Christianity Church of England & Ministry Curate's Life

Dog Collar Dilemma Part 2: Uniform vs Individual Style

So continuing in looking at the dilemma of how to wear your dog collar, as a woman, this post is going to look at being you. And I guess the first thing to say is that (as was pointed out to me on Twitter) it isn’t a dilemma for everyone, some people just fall naturally into wearing it and find their own style straight away – which is great, I am so happy for you! But I know lots don’t, hence the posts…

One of the biggest challenges when first putting on a collar, is how to be you whilst still inhabiting and embracing the role. Or as Ally put it: “Balance of individuality and ‘house style’ – how much can our clothing express who we feel we really are?”

Such a good question, and as noted in the previous post, when my first delivery of clerical wear arrived in the post, I put it on and immediately felt sick. I think there is something about the expectation, having prepared through any selection you have been through and then training, usually for years, to the realisation you are at the finishing post and it’s all suddenly rather real. But then there is also the weight of responsibility that the office carries, which is, let’s face it, symbolised in that little piece of white at your neck.

So with all that whirring in your mind you also need to work on what on earth to wear. And I think there is something in that, that we shouldn’t ignore or gloss over. I had said I was just going to wear ‘normal’ clothes with the collar, and largely I do, but I have still wrestled with the balance between what the collar represents and ‘being me’. After all we are representing God and the church in our communities, whether we agree with that theologically or not, that is what people see when we are wearing it.

Of course there is one view that wearing the collar is like a uniform that we should disappear behind, which is much easier when wearing vestments of course, but day to day harder to achieve. You could simply go for wearing black – maybe trousers and shirts as many male clerics do too, or tailored black dresses. I imagine this makes life a lot more simple, and perhaps marks out the ‘uniform’ element in a more obvious way. And anyway black is suppose to be more flattering 😉

But then does choosing a uniform style take away from our own personaity? Some people would feel very restrained by that, hence the wrestle with what to wear. As wendy notes:

It’s been and continues to be a debate within myself as to how I should dress, and I do respect those who feel we should disappear behind the ‘uniform’, but it doesn’t work for me and I keep coming back (through prayer and thought and the opinion of others) to the fact that I was called by God to be the unique person God made me, not to conform to what I think others require of me, or to be like anyone else – God called me to be a non-conformist (Methodist) after all!

I personally don’t wear my collar every day and having always been interested in clothes and what I wear, I wasn’t going to go down the route of clerical shirts. I wanted to still be me, whilst inhabiting the role. And I, just 4 months in, am still experimenting with it all, as I know many others are too. Several people have mentioned it took them a year, if not years, to work out what their ‘Vicar style’ was. Sandra Sykes from ‘Collared’ notes:

I’d say from my experience what clergy want differs and is individual. You have to find what works for you. Be brave and experiment – but look for what you will feel comfortable wearing and which is still YOU while recognisable as clergy…

Depending on where and when you wear your collar, it’s worth thinking about what you team it with. For example I try not to wear jeans when in collar at church – we are a pretty informal setting but for me it seems one step too far. Equally, is your church the kind of place that expects a male leader to be in a suit – if so, what does this mean for you? It’s worth looking into this before you start Curacy or at a new church to save spending money on things you won’t need.

Susie also makes a very good point:

There came a point when I became even more aware of the need to look ‘professional’. As a naturally casual dresser (jeans and… um, jeans, mostly) if you go with what’s ‘you’ and what you feel comfortable in, you can end up giving off the message that you’re not very competent/serious/worthy of respect/authority… all of which may be true…! In a more senior incumbency with high achieving professionals it was more important to dress to the role in order to be taken seriously in the role.

