by Regina Doman
used with permission
Most of us are familiar with the common North American phenomenon of Clutter. I would guess that many of us have homes afflicted with this malady in various forms, including Toy Clutter, Photograph Album Clutter, Sewing Clutter, and even Book Clutter. Another type is Clothing Clutter.
Clothing Clutter has troubled me for a long time. Like most young women in our culture, starting in my teenage years, I acquired Clothing at a simply enormous rate. The fashion industry seems to envisage women as a Constant Wardrobe Expansion market. I soon realized I was caught in a cycle of buying seasonal clothing and storing other clothing that I wasn't using. It was very frustrating.
So, while I was still single I experimented with ways for the laity to do away with Constant Wardrobe Expansion, yet wouldn't make us look like quasi-religious. I'd thought of trying to limit my wardrobe to just two dresses as some friends did, but that seemed almost too nun-like for my lifestyle. After all, I knew I was going to get married, so dressing like a nun seemed disrespectful.
It was while on pilgrimage to Rome that I had the idea. One sunny Italian afternoon while meditating in the Eucharistic Chapel of Saint Peter's Basilica, I began to reflect on the liturgical colors that the Church uses in her rituals. Green, purple, white, red, and blue each have such deep significance for our faith, aside from being lovely colors as well.
Green for ordinary time - for renewal, for eternity.
Solemn but royal Purple for Advent and Lent, since we are children of the King even while we do penance.
White for Easter and Christmas, pure and glorious light.
Red for the flames of Pentecost and the blood of martyrs.
And Blue for our Lady, simple but noble.
I was inspired by this idea. I could make (or acquire somehow) five dresses one of each of the seven major liturgical colours! This would limit my wardrobe to a reasonable size, yet with enough variety to keep me from looking like an imitation nun. I choose dresses originally rather that skirts because skirts still leave open the possibility of rampant blouse buying. I altered the "strict" timetable of colors to the following pattern and cut down my wardrobe to these basics, which I wore religiously (no pun intended) for the next two years during my courtship, early marriage, and birth of our first child:
Ordinary time -- a practical green dress
Martyr's days -- a practical red dress
Eastertide and minor feasts -- a practical pink dress
Lent and Advent -- a practical purple dress
Mary's feast days -- a more-dressy blue dress
Easter and Christmas -- a very formal white dress
Sundays -- a more formal dress in my favorite color
Now, while this wardrobe DID help me to curtail Infinite Wardrobe Expansion, it was lacking in several areas. For one thing, the dresses I made out of rayon material were expensive and difficult to keep clean. The fabric really wasn't very durable, and after a while, I began to feel that I looked sloppy. I also felt frustrated that I didn't have as much variety as I apparently needed to be a wife and mother (when I was single and engrossed in my career and ministry, I really didn't think about clothes so much).
Once married, I felt an impulse to always look attractive that had little to do with vanity: after all, my appearance meant a lot to my husband. And, as wise women have pointed out to me, a woman is a reflection of her husband, particularly when they are out in public together. I decided that I had to start presenting a better witness to my vocation through my appearance, and concluded that I might have to drop the seven-dress idea if it no longer helped me in my vocation.
I will mention here that a lesson I began to learn as a young wife and mother was the importance of the apostolate of beauty. This idea, well articulated by Cricket Hayden, is the special vocation of women in today's world, their special charge in building up the culture of life. Women are the creators of culture, culture which begins in their families and in their home life. If we are seeking to rebuild Catholic culture, it begins in the small, "hidden" tasks of the home. Cricket encouraged me and other young women in this apostolate. Catholic men seem to either have no time, or are naturally indifferent to this concept. So I concluded that dressing and 'what to wear' is important, and continued to try to work out the problem.
The initial answer to my problem came to me through two God-given routes: my husband and the Blessed Mother. Early on in our marriage, I was trying to make myself a new Sunday dress. I asked my husband what kind of dress he wanted me to make (having found out the hard way that he didn't like the "Little House on the Prairie" calico-look of my single days). He said, "Make a dress that looks like the Blessed Mother's. She's the most beautiful woman in the world." I, experienced seamstress of five years, said, "I don't know how to make that kind of dress."
He said, "Well, you can figure it out."
