Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Why I Wear Skirts (Hint: It has nothing to do with modesty)
Due to the fact that my blog readership recently jumped from twelve people (almost all of whom were other Catholic moms like me) to three hundred people (who undoubtedly represent a more diverse range of backgrounds), I feel the need to preface this post. Explaining why I've worn skirts almost exclusively for the past seven years is a topic I've wanted to write about for a long time - since long before I had a blog. There's been a lot said on the topic of wearing skirts (at least if you listen in on the discussions of particular circles), but I don't often come across people who look at the issue in the same way that I do, so I feel that perhaps I have one or two unique things to add to that conversation. This is all about giving an explanation of why I do what I do. It is in no way meant to be a judgement or condemnation on other people's clothing choices, and I hope it's not interpreted as such.
Anyone who has had some exposure to traditional Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, Orthodox Judaism, or a number of other groups (whether in real life, or on the blogosphere), has probably come across arguments in favor of women wearing skirts/dresses instead of pants. While I agree with the sentiment - that it is good for women to wear such things - I find that my reasons for believing so tend to differ from those of the other skirt-wearing women I know.
The skirts vs. pants argument tends to be very polarizing, and anytime it comes up in a blog post somewhere, everyone gets all offended. Skirt-wearers accuse the pant-wearers of being immodest and worldly; pants-wearers accuse the skirters of being frumpy and submissive, and I think everyone just misses the point.
How To Wear Skirts Practically
I want to first address a common complaint I hear about wearing skirts.
Before college, I owned maybe one or two skirts. Uncomfortable elastic-waisted things I only put on when I was forced to dress up for something. Now, I have a closet full of skirts in assorted lengths, colors, fabrics - suitable for most any occasion or activity. A lot of people in the pants-camp say that skirts are impractical and too constrictive for everyday wear. In defense of skirts, let me say that if you get the right type, they work well in any weather, and for many activities.
In the summer, I wear mostly just-below-the-knee light flowy cotton skirts. I go barefoot as much as possible, but when I have to go somewhere, throw on some sandals.
In the winter, I like my skirts as long as possible. My legs are really long, so skirts that were designed to be ankle-length usually end on my lower calves. I wear heavy tights under them always - brown or black, depending on the outfit. I don't understand all the crazy crazy women I see in the wintertime with bare legs under skirts!! Don't they know that warm opaque tights exist for that purpose? Around the house, I might add socks or slippers for extra warmth. Outdoors on a cold day, I always have on boots. Your legs will get cold if you wear a skirt without boots in the winter! Be sensible! When I was in college, and had to do a lot of walking outdoors, I would sometimes add a pair of flannel pajama pants under the skirt. They tucked into my boots, and no one ever knew the difference.
My favorite skirts are ones with some "flow" to them. Cotton does this job well. I also have a few corduroy or other stiff-material skirts which are sewn in many sections, and so have a nice flare and movement to them. The straight-sided jean skirt look, or the unfortunate denim jumper made infamous by women like Michelle Duggar (God bless her), are not something I would wear. If the skirt is flowy enough, you can have total freedom of motion (running up and down the stairs, stepping over the maze of baby gates around the house), just like with pants. You can sit in any position, and never have to worry about immodesty, as you might with a short or tighter-fitting skirt. You can't, say, do cartwheels....but who does that after the age of eight anyways?
Lest you think I shun all pants, I'll reveal that I actually own a number of pairs. I still have some dress pants from my public school teaching days. I'm not really sure why, though, since I haven't worn them since. I should probably give them away (I've been hesitating, since they are in perfect shape, and I spent good money on them). I also have two pairs of jeans that I wear. Mostly, I wear the jeans when it is practical to do so. If I'm going to be doing anything where I might get a dirty, maybe taking Sly to the park, I might put on jeans that day. Or say I know I'll be doing a lot of walking, so want to switch out my usual ballet flats for tennis shoes. I will NOT wear tennis shoes with a skirt - it just looks terrible!
Skirts: More Modest?
A lot of women who regularly wear skirts argue that skirts are more modest. Now, anything done out of a true spirit of modesty is good, and I'm not going to criticize anyone for seeking out a modest wardrobe. That said, I just feel like this argument doesn't hold much water. I think it would be much easier for me to find examples of immodest skirts than immodest pants. To be fair, though, the factor that makes a skirt immodest is often relating to its length. To keep all things equal, then, we'd have to consider short-shorts and booty shorts as "pants" too. I don't think anyone can say those things are modest either.
In my opinion, a full-length, not-skin-tight pair of pants is about equal in modesty to a full-length, not-skin-tight skirt. And pants might be interpreted as even more modest than any skirt short enough to reveal even a tiny bit of ankle-skin. The only real difference I see with pants that it makes it clear that (gasp!) women have LEGS. I just don't see pants as inherently immodest.
That said, I DO see pants as inherently unfeminine. And this is what it all comes down to.
Defending Gender Differences
When I was in college, and had begun to get a real taste of what the world was like outside my insular suburban neighborhood, I was incredulous at how often society tried to deny any real differences between the sexes. A lot of this attitude, of course, is a direct result of the feminist movement, which instead of saying, "women are valuable as women," claims that "women are just the same as men." I think this is the sole reason that the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (a little cheesy, but definitely a valuable read for anyone in a relationship) sold as well as it did. Because the idea that men and women are different just blew so many people away, and finally answered so many questions they'd had about their relationships.
