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The Decline of the Skirt

A common-sense approach to women's wear.

I was getting to know a mother of one of our little daughter's friends from our traditionalist chapel. She confided to me: "It's depressing how rigorous it's become, when a woman at our church can't wear pants even in a casual setting without someone"—she turned to her husband—"you know who--asking ‘Do you really think you should be wearing the pants in the family?'" Then she peeked inter the table at me, and said, "Uh-oh, I see you're wearing a skirt!" I could only laugh.

I am writing this to support women like her and also to support the wearing of the skirt. And it's not because I'm rigorous. Since my teenage years I've gotten out of the habit, about the same time most nuns did. I can remember the strange feeling of wearing a new pair of slacks on my thirteenth birthday in 1968, and also the headlines of "Pants Day for Girls" at Paul Revere Junior High School, when I could see how they looked on everyone else. Nowadays, women of my age and older seem to wear pants as everyday attire, and the sight is not exhilarating, but drearily familiar. Since hemlines started going up, it has been counterclerical to wear long skirts, and for traditionalists today, the hem has come full circle. It reminds us, like the scapulars we wear, of who we are and who we may—and may not—become.

Although raised Presbyterian, my parents taught by example that Catholic customs should be respected. Were I to become any kind of Catholic at all, I suppose I was predestined to be a traditionalist. My first memory of the Catholic Church is associated with a dress code. The summer I was ten years old, my father brought the family to the Gulf Coast of Mexico to do his field work in folklore. On the rare occasions when we ventured into Catholic churches, my mother informed me that I could not wear my accustomed shorts but that I must wear a skirt, because of the importance that Mexicans give to modesty, and that I must cover my head. I thought this made the Church special, and copied my mother precisely in order to please her. Memories of those old churches stayed with me and ultimately turned me toward the traditional liturgy and practices.

At age fifteen, based on an article I read in Time magazine, I decided to become a feminist. Ten years later, I had become both a feminist and a Presbyterian, and was wondering why the two couldn't get along in my head. After all, by then feminists and Presbyterian women—and some Catholics—were mouthing the same slogans. The trouble was that by age 25 I missed what my Presbyterian church had been. Gone was the sung Gloria Patri, the carved panels where Catholics would have an altar rail; gone were choir robes and classical anthems. Self-expression was in, with role-playing sermons, and amateur hour type solos. The congregation was told that we were not to dress ourselves up, but to be ourselves, and the decline in attire was predictable. Acoustic instruments, candles and yes, long skirts were missing. The fewer sacraments you have, the easier it is to forget ceremony. Meanwhile, I was on the slippery slope toward conveniently forgetting certain moral teachings, or should I say reinventing them—even as the Church reinvented worship.

And now, whenever I assist at a Novus Ordo Mass, I stand out in my long skirt and veil. Every woman around me, I would assume, looks just as she does the rest of the week. The problem is not lack of modesty, because women at Novus Ordo Masses generally don't have the figure for form-fitting pants. The real problem is that pants are too casual. In a culture that treats serious things casually and trivia obsessively, it's easy to forget that one assists at Mass as at a court ceremony. The Novus Ordo does nothing to suggest any such ceremony, so no one dresses accordingly. I remember, from reading Virginia Woolf in college, that Bloomsbury was allergic to the venerable old custom of dressing for dinner. If you think it's difficult to restore the Latin Mass, imagine trying to restore that.

There was a time when the Catholic clergy were trying to fight the tide, back when the skirts above mid-calf and trousers on women were shocking, distracting and ostentatiously fashionable. The sacred Congregation of the Council under Pius XI warned all the bishops: "A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers' breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows and scarcely reaches a bit below the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper." In 1960, Cardinal Siri of Genoa, while admitting that pants as such were not a grave offense against modesty, cited changes in feminine psychology as their most insidious effect. He believed that the wearing of male clothing by women would tend to make women strive to emulate men in other ways.

Articles I have read in the traditionalist press take for granted that this has already happened to the fullest extent. Just look, they say, at the effects upon traditionally masculine domains, such as the military, and law enforcement, when women, trousered like men, joined the ranks. Granted, there is a connection between feminist efforts at 'dress reform,' dating back to the nineteenth century, and women working at such jobs. But often these authors seem to put the defeminizing effect of trousers in the same class with revealing and immodest clothing, while casualness, which is to me the worst effect of all, is not discussed. Also, it is taken for granted that dresses and skirts shall be worn at all times. In practice, this means that some traditionalist women have become obsessed with trivia, while others dress with the herd and quietly wonder, like my friend, what all the intensity is about. What standard exactly should one follow? I see at our church dresses cut lower than the two-finger rule, and sleeves to the elbow, and no one says anything. Some women make the standard whatever you can imagine the Blessed Virgin wearing, not seeing that the standard can cut both ways. As a letter to the Remnant pointed out, "if you condemn women for not dressing like Our Lady, why not condemn modern men for not dressing like Our Lord?"

Much as I would like to always to dress in skirts, for some purposes pants are simply more practical. I suppose I might compromise and wear light trousers under a long skirt especially in cold weather, but most store-bought clothing doesn't look good when thus combined. I've made a few dresses for myself and my daughter, but a whole wardrobe is out of the question. Even if I simplified it to seven handmade dresses, and wore easily washable pinafores over them for the grub work, still people would give us trousers and other casual clothing as gifts, which for charity's sake I could not refuse.

My traditionalist friend told me an anecdote that put it in perspective. A mother she knows came to a Society of St. Pius X priest at Post Falls with an urgent problem. Her daughter wanted her to take her swimming at a nearby lake. Whatever could she wear that would be sufficiently modest? Said the priest, with and Irish twinkle in his eye, "Ma'am! I suggest you get your daughter a nice swimsuit, a one-piece—and get one for yourself, too. Those long denim skirts you ladies wear can get awfully heavy when they're wet."

Margaret Robe Summitt

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