Under The Collar Experiment

Friday, January 3, 2014

What Not to Wear

Over the holidays, I reduced the contents of my closet to mostly pant and skirt suits and my new fitted clergy shirts. I am intrigued by the idea of having fewer choices when I’m getting dressed in the morning. I have often said how easy men have it in the professional world compared to women.  I have longed to be able to have a few good suits and a few nice shirts and my only decision be which tie.  Hopefully my reduction in clothing options will give me more time to focus on our 3-year-old’s wardrobe. Our mornings are often driven by her clothing decisions – and indecision.  The momentum of getting our family out the door can be completely halted if, after choosing an entirely pink outfit, our daughter proclaims defiantly that she now hates pink and undresses herself.  I have been that girl, so I am sympathetic and at the same time irritated.  I want her to dress adorable and, at the same time, to express herself. Right now, I believe her mismatched patterns and seasonally inappropriate attire actually enhance her success at being a three-year-old.  There will be plenty of time to learn about the power of clothes to make an impression.

I admit that I record "What Not to Wear,” and watch it in about 10 minutes, fast forwarding through the fluff and commercials. I love clothes. I especially love shoes.  Some might even say I have a bit of a shoe problem. Despite the stereotypes, in Oklahoma, shoes matter, as does your pedicure. I have walked down the aisle with a cute pair of black suede pumps showing beneath my robe and heard women chatter pleasantly about them on my way to the chancel. I know a minister who,sporting her beloved Birkenstocks in this region, was quietly offered a pedicure by her congregation. I love building outfits, choosing what I wear based on what I am doing throughout the day. I am drawn to the transformational power of clothes. My favorite character from the Hunger Games series is Cinna, who is responsible for dressing the two tributes and, ultimately, the one who crafts their image that helps save their lives. What you wear matters.   When people dress well they feel better about themselves.  When they “dress the part,” they gain access to arenas in which they otherwise may have been excluded.   We must decide when when we adapt in order to be effective and when are we are giving up our identity. This decision actually expands beyond the closet.  My style is to be dressed culturally appropriate for the occasion, with a subtle twist.  I have a need to offer at least a hint, if you are paying attention, that I am more than I appear to be at first glance.  So, while this project may simplify my morning toilette on the one hand, on the other hand, it is very much a sacrifice.

Wearing a collar means that I am wearing traditionally men's clothes, even though I mine are fitted.   The shirts you can buy at the Catholic supply store have man-sized necks and made me look like I was wearing my father’s clothes. My masculine presentation may account for the initial shock for some.  Not only is the ministerial profession in America historically male, but the button-down shirt and collar closed and tight around the neck is traditionally connected to the Western male professional. Clerical collars and academic garb are descendants of the cassock – the intent not only being to identify but also to socially separate us from the laity, religiously and intellectually.  The push and pull of wearing or not wearing a clerical tab historically, has also been connected with distancing from or identifying with  the Catholic church.  What we use today was invented by a Presbyterian, culturally inspired by 19th century detachable collar fashion of the time.

In my tradition, we are ordained once and potentially called multiple times throughout a ministerial career.  It is at the ordination where we are given the official right to wear a stole with our robe and allowed to refer to ourselves as Reverend.  Often the ordinand receives a stole as a gift at the ordination, which is placed on them during the ceremony.  My mentor, Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman preached a sermon at my ordination called "Who Ministers?"  In it she focused on this idea of being "separate from" by being called to be clergy.  She said that the mantle I put on that day cannot ever be taken off.  It becomes a part of who I am, no matter what I am doing. (When she said this at the time I had the visceral image of the weight of the stole actually burning into my skin and becoming a part of me.)   If I am around someone who knows I am a minister, I would agree.   At the grocery store, the airport, a restaurant or the gym, if I am around someone who attends my church, I am a minister first.  I can feel it in the air.  I have a responsibility to notice, acknowledge, and even reach out.  Rev. Dr. Hallman also spoke about making space for the congregation to minister.  I can guarantee that I have been ministered to throughout the years in very subtle and very profound ways. The separateness is tricky.  Being ordained is not about being better than or chosen or special.  It is about the privilege of being given permission to focus on, to prioritize the ministry differently than the laity.  It is the responsibility of keeping my eye not only on the people whom I serve but also and, more importantly, on the legacy of the ministry and the church. In addition to symbolizing my desire to put my relationship with God first, the mantle also represents the people at my ordination who laid hands on me and blessed my ministry. They believed that I ministered to them and risked vouching for my future ministry, even though that future is unknown.  

My clergy shirt and tab collar show that I am connected to a church.  The simple definition of my job means that I have done weddings and memorials; visited the sick, the dying and the incarcerated; and that I wrestle with words to describe what is most important to me and my experience of the world. In Oklahoma, as in other places, the collar also means I have a relationship with Jesus – which is exactly what makes it “what not to wear” for some in our denomination. My relationship with Jesus, of course, is way more complex than most will see from my dress. But isn’t that true for everyone?  No symbol can contain all that it stands for-- that would be idolatry.  The definition of Christian – even the meaning of religious – covers a lot of ground.   I believe we could all use a little stretching in this regard.  I hope that the collar displays that I am concerned about the human story – our journeys, our struggles, and our magnificent creativity.  


  1. Interesting. I've been thinking about this since you told me about doing this blog...I was wondering about the options you already have, and what the possibility might be that you could add something to the collection that might eventually become a tradition...like maybe a hat or something...I always liked those old Jesuit Priest hats that were kind of big and floppy. I look forward to seeing what you do with your wardrobe.

    1. Jyl- I have been a longtime fan of men in hats but can't seem to pull them off myself :)