Until sometime in the mid 20th century, this idea of gender differences was universally accepted, and it played out not only in the way people dressed, but in the way they talked, they way they thought, and everything else. There was no gender ambiguity. As the theme song of All in the Family reminds us, "girls were girls, and men were men." You knew who was who.
I believe that the way a person dresses both announces and creates one's identity.
The Skirt Experiment
I made a conscious decision that I would start dressing in a clearly feminine way. This would be my testament to the fact that gender differences did and should exist, and that I was a woman - proud to be a woman as such, and not seeking to dress or act like a man.
While I am a nostalgic sort of person, and do love vintage clothing, I'm not saying that society should go back to dressing like people did in the 1940s...or the 1900s...or any other previous period. Despite the widespread trend towards androgyny in clothing, there are still some vestiges of gender-specific items remaining (almost all for women, though, it should be noted), one of the obvious ones being a skirt (/dress). So in my sophomore year of college, I began intentionally adding more skirts to my wardrobe.
And it made a big difference. For one, when I would wear a skirt, it made me more aware of being a woman, something different and set apart from men. This in turn, inspired me to try to grow in some of the virtues which are commonly attributed to women - gentleness instead of brashness, compassion, charity...things that I needed to work on anyways.
At the same time, I noticed the changes in the ways that men responded to me. I'm sure they weren't conscious of it, but something about seeing a woman in a skirt must have brought out their more masculine (i.e. protective) sides. This was most notable with the Catholic men I regularly hung out with, who were already actively working to be respectful and chivalrous towards women. But it was also true of the guys around campus. I had many more men hold doors for me, or let me cross in front of their car on the road when I was in a skirt. I know this sounds silly. I'm trying trying to say I wear skirts because I "get something out of it." I don't think I necessarily look prettier in a skirt either, just more feminine (but perhaps that's the same thing?). And I think something about that speaks to men, and calls them to be more masculine - to respond to women in the way men are meant to - to be courteous and helpful.
The first few months that I started "skirting" regularly, I got a lot of questions from my relatives and my high school friends. Mostly, "why are you so dressed up?" For a while, I tried to fight this attitude. I was determined to make wearing skirts "normal again." I would say, "fifty years ago, women wore skirts everyday, and no one asked why they were dressed up!". But after a while, I just had to accept that in this modern culture, women wearing skirts (I'm not talking about skirts of the super-short and obviously immodest variety) is considered dressing up. And I decided to embrace that. I mean, if I can look like I made an extra effort in my clothing choice without actually having to put in any extra work...well, that sounds good to me!
Skirts Promote Respectful Formality
At the risk of this post getting way off topic, I'll mention here that the apparent "dressiness" of my everyday skirt-wearing serves as a testament to something else that I dislike about our modern age: the complete lack of formality.
This is most obvious in clothing. Many companies which required employees to wear a full suit to the office twenty years ago, are now fine with khakis and a polo shirt. It used to be that everyone - men and women - would wear a full suit, hat, dress shoes, etc. when they were going anywhere. Now, jeans and t-shirts are the norm (jeans were designed to be worn by coal miners! T-shirts were designed as underwear!). Or even worse - those girls who walk around college campuses in baggy men's sweatpants and sweatshirts, and just a ponytail....but look like they spent an hour on their makeup (what's UP with that?!). Nice restaurants used to send people away if they weren't dressed up. Now it's acceptable to wear shorts an flip-flops. It seems like the only people who wear suits anymore are lawyers and funeral directors. I guess their careers depend on them giving off an aura of respectability. And few professions these days are denoted by a special uniform anymore. As I said earlier, I think the way you dress not only says something about your identity, but it helps to create it. I think it's important to encourage this in society - for each person to have and understand his role, his job, his purpose.
This total descent into casualness in America doesn't stop at just the clothing people wear. It's also in the way people interact. When I am introduced to people's children, very rarely do the parents call me Mrs. _______. It's often "say hello to Christine." Everyone is on a first-name basis. I'm not saying this is a terrible thing. But I am saying that it denotes a loss of respect.
I know of stay-at-home moms who spend the day in pajamas or sweatpants, as long as they aren't leaving the house. I'm not judging people who do that - I know things are busy, and it's nice to be comfy. But for me personally, it's important that I don't let myself do that. I think there's some value in getting into real clothes in the morning, making my hair look presentable, and putting on a little bit of makeup (just concealer and lipstick) - even if the only person I'll be seeing all day is my husband, many hours later. If I was dressed in clothing that suggested "relaxation" and "comfort", then all I'd want to do all day is lie around being relaxed and comfortable. If I put in a little effort on my appearance, then it makes me want to put in some effort in my chores as well. The same principle applies elsewhere. If you go to the office dressed like a million bucks, you feel like a million bucks, and it changes the way you behave as well as the way other people perceive of you. When a police officer is in uniform, he is a police officer. When he's out of uniform...maybe just a "guy".
So I wear skirts because they make me a better woman. I wear skirts because I want to make a statement - one most people will only pick up on unconsciously - about how I believe society should be.