So we did, that Sunday afternoon. I laid out my material on the living room floor. After some deliberation, we decided to cut a hole in the center of it, like a poncho. Then, I sewed two seams up the sides, to make a sort of "A." I was going to cut off the extra material, but my husband said, "Hey, that looks neat. I've never seen a dress like that. Leave it on." So was created the Mary dress. With a sash, it looks like the sort of dress that the Blessed Mother typically wears in most statues.
An answer to a related problem came a result of a party. Some friends of mine at the Catholic college we were attending decided to have a Medieval Banquet for their graduation party. As a seamstress, my talents were engaged, and my friends and I spent a delightful series of afternoons sewing ourselves medieval robes to wear. Now, most of my friends had long, flowing locks more appropriate to medieval maidens than my chin-length tresses. I decided that I would have to hide my short hair in a hair net.
I hadn't shown my husband my costume until the day of the party. When I came out of the bedroom in my long blue-and-purple robes with my hair in a blue hairnet, complete with costume jewelry and a sparkling sash, he was greatly pleased. Later he told me, "You look better now than I've ever seen you look in our marriage."
Wives can't resist compliments like that. That day, I decided, by golly, I was going to make my wardrobe look like my party costume, no matter how silly other people might think I looked. (I should mention here that I spent most of my high school days wearing outfits that no sensible person would dream of wearing, so my inhibitions about dressing oddly are almost nil.) Fired up by the call of my vocation, I decided I'd wear medieval robes every day if it would make my husband happy.
The key was the alteration of the "Mary Dress" into the "Mary jumper" by cutting off the sleeves. I bought several yards of green, red, blue, pink, and purple material in 100% cotton knit (for its durability, washability, and drapable qualities) and made a series of Mary jumpers with wide armholes, ankle-length skirts, and matching sashes, along with matching nursing tops. I also bought cotton mesh net material in blue, green, and white to make hair nets with. The Mary jumpers do look "medieval," especially when I wear them with the hairnets.
So now, my wardrobe consists of six jumpers and one (white) dress, as opposed to seven dresses. I also own about thirty-five tops, ranging from winter turtlenecks to summer T-shirts, from flannel work shirts to silk dress shirts. That's all I have for all the seasons -- plus petticoats and aprons, and a nursing swimsuit and cover-up. I could probably do with less, but I know beyond a doubt that I don't need any more, which is the great relief of liturgical dressing: you have your set limits, and have a wonderfully dependable standard for figuring out what you do or don't need. At this point, I know I don't have to do any more clothes shopping -- until one of my jumpers wears out. Occasionally I still feel the itching craving to have "something new" -- but generally purchasing a new belt from the thrift store or a new piece of silk to make a sash satisfies that craving. The limits of the wardrobe are worth that peace of mind.
I must remark on the remarkable versatility of these jumpers. I've literally worn the same jumper both for weddings and yard work (I'll mention here that we are at present suburbanites, not farmers -- I don't think I could slop pigs in my jumpers and still keep them in good shape). The jumpers are great for nursing, wear well in winter when layered with knit petticoats and turtlenecks, and are good for all but the very hottest dog days of summer. And, I can now say with satisfaction, they can be worn even in the ninth month of pregnancy by changing how you wear the sash (another ingenious invention of my husband). Normally, the jumper is sashed (tightly or loosely) about the waist with a belt or sash running through belt loops. But when your maternal tummy begins to get larger, you switch to cinching the sash only around the back panel of the jumper -- so the jumper is gathered in the back but lies smooth over your tummy, which (for me, a normal size 8-10) has a slimming effect.
Also, as far as attractiveness goes, I always seem to get compliments on the jumpers. This might be because (I've noticed as a person who has dressed outrageously) some people will compliment you on anything that looks unusual (whether or not they actually think it looks nice). But I've noticed that most genuine compliments come from men, proving that modest dressing can be flattering. The most enthusiasm has been shown by teenage homeschooled girls, who invariably ask me how they can make a Mary jumper (mothers struggling to teach modesty, take note!).
Another big asset I've discovered in this "medieval liturgical dressing" is the hairnet. I started wearing the hair net (made out of a circle of cotton knit mesh and a piece of elastic) outside medieval parties because I wanted to wear a head covering to Mass. I'd been trying to do that since before my marriage out of an impulse of reverence for the Eucharist. My husband doesn't like how mantillas or hats look on me. But since he really liked the hair net, I started wearing it to Mass. It does the job well. Anchored by two large bobby pins on the sides, it is difficult for an agitated toddler to pull off accidentally (mantillas and climbing babies in church don't mix well, I've found). Even for someone with slippery hair like mine, it stays in place better than a kerchief and, what's more, doesn't give me a headache. Since we go to daily Mass, I started putting it on in the morning and keeping it on all day.
