Saturday, July 15, 2006

Apologia pro Pants

Over the course of my many years, I have seen people put forth reasons why women should always wear skirts. However, I have never seen one that explains why pants are not the devil's dress, but are a good thing. First though, I must state emphatically that this post is NOT aimed at the position that skirts are a good thing to wear most of the time. I think that position makes a lot of sense; the idea of womanhood has been lost and to wear skirts on a regular basis in order to remind society of the dignity of women is a commendable act. What I am objecting to is the opinion that women should wear skirts all the time, and that activities that cannot be done in skirts are unfeminine and should not be done for that reason alone, and that pants are by nature "unwomaning;" in other words, a sort of trouser-phobia held to usually by some Catholics. (For an example of this, read: http://www.sspx.ca/Documents/Bishop-Williamson/September1-1991.htm, which "proves" that when a woman puts on anything with divided legs, she is making herself a man.) After demonstrating the chasm-like gaps of logic in this position, I will offer some thoughts on its underlying mentality.

Are pants modest? Some are not. This is hardly reason not to wear them, since many shirts are not modest. Yet, I am sure that few girls would stop wearing and condemn shirts, qua shirts. Modest pants do exist; obviously when condoning pants, it is the modest ones I speak of.Thus, we can leave modesty behind and enter the realms of femininity.

Are pants feminine? What is "feminine" anyways, especially when applied to clothing? I think that the idea that pants are intrinsically masculine (an idea either explicit or implicit in the arguments of many skirt-only supporters) is ridiculous. "But men have always worn pants, and women never did!" is the common objection. Not true--throughout history, men have always worn skirts. Well, at least until the middle ages, and even then it wasn't universal, and pants were usually worn under a tunic of some kind. I looked up the developement of fashion in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which explored the formal apparel of men and women during the Medieval period, and the two were remarkably similar. Also according to this reference, one of the first places we have a record of a skirt being worn is ancient Egypt, but it was on males. At this time women didn't usually wear skirts, or anything else. So much for that historical argument.

"Women always wore skirts until the feminist movement. The feminists wore pants to show their equality with men." Well, this is partially true, but since many non-feminist women also wore divided skirts, bloomers, or other early forms of trousers, while not all feminists did, it seems that the two trends do not have a cause-and-effect relationship, only a contemporary relationship. Furthermore, the Suffragette movement was not entirely a bad thing. Early feminists were pro-life and rebelled against legal inequalities, such as women being unable to vote or inherit. True, they also tried to bring women into the world of careers, which has had ill effects in our society. But, you must recall that many mothers at that time didn't take care of their children anyways. The good of running a home in order to rear children had already been lost (by skirt-wearing women, to boot) and farmed out to governesses, nurses, and boarding schools. Bringing women out of the home to work wasn't the travesty we imagine it to be, for a good portion of the breakdown of the family had already occurred. But, suppose for the sake of argument that the trend of pants on women was a direct effect of the suffragette/feminist movement. I don't think we should reject it even because of that. Votes for women was most definitely a direct result of the feminist movement, yet even skirt-only women vote. If pants are pitched for that reason, none of these women should be seen at the ballot box, unless they admit that some goods were made available by the early feminists.

Historical questions aside, we must ask if there is something about skirts that is intrinsically feminine? I hope not, since I'm a huge fan of cassocks (on priests of course, not mothers in the home) and kilts. If there is nothing intrinsically feminine in skirts, it makes sense that there is nothing intrinsically masculine in pants. Men wear skirts, according to Chesterton, when they possess a special dignity. Skirts on women also accentuate a certain dignity. But, girls are also human beings who need relaxation, activity, and recreation, and to put on a pair of pants to play soccer or something is not compromising one's womanly dignity. Virtue virtue is best cultivated in an ordered lifestyle balanced between prayer, leisure, work, and recreation. In response to this girls will respond, "You can do almost anything in a skirt--I do *insert activity* in skirts." No doubt. But many things cannot be done modestly in a skirt, whereas if these activities are done in pants modesty is assured.

I have never understood this next argument myself, but I have heard it so often I will examine it. To quote the Castle of the Immaculate blog, which was linked to Ida's Destination Order last month, "I can’t seem to get around the fact that Our Lady never appeared in slacks. She is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, the one through whom God has chosen to distribute His graces to the world, and She never once wore slacks. Our Lady is the paradigm of Catholic femininity and Christian perfection. I imitate Our Lady by wearing skirts/dresses." It is definitely true that Mary has never appeared in a pair of pants. Our Most Blessed Lord never has either. (All jesting aside--for Our Lord and the Blessed Mother are not to be mocked--I find it harder to imagine Christ in pants than Mary.) There are cultural reasons for this phenomena, such as that pants did not exist in Israel in the year 14 B.C. and onwards, as well as a religious reason. The Blessed Virgin has always appeared with her head covered, for the same reason she always appears in a dress. She is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and is thus subject to standards of modesty, purity, and regalness that average women are not. Nuns, sisters, and consecrated women are subject to these standards too, due to their holiness. I think the difference of rank and duties of a normal girl compared with our Blessed Mother is self-evident to any Catholic.

Another popular argument against pants is that Our Lady of Fatima warned us that there would be many fashions that would offend our Lord. Due to the plethora of absolutely disgusting, demeaning, yet accepted fashions that have appeared in this century, attributing this statement to pants is a bit of a stretch.

