that some congregations (e.g., the Redeptoristine nuns or the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters) have a tradition of wearing a specific color in honor of the particular Christian mystery around which their charism is centered.

Unlike members of religious communities, the spirituality of consecrated virgins isn’t rooted in any one particular set of historical circumstances (other than the foundation of the Church, that is!) or in the unique spirituality of a particular founder or foundress. So I don’t think it would be correct for consecrated virgins to have a practice of dressing in a way which was reminiscent of a particular time in history in such a way that specially highlights any one specific spiritual devotion or mystery of the faith.

Additionally, while of course consecrated virgins should strive to foster amongst themselves a sense of sisterhood in their common vocation, consecrated virgins aren’t bound to each other in the same strong sense as nuns and religious sisters are. Therefore, I think that the family-type relationship expressed by a common habit is something truly proper only to religious life, or perhaps also other communal forms of consecrated life.

However, all other things being equal and considering the question in the abstract, I would be in favor of consecrated virgins wearing some kind of distinctive clothing, or possibly even distinctive clothing which was uniform within a given diocese. (The difference between a proposed diocesan-wide distinctive “uniform” for consecrated virgins and a habit properly so-called would I think be very similar to the difference between a religious habit and the clerical garb worn by diocesan priests and religious priests who aren’t in habit. I.e., a clerical collar and a cassock or black suit marks the wearer as a priest, but not as Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite, ect.)

Also, I personally think it would be wonderful if it became an established custom for consecrated virgins to wear some sort of veil as part of their every-day attire. On a theological level, I think it would be especially fitting for consecrated virgins to wear veils because of the rich symbolism behind such a practice; because the veil is an ancient and venerable insignia of the Order of Virgins,* and because the reception of the veil is a part of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity.

Contrary to popular belief, and while obviously there are no authoritative documents which suggest that consecrated virgins should wear be required to wear “habits,” the Church has also never stated anywhere that consecrated virgins are forbidden from wearing distinctive clothing which identifies them as consecrated persons.

Right now, the question of identifying garb is left entirely to the discretion of the local Ordinary. In other words, it is completely up to individual bishops to decide if the consecrated virgins in their respective dioceses will wear special clothing, and I believe that the bishop would even have the right to require that the consecrated virgins under his care wear distinctive garb. (In fact, apparently few bishops in the United States, such as Bishop Jenky in the diocese of Peoria, Illinois, actually have asked that the virgins consecrated in his diocese wear veils full-time.)

I think that, in many cases, it would be most fitting for consecrated virgins—who have, after all, freely entered into a PUBLIC state of consecrated life—to wear distinctive, identifying garb, because of the value of such a visible consecrated Christian witness to the modern Church. As mentioned in countless articles and reflections such as this one and this one, people today are often hungry to see obvious reminders that the Holy Spirit still inspires men and women to offer their entire lives to Him.

Yet at the same time, regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that (aside from my ring the mantilla I started wearing to Mass after I was consecrated) I myself do not presently wear any distinctive clothing. My reasoning for this is that, since consecrated virginity is still in some sense a very “new” vocation, there are legitimate pastoral concerns to be taken into account—concerns which I feel outweigh my theoretical ideas on the preferable garb for consecrated virgins “living in the world.”

Namely, due to the widespread popular understanding of consecrated virginity—or more accurately, the lack thereof—right now I’m inclined to err on the side of discretion to avoid confusing the faithful in an unhelpful way.

However, I don’t think that it’s totally unrealistic to imagine that in several years time the pastoral situation might be different in such a way where consecrated virgins wearing distinctive garb would be generally considered a wholly helpful influence in the life of a diocese.

Given this, for me personally the bottom line is that: I’m very open to the idea of wearing a veil or some kind of “habit.” But, I don’t presently have any plans to do this in the foreseeable future. So for at least the time being, I do have to pick out my own clothes in the normal way.

Admittedly, I have found it a bit challenging at times to determine the best way to dress as a non-habited but publicly consecrated woman. The following portion of this post reflects my own ideas about this, and is the fruit of my individual discernment on the matter (which is open to on-going refinement, by the way). It represents my thoughts on the best practical approach to a totally practical question, and NOT anything like a restatement of an official Church doctrinal teaching.

Therefore, while I hope that some consecrated virgin- or aspiring consecrated virgin-readers find this helpful, please feel free to disagree with me in the comment box! I would be very interested to hear how other consecrated virgins (or candidates) have dealt with the issue of how to choose one’s day-to-day clothing.