This is a really good point (she types, having just been out in a rather short cut off denim skirt with the collar..) people often say to me ‘you are rocking that collar’ or ‘aren’t you a trendy vicar’ which is nice (if not slightly condescending perhaps) but then as Susie notes, am I doing myself a disservice? The jury is out on that one, but I leave it for you to ponder for yourself. However
 I did once hear of a Vicar turning up to do a funeral on his Harley wearing incredibly short denim cut offs. That is of course the beauty of a cassock, no one knows what’s under it and there are many clergy who have been known to do the 8am in PJs, and I know half the chaps at our ordinations were wearing shorts as it was so hot. Which is fine if you are robing, but just bear in mind though whether you might be seen in advance as this Biker was – by the family of the deceased…

One thing I would note is that I think female clergy are still a bit of a novelty in many places, there is still more pressure put on us that male counterparts, and in some cases more is expected of us. Not everywhere, but in some places, and certainly from some members of the public. Rev Kate Bottley posted on Facebook last week she had received a ‘gem of a letter’ noting:

You aware that the dog collar is an item Anglican clergy never have to wear?…’Why not opt for something soft and feminine?… Why not stop telling women what they should wear? And quoting this bible passage: ‘I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

There will always be people like that, everyone has an opinion, perhaps more so when you are in a visible role like clergy and to some extent we just have to ignore that and find what is right for us. People’s comments are not always derogatory or rude like this one, or even ignorant but often more about lack of experience. All of which does not help if you are trying to work out your own new style in a very visible way. I think the more you can experiment by yourself, or behind closed doors so you know what you feel confident in, will really help. If we go out feeling confident in what we are wearing, we will be more confident in our actions, whether that’s in jeans or a suit, we all differ.

Hoping this is useful for some people and the next post will look at suppliers, so if you’ve got one you want to recommend let me know!

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  • Reply
    October 5, 2016 at 10:51 am

    Just a quick thought on formality from a man!
    I almost always wear a denim jacket, and not just because I can!
    Depending on the kind of parish that you are serving in, dressing too formally can build a divide between you and the people of the parish.
    Being male middle aged and middle class I have been very aware of the power dynamic, and if I dressed in a suit too in my context it would just add one more item to the power advantage that I could be perceived to have.

    • Reply
      October 5, 2016 at 9:04 pm

      Thanks Alan, yes context is key I am sure and working out where and what the barriers are.

  • Reply
    October 5, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    I think that it’s all about context. i.e, where you are, who you are with and whether it’s role related or not. (I appreciate that the indelible mark of Ordination means that you are always (a little bit in role) but there are times when it’s appropriate to wear a collar and perhaps sensible clothes, and times when informal is appropriate (particularly when you are off duty, or not expecting to be on duty) and in your own home, with friends and family.

    And being identified as a Cleric isn’t the worst thing that can happen, but your are uniquely ‘you’ and in a relationship with God (as your employer in some way) which demands perhaps a little more of you, because you’ve been selected from among the faithful to be a leader, teacher and pastoral carer of his flock. We can talk about the Priesthood of all believers, but when the chips are down, we want or expect to talk with a Priest (other Clergy people are available) in serious situations, when we’re in trouble, struggling or feeling that the world around us is going to implode. So, the experience of Clergy in Uniform of those opportunities when people stop and speak to them, perhaps innocuously but, with a more serious and pressing need for spiritual sustenance, reassurance or just plain ‘HELP’.

    You don’t have to wear a Collar to be a Priest, but you need some way of the random character needing a helping hand, to recognise that you might just be their port in their storm.

    In the Army for 43 years, I wore uniform every working day, and couldn’t wait to get it off – but during the terrorist troubles in the seventies, eighties and nineties, we were forbidden to wear uniform out of barracks, or travelling to and from duty. It felt wrong, and restrictive. We were not ashamed of who and what we were, and perhaps the uniform placed us all on a level playing field, where the badges of rank told you what position, low or high, you occupied. Also wearing uniform was a useful recruiting tool and like the Priest, often provoked conversations with the curious who wanted to know what life was like in the Army (or one memorable question “How many people have you killed”?). But our identity was bound up in who we were as part of a team, uniform was part of that and wearing it with pride and well, aided discipline and team cohesion. Could the same argument go for a Clergy team?

    But knowing who you are, doesn’t help those to whom you are a complete stranger in the street? So, wearing a collar on occasions in public, provides the identity = Clergy and someone that we can go to for help – The Good Shepherd perhaps.
    I suspect that for a man it’s easier, for a Women who always seems to have to justify who they are, what they are doing and doing it that little bit better – it must be a real dilemma. I can only say that I think that you need to stand by your principles, and just have regard to the context – and wear exactly what you want.

