Britain's Female Priests Want to Dress for Themselves and the Lord
Which is tricky when the only clothes the Lord has offered them for the best part of 20 years are frumpy black tunics.
You'd assume female priests might have slightly weightier things on their mind than what to wear for work. And they do. Most of the time. But we all have to get dressed in the morning, and when you're working from dawn 'til evensong for literally (or figuratively, depending on your beliefs) the biggest boss going, you've got to look the part.
The two decades that have passed since the Church of England first started to ordain women are a drop in the baptismal font compared to the thousands of years of all-male clergy. One side effect of this is that, until recently, workwear options have been limited: borrow a frock from the boys (fit: large; colours: black) or borrow one of their shirts (fit: large; breasts: problematic).
Archbishops aside, there isn't a lot of variation to choose from when it comes to clerical clothing, and as the ranks of female clergy slowly swell (in 2012, and for the first time ever, more were reported to be joining the Church of England than men) the web is awash with women of the cloth agonising over what constitutes appropriate workwear (see: We Demand Better Looking Clergy Shirts for Women and Collar This!). Do they resign themselves to looking frumpy and uncomfortable in the pastoral equivalent of their dad's suit? Or risk Rev Sally Hitchiner-esque controversy by daring to care about clothes as well as catechisms? Join the men in head-to-toe black, or flirt with "flamboyance" in pinks and blues?
On christianitytoday.com, an anonymous female pastor writes of wanting her clothing to reflect who she is, which means acknowledging that she is a woman. Fair enough. "But," she goes on, "not in a way that trips off any negative stereotypes (too emotional, sexy, sentimental, girly, insecure, or matriarchal). I want to say that I am strong, confident in God's ability to use me, but not in a way that comes across as masculine or ambitious." Ah.
Obviously this is not about women wanting to sashay into a service like Gigi Hadid on a LFW runway, but about working out how to be women in what used to be a man's world. When you're part of a new(ish) and much-scrutinised "minority" group within a centuries-old institution, what you wear matters, says Part-Time Priest (AKA the Reverend Claire Alcock), who reviews women's clergy wear on her blog.
So what does a discerning female priest wear in 2015? A new wave of designers offer some solutions. A robe featuring a dove with "flames of Pentecost passing through its wings" (as modelled at the 2013 Christian Resource Centre's "Clergy Catwalk") might be a bit much for a christening. But what about Camelle Daley's fashion-forward range of clergy wear featuring peplum hems, balloon sleeves and pencil skirts in stained-glass hues?
The London College of Fashion graduate grew up in the church and was struck by the number of stylish women she knew whose sartorial flair wilted the minute they joined the ministry. She founded her label House of Ilona with these women in mind.
"Some of my clients want something that's fuss-free but fits them properly. Others are like, 'Bling up the women in ministry!' Your personality informs how you preach, so it seems wrong that everyone should look the same," says Daley, who in naming her designs after favourite female Biblical characters reminds us that, actually, women have been working it in this field for a while.
Canon Rosie Harper, who gamely appeared on the BBC's What Not to Wear, likes Sweden's Casual Priest, whose demure but modern jersey dresses look like the sort of thing Alexa Chung might wear were she to find God. The label was founded by designer Maria Sjodin with the aim of "strengthening ordained women in their role through clothing" and was one of the first to offer jersey tops (more radical than it sounds) and dresses that enhanced rather than disguised the wearer's shape. Her designs don't come cheap, at upwards of £175, but for Harper and the label's many other fans they're worth every pound.
"They make me feel confident and professional," she says. "Women get a bad enough deal in life and in the church, and if you present a slightly downtrodden front it implies you don't care much about yourself and may not care about other people either. You need to look like you have self-respect."
Harper has suffered for her interest in fashion, though. Renowned for wearing bright colour amid the sea of blacks and greys at the General Synod – "Every single paper takes your picture; I see that as doing my bit for the visibility of women in the church" – when she spoke out in support of the Assisted Dying Bill last year, almost every commenter in the ensuing Twitter storm criticised what she was wearing. It's an issue sadly familiar to any woman in the public eye (Teresa May and her leopard print shoes, for instance, or Mary Beard's Twitter trolls) but it can sting all the same. It's not surprising some women choose to wear their individuality more discreetly.
"I had one client who was only allowed to wear black in church but asked me to line her cloak in cerise pink," says Helene Cross, whose company Cross Designs was one of the first to recognise the particular needs of female clergy with made-to-measure, mail-order designs. "I advised her to wear satin knickers to match."
Helen Cross talking about Cross Designs
Cross launched her business in 1995 when the answer to women's clergy wear was menswear with a couple of darts in it. "I knew that wasn't good enough," she tells me. "These aren't men. They're women who have been called by God. Why shouldn't they look like women?"
She now takes orders from all over the world. By making clothes to measure, Cross can accommodate breasts and hips and waists, and she seems to relish the mild insubordination her work involves: "Some women love purple, but of course that's only for bishops, so unless you're [the first CoE female bishop] Libby Lane, it's out of the question. You can do a purple mix, though..."
Her designs are inspired by what she sees women wearing on the street and on TV – the latest was based on what a doctor was wearing in Holby City. And why not?
"These are often women who've been in industry before they found their vocation. They just want to wear what they would normally wear, but with a clerical collar in it," she says.
Cross sees her work as both a contribution to her faith and a leg-up to the women making their way within it. As she says: "How can you feel like the church is a place for you when you're wearing someone else's clothes?"
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