It has also been posited that skirts make women act more feminine. This could be true, and could be an argument in favor of making skirts the norm in one's wardrobe, but it does not mean pants are a sin. At the end of the day, ladylike deportment is the result of habit and not dress, and putting on pants for work or recreation isn't going to suddenly turn a lady into a slouching, stomping, spitting, masculine he-she.

Last, there is a most basic argument that girls should wear skirts because pants are men's clothes, and cross-dressing is condemned in the Scriptures. I am not defending cross-dressing by any means. Male and female attire is almost entirely defined by culture. No self-respecting transvestite (if there is such a thing) is going to dress like a woman by covering his head, because that head covering which was formerly an essential element in any woman's wardrobe is no longer recognized by society as being such. (It's not the best example, but please look at the point.) Cross dressing has two elements--personal intention and social recognition. When a normal girl puts on pants, neither element is present, so it is not cross-dressing.

I think that has gone through the most common objections to pants. Now, a little time should be spent investigating the mentality that often goes with perpetual skirt-wearing. In my experience, those who support it yearn to go back to the era of Jane Austen, when girls learned languages and literature and not much else, and where the extent of their activities was tightening a corset and taking turns about the room. Every girl from the age of 3 should spend hours a day dreaming about her wedding and expanding her ability to faint or swoon in any situation that might arise. All she does is calculated to attract men. This is their ideal of femininity. But is it the Catholic view? No. It's a novelty that developed in Protestant countries. In medieval Christendom women were queens of the manor, who oversaw the running of the house, carried its keyes on their belt, knew many useful skills, and were sometimes educated. So why are Catholics attempting to imitate Protestant culture and Protestant social norms?

Yes, women are more emotional by nature. However, women are also rational animals, and rationality and self-control should be fostered in girls, perhaps moreso in some areas than in boys in order to balance out the passions. Individuals who uphold the ideals mentioned in the paragraph above mistake conditioned deficiences for natural ones, for they are told from the time they are little that women are, by nature, weaker than men in every way, and should not attempt self-improvement. I disagree wholeheartedly with this mentality, and have known enough wonderful, virtuous women to know that these traits are not principles of true womanhood. If a woman developes her abilities and talents with prudence and for the glory of God, they will be womanly gifts and talents. It seems some ultra-traditionalists think that God bestows masculine gifts on women as qualities they must squash to prove how feminine they are. To them femininity is such an elusive thing that a woman can easily lose by doing anything men do, like studying more than is absolutely necessary or acting self-controlled.

Pants are not a woman's worst enemy, but a neutral article of clothing that can be used to develop virtues proper to the feminine nature. There is no logical reasoning behind the assertion that pants are sinful and make women masculine. A woman is meant to be a support and helpmate to a man or a vessel consecrated to God, and neither of those is a job for the weak. The Church presents to us models of feminine virtue such as the Blessed Virgin, St. Katherine of Alexandria, St. Joan of Arc, St. Theresa of Avila, and St. Gianna Molla. We should strive to follow their examples of womanhood, and not the brittle, narrow ideals of Protestant culture.

12 comments:

Geoff said...

I don't know about skirts, per se, but I did a little research, and it seems the first evidence of women wearing frumpy shapeless jumpers is found in cave paintings near Romaigne, France, dated circa 8,000 B.C.

bakerstreetrider said...

Perhaps they were the first homeschoolers.

Geoff said...

Aye, and if they were painting on the walls, probably Montessori homeschoolers.

Suzy said...

hey Emily, EXCELLENT article. you said exactly what I've been trying to say for years but just couldn't quite formulate. Thank you especially for dealing with the "MAry never wore pants" dart that everyone throws. Very good article. Hope to hear more :-) Sarah Schiller

Fezzick said...

Good stuff! I wholeheartedly agree. (surprise, surprise.)

Fr. Fromageot said...

An interesting apologia,Emily! You definitely have a point. There are other objection, however, which you failed to address. . .

Maex said...

Bravo!

yankee angel said...

Great article! Maybe Mr. Curley could publish it. Do you suppose the SSPX would rave over it too?

bakerstreetrider said...

For some reason I doubt it would have much of a market with Angelus press, unless it was for public burning sessions.

Elizabeth said...

Speaking of nuns in skirts, the longer the 'skirt' the better.. Nun knees are for the kneeler, not the viewing of the general public..

healthily sanguine said...

It's often said that most things are good in moderation. However, some things should be more moderate than others (i.e. cigarettes, ice cream, pork drippings, marijuana, movie watching); moderating to the point of quitting cold turkey is sometimes necessary. Then, perhaps if the harm of the thing can be minimized, it can be reintroduced into a healthy lifestyle and habit. What is my point here? Perhaps (just perhaps) pants on women fall into the category of something that should be strictly limited or moderated to the point where only in select cases when it is prudent does a woman wear pants. For instance, one could decide only to watch movies in a group setting for a community activity, and in the same way only to wear pants to exercise or do some activity that seems to warrant them lest scandal be caused at the inefficiency of chosen attire. In other words, as you stated, women should wear skirts most of the time. I kind of think that femininity is an elusive thing in our day and age, and sometimes extreme measures need to be taken to preserve it. However, as you point out, it's mostly ultra-traditional girls who are not really in danger of being "unfeminine" who choose to eliminate pants completely from their wardrobe. Well, in the world and not of it, eh? :) Good post, Emily...

Nicole said...

Amen, Sylvia! Some folks, including myself, sometimes forget that clothing should be in the service of virtue, not strictly identified with it. An excellent post, Emily, although we can bicker and dicker about the historical angle later!Thanks so much.