    • Reply
      October 6, 2016 at 10:06 am

      Thanks Ernie, some wise words there! and I think you hit the nail on the head, the reason I wear mine more than I thought I would is because of that visibility and you just never know who might need someone to talk to. Love the ADDO story too!
      Jules x

  • Reply
    October 5, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    I meant to add, the time I went to see an ADDO at his vicarage. There was no answer to the door, when a biker turned up in leathers and full kit. He got off the bike, and took off his helmet – I could see that he was human. Only when he unzipped his jacket, did I see a dog collar. He managed to combine being a serious biker with being a Priest and it obviously worked for him. Leathers must be hot though, day in, day out 🙂

  • Reply
    Pam Smith
    October 5, 2016 at 11:22 pm

    I can identify with the identity crisis of suddenly trying to work out where clerical collars fit into your life. I ordered my shirts in February and didn’t think about them at all until the ordination retreat, when I discovered that they didn’t fit properly. And clergy shirts in general don’t fit me properly! I avoid high necklines like the plague out of choice, because they don’t suit me and they feel constricting. So I have had a struggle with collars from day 1, and am still struggling. A lot of this is exacerbate by the fact that I’m unfashionably large. So I have had to resign myself to looking like a badly-wrapped parcel if I’m in clerical dress. I see it as a uniform rather than an expression of my personality.

    Now that I work mainly online, I’m free to wear what is comfortable a lot of the time, but I still need to wear clerical dress when covering services, going to meetings, etc. A female clergy friend and I hs=ave found that there’s a ecclesiastical Sod’s Law in operation when trying to determine if a collar isrequired before a meeting – if we decide to collar up, we arrive to find ourselvres the only ones formally attired, and if we go casual, everyone else is collared. I’ve stopped bothering as much about it nowadays. Online, the use of ‘rev’ in my various handles serves as an indciator in the same way as a collar does. This wasn’t thought through, I just don’t like being ‘PamSmith2080’ so used ‘rev’ as a way of distinguishing myself from all the other Pam Smiths out there!

    • Reply
      October 6, 2016 at 10:12 am

      haha! this made me laugh Pam, especially the ‘Ecclesiastical Sod’s Law’ – you are so right there. And an important point about using Rev too – so many people say to me ‘are you a Vicar then?’ and whilst technically I’m not actually yet (although some would use that term I know) if I start down the track of ‘well I’m a Curate’ or ‘actually I’m a Deacon…’ I know they have no idea what I’m talking about. Rev though is well recognised and a bit more encompassing!

      also, yes bonus is working form hime – am regularly prepping sermons in PJs or even in my bikini in the summer, making the most of the sunshine! – no less an ordained minister even when behind closed doors as you say (though the danger there is that the kids answer the door to someone and let them in when you are least expecting it – which did happen to me once. Now they know better!!)

      • Reply
        Pam Smith
        October 6, 2016 at 11:20 am

        Glad it made you laugh – sorry about the awful typos, perils of late night posting.

        When I was a Reader and employed in a prison as a lay chaplain, I got into the ‘Actually I’m not a vicar …’ conversation so many times until I realised people weren’t interested in the inner workings of the C of E. And maybe there is a bit of wisdom in the ‘folk theology’ of calling anyone who is in front of you, representing the wider church, a ‘vicar’!

        • Reply
          October 8, 2016 at 3:26 pm

          indeed, perhaps I should just embrace it!

  • Reply
    Janet Fife
    October 9, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    As an old stager (deaconed 1989) I’m interested in your experience of being newly ordained today. In 1989 very few people had ever seen a woman in a dog collar at all, and clerical shirts actually designed for women were very hard to come by. (J&M Sewing in Newcastle led the way, and are still very good).

    After a lot of trial and error I found that black or navy shirts were most flexible, you can wear them with so many different colours. I agree that the context is most important – as a uni chaplain trendy clothes and jewellery went down well. Hospice patients usually want someone who looks bright and cheerful. For formal occasions and funeral visits I try to look competent & professional. Sometimes power dressing is appropriate for chairing PCCs! And congregations/parishes differ widely as to what they’ll accept.

    A couple of hints – if you’re wearing a long, full skirt, don’t step into a cassock, pull it over your head and tidy your hair up afterwards! And don’t wear long earrings when baptising babies…

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