In a nutshell, I feel that it is important for consecrated virgins to dress in such a way which could be described as modest, simple, tasteful, and practical:

Modest – Of course, all Catholic women are supposed to dress modestly, but I think that I would be justified in saying that consecrated virgins are ordinarily called to take modesty one step further than Catholic laywomen. Not only are consecrated virgins called to dress in such a way so as not to distract the men around us, but the clothing we wear should convey the clear message that we are not romantically available to any mortal man on this planet.

For me specifically as a consecrated virgin (and please note that I am not, not, NOT trying to define the appropriate standards of modesty for Catholic women in general—that’s one minefield I’ll best leave to other bloggers!), this means that I follow all the obvious guidelines: I would never wear anything skin-tight, see-through, midriff-bearing, blatantly provocative, or any permutation of “underwear as outerwear.”

Beyond this, all my skirts are knee-length or longer; and all my shirts, dresses, and tops cover my shoulders. I don’t wear any low- or lower-cut shirts, even those which wouldn’t seem immodest on my mother or sister. My clothes aren’t really baggy, but I don’t think I would ever wear anything truly form-fitting.

Simple – I also think that consecrated virgins should have simplicity as their “look.”
In addition to choosing clothes which celebrate the virtue of chastity, I think it’s just as important for consecrated virgins to dress in a way that reflects a spirit of evangelical poverty.

Speaking for myself, I never wear any jewelry besides my consecration ring and a small silver cross necklace. I don’t use cosmetics or wear any makeup at all, unless you count colorless moisturizer and lip balm in the winter. My hair is long, but besides keeping it clean and trimmed, I don’t do anything special to it and I try to arrange it as simply as possible. The things I use to put my hair up or tie it back are strictly utilitarian—I don’t use fancy barrettes or hair ornaments of any sort.

I also tend to favor clothing which is white, dark, or in muted colors, though I do have a few exceptions in my closet.

When I was younger, I used to love to wear skirts with bold floral prints. I still wear these once in a while (though I find myself feeling less and less comfortable in them), since I generally try to wear my clothes until they wear out. But now, whenever I have to buy new clothes, I stick to solid colors or occasionally some very simple prints such as small dots or pinstripes. In other words, I try to avoid giving the impression of having brilliant plumage!

I’m not against buying wardrobe staples (like shoes or a suit jacket) which are slightly more expensive if they’re well-made and will last for many years. However, as a rule, I don’t think that consecrated virgins should spend lot of money on clothes. For us, shopping should NOT be a recreational activity; and if we’re drawn towards flashy or designer clothes then something is wrong.

Also, we should be careful not to buy or accumulate more than we actually need. For example, women in general (at least in the United States) are notorious for collecting a lot of shoes and handbags. I think this is fairly harmless for most women, but it is hardly appropriate for a consecrated virgin. Speaking for myself, I try not to have more than one purse and one or two pairs of shoes at one time. My own personal rule of thumb for looking presentable while owning fewer clothes is to buy ONLY things that are easy to mix-and-match, and which will never go out of style (which usually means that they were never truly in style in the first place!)

Since modest and simple clothes are so hard to find these days, I wouldn’t have a problem “stocking up” if I came across something like a sale of really practical items. But, in my opinion consecrated virgins should not buy clothes just for fun. We need to be able to determine the difference between needs—even if these needs are just in the foreseeable future—and wants, and then buy our clothes accordingly.

Tasteful – Consecrated virgins are public representatives of the Church, and so beyond dressing modestly and simply, I think it’s also important that we dress in a way that would readily be regarded as presentable, appropriately feminine, and elegant (albeit elegant in a very plain way).

For me, “presentable” means that we as consecrated virgins should always try to look clean, neat, and “put together,” whenever we leave the house. This doesn’t mean that I don a business suit just to run out to the grocery store, but I think it does mean that whenever we go out in public we should always dress with the appropriate level of formality and “polish” (in accord with the particular occasion) which befits someone who lives her life as a “sign” or “icon” of the Church.

Also, since the vocation of consecrated virgins is a specifically feminine one (consecrated virginity is actually the only state in life within the Catholic Church which is categorically off-limits to men), and since we’re thus called to relate to Christ and His people in a specifically feminine way, in our choice of clothing we shouldn’t try to hide the fact that we are women! In my mind, dressing in a purely androgynous fashion is hardly helpful to our efforts to serve as a witness of Christ’s love for His Church. And I believe it is possible to look feminine without being immodest or extravagant in one’s dress.