(For a short article detailing hairnets, click here.)
For me, it solved the Great Hair Problem which has tormented me since I married. How can you be a busy mother of young children and still have Neat Hair? Some women are able to grow their hair long and pull it back. I get headaches when I wear my hair up all day, and for some reason, it always tends to look messy after a while (without much hairspray and extra bobby pins). So I woefully cut my hair short, which looks neater, but is awfully boring, particularly when you want to dress up, and still gets messy and flat from time to time, requiring mousse and a curling iron to look nice.
The Hair Net, ladies, solved these problems for me. You can put it on over greasy, flat hair that you don't have time to wash, you can cover up wet hair that was just washed right before leaving for Mass, and you'll still look as neat and well-kept as a Mennonite nurse in her spotless white cap. You can dress it up by winding scarves around it or pinning it with decorative pins and artificial flowers. You only need to adjust it once or twice a day to keep it neat. I wear it almost all the time now, because it's just too easy to wear it. Occasionally people in the street ask me if I'm Amish, and I just say, "No, I'm Catholic."
I think that hair nets for little girls would look cute with small bows or flowers sewed on them, and I suspect that perhaps they might solve another perennial Mother problem - the Daughter-Whose-Hair-Always-Looks-Messy-No Matter-How-Many-Times-A-Day-You-Brush-It - I was such a daughter. I will find out when God blesses me with a daughter. The feedback I have gotten from most little girls about hair nets, incidentally, is positive - possibly because hair nets look like something a princess would wear (the same reason I think they like the Mary jumpers).
A question that should be addressed at this point is: how do you keep the dresses clean if you're wearing the same dress every day (which happens during stretches of Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time)? A two-part solution which so far has served me well:
1. While doing housework, I wear a large apron that covers my dress and takes the brunt of the typical spills and abuse of the day. I recommend having two aprons -- one to wear and one to wash, one for everyday and one for company or for perking yourself up on dreary days. I make them either out of denim or out of a cheerful calico print that contains a lot of the liturgical colors. Right now, I am searching for a good apron pattern, since I think that one with wider arm-straps to protect the shoulders of the jumper is needed (especially with regurgitating infants!).
2. Nightly spot-cleaning. At night, I try to make an effort to inspect the jumper I'm going to be wearing tomorrow and clean off any spills, flecks of dried food, child's mucous, pen ink, and such that have accumulated on it. This generally eliminates the need to throw it in the washer every day. Saturdays I usually celebrate as "Mary Days" and either wear pants or my blue jumper, and wash all my other ones.
An other question is 'What about children?" Liturgical Dressing might help mothers organize children's clothing too. I've used this system to effectively limit the children's clothing. I dread drowning in laundry. The liturgical colors give me a quick reference point to use when sorting through bags of hand-me-downs from my relatives and bins of clothing at the thrift store.
For my boy toddler, I have a Sunday outfit, about five green shirts (that is, plain green or green-and-some-other-color plaid or print), five red shirts, five purple shirts, five blue shirts, and as many white, grey, beige, and yellow shirts as I can keep clean. I also have about ten pairs of pants and overalls. I've substituted white/grey/yellow/beige for the Easter and feast day pinks. Right now, the coincidence of the Easter season with springtime mud is causing difficulty, and I'm wondering if I should switch to dark brown or some other more resilient color. I have had difficulty in finding shirts for boys in a masculine purple, so I actually ended up making Caleb most of his Lenten/Advent wear.
And "What about husbands?" since as I said, they're usually not interested in dress as a means of evangalising. As far as my husband's wardrobe goes, aside from occasionally wearing ties or turtlenecks that match my jumpers, he isn't as keen on liturgical dressing as I am. But since he has complained about looking so modern beside his medieval wife, I made him a vest with several sober liturgical hues in it, which he wears on Sundays and feast days.
So that is my report on the Field Experiment in Simple Dressing for Laywomen. So far it has been a wonderful success in terms of practicality and a lot of fun, too. I do have directions on how to make both Mary jumpers and dresses, and hair nets, in case anyone is interested. And as the experiment continues day-to-day as our family grows, I'm always happy to hear feedback and suggestions from other women. Just email to Domestic-Church.Com, and I'd be happy to answer.