For me in my own life, the desire to appear feminine influences my clothing choices in a number of ways too subtle to write about in great detail. But basically, I try to look for clothes that fit well while still being modest, and which, while being simple, are still aesthetically pleasing and reasonably attractive. There’s no sense in wearing un-flattering clothes just for the sake of wearing something un-flattering; even religious habits are envisioned as being something “at once poor and becoming.” (See Perfectae Caritatis, 17.)

Also, while I often wear blue jeans when I’m doing housework or when I’m relaxing at my parents’ house with just my immediate family present, I generally put on a dress or a skirt whenever I go out in public.**

Finally, although I certainly don’t believe that consecrated virgins should invest time or resources into keeping up with current trends in the secular fashion world, I still think that we should make a point to dress with class and relevancy. I.e., we shouldn’t come across as eccentric. While our modesty and simplicity should be notable, I also think that we should dress in such a way that even a well-meaning non-believer would feel comfortable approaching us.

Our clothing should convey maturity, intelligence, and competence or professionalism. It should also make it clear that we had enough sophistication to have renounced the glamour of the world by means of a free, deliberate choice—as opposed to, say, having adopted a modest and simple lifestyle out of fear or naïveté. On a concrete, practical level, I think this would mean that consecrated virgins should avoid things like: shapeless ankle-length denim or plaid jumpers, nineteenth century-style prairie dresses, long dresses homemade out of floral quilting fabric, muumuus or housedresses worn as street dresses, et cetera.

Practical – And in all of these considerations, common sense should reign supreme. If we as consecrated virgins are going to spend our days hard at work building up the local Church, we need clothing which will be comfortable and study enough to allow us to do our work well. I think it’s also important that most of our clothes be fairly simple to maintain, so that our wardrobe doesn’t demand too much of our attention.

Also, individual consecrated virgins need different clothes depending on their individual circumstances. E.g., a consecrated virgin who works in a diocesan office would probably need more formal business-type clothing than a consecrated virgin who worked in a soup kitchen or taught at an elementary school. If a consecrated virgin’s apostolic activity involved attending a lot of fundraisers or formal dinners, she might need to find something which, while being modest and simple, could pass as an evening dress. Yet for many other consecrated virgins, it would be terribly superfluous to own anything even resembling cocktail attire.

The climate and local cultural expectations in a consecrated virgin’s home diocese is another consideration, since it’s important to dress in way that is practical and appropriate for one’s surroundings. Even just within the United States, what works well in one region of the country might look out of place and be unduly uncomfortable in another.

For example, at home in New York, I love wearing black—it’s simple, dignified, and matches everything. But over the past few years I learned the hard way that black is NOT a friendly color in south Florida! It’s too hot to wear for most of the year; the harsh sun invariably fades it to some shade of brown, gray, or navy blue; and compared to all the loud, bright colors that people in the Miami area tend to wear, wearing black clothing makes it look like you’re in mourning for a close relative (really—I’ve encountered this particular misunderstanding personally before).

Anyway, that’s my two cents! Once again, comments on this post from other non-habited consecrated women are most welcome.


*In fact, I believe the reason that women religious typically have a veil as a part of their traditional habit is because of the historical overlap between the Order of Virgins and the earliest forms of monasticism. So you couldn’t say that I think modern consecrated virgins should wear veils to act more like religious Sisters—rather, it would be more accurate to say that nuns starting wearing veils in the first place because this was the custom of consecrated virgins!

** But this is emphatically NOT intended to echo the “Great Pants Debate of 2010.” I most certainly do not think that pants are intrinsically immodest; and to me it seems ridiculous to propose that it might somehow be inherently sinful for women to wear slacks. All I’m trying to say here is that in my own personal OPINION, skirts are a better “look” for consecrated virgins living in the world.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Feast of St. Teresa of Jesus

In honor of today’s memorial of St. Teresa of Avila, here is “St. Teresa’s bookmark,” one of my favorite quotes from this Doctor of the Church:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you;
All things pass away.
God never changes.
He who has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

And here is the original Spanish:

Nada te turbe,
nada te espante;
todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda.
La pacientia todo lo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene nada la falta:
solo Dios basta.

(And as a side note to regular readers: I have a few full-length posts almost ready to publish. Thank you all for your patience, good wishes, and prayers as I take the time in my “real life” to learn the ropes of my new job.

Also, this past week I sent out, via email, the finished copy of my M.A. thesis to—I hope—everyone who requested it. If you asked for a copy, but did not recently receive one, email me a reminder at: [at] gmail [dot] com.)