How to Get Dressed

For the ladies

This article is a letter to my self of 25 years ago, with the hope that it might also prove helpful to my little sisters in Christ who might be struggling with some of the same issues that I was then. It’s for young Christian women who want to dress modestly, but know that being told “dress modestly” gives you close to zero guidance as to how to proceed. It builds on this article by venerable pastor and father Douglas Wilson, which gives a man’s perspective. His article lays out some excellent general principles, but I felt there was quite a bit more to be said.

So, guys, you can probably stop reading now. Read on if you wish to find out all the sartorial complexity that women have to deal with. But be warned: the passage below contains the word “bra.”

I will now address my fellow ladies directly.

Ahem

Surprise! You’re a woman. You have a brand-new, woman’s body. If you are in your late teens or early twenties, the body you have now is not the same as the one you had just a few years ago. It comes with new aches and pains. It moves differently. It attracts more attention. It’s harder to dress.

Unfortunately, there is no Standard Modest Outfit out there that all women can just pluck off the rack and don. Some societies in the past have had “traditional garb” or even actual laws about what people of different social classes could wear. Modern America is the opposite. Clothing, especially for women, is viewed as a matter of personal expression. On the plus side, this means we have almost infinite choices. On the down side, this means we have almost infinite choices. So, like it or not, if we want to wear anything at all, we have just been thrown into the wild and crazy world of women’s fashion.

But first, mindset.

You Are Probably Beautiful

You may feel unattractive in your new body. You may even feel grotesque. You may, then, be tempted to reason that it doesn’t matter whether you dress modestly or put any thought into your ensemble. No one is looking; or you can’t “get away with” a classy look; or no matter what you wear, the effect will still be one of the orcs from Lord of the Rings, but with lipstick.

This is probably not true.

The odds are overwhelming, if you are a young woman, that men find you attractive. Even if not every man does, there are probably many, many out there who do, on a daily basis.

It’s not good to motivate yourself to modesty with shame over some aspect (or all aspects) of your appearance. This can backfire in so many ways. So, regardless of how you may feel about yourself, for the purposes of getting dressed, think of yourself as a beautiful woman who wants to be modest and dignified and classy, and who can get away with any look she desires to attempt, no matter how formal, rather than as an ugly woman who has to use her clothing to either conceal or compensate for her ugliness.

You Are Going to Have to Spend Some Money

You may also be hampered in your quest to dress classy by a reluctance to spend more than $20 on any one item at any one time.

The eleventh commandment in some Christian families is, “Thou shalt be frugal.” Perhaps you were raised wearing hand-me-downs, and that worked fine when you were a kid, but now you have this new body that you have to clothe.

You may also have received the impression that spending – not just money, but time, effort, and worry – on your appearance is vain and shallow. You don’t want to be a Barbie doll. You don’t want to be “high maintenance.”

Let me tell you, putting together a modest, classy wardrobe is worth the effort. I’m not saying you have to be dressed like an executive every day and apply makeup with a trowel. Depending upon your current calling in life, your wardrobe might be different. But whatever job or role you are dressing for, you’re allowed to put some thought into it. Lumberjacks are allowed to buy steel-toed boots and suspenders and hard hats or whatever it is that lumberjacks wear, and grown women are allowed to invest in some good bras, slacks, dresses, dress boots. You are going to be donning some kind of clothes every day. They might as well be nice-looking clothes that fit you right now, not stuff left over from your middle school days, or stuff you bought on clearance but it didn’t fit but you continue to wear it because you don’t want to throw it away.

In short, by spending some time, effort, and money on this, you are not being wasteful or shallow or vain. You are being responsible.

Building up a good wardrobe might cost more or less depending upon how difficult it is to shop for your particular build.

Special Problems

If you happen to be very curvy, it’s worth pointing out that this is a special problem. When it comes to getting dressed, being very curvy is a handicap. As you have probably already noticed, most clothes are not designed for you. It’s going to be harder to find clothes that fit, and of those that do fit, clothes that look modest when they go on. You may need to go through a grieving process until you can accept that this is what you look like now, and proceed with the interesting challenge of dressing the body that has been given to you.

Get yourself fitted for a bra. It’s possible that you have been wearing ones that don’t really fit, just because that’s all that was available in stores. Because of your special problem, you are going to have to spend more money and effort than most women, but luckily, there are companies out there that specialize in making bras and clothes for the very curvy woman.

When possible, use dressing rooms. I hate dressing rooms as much as the next gal: they are gross, the lighting is always ugly, and just being in there drains the energy out of you. But it is better to spend a few minutes crying with frustration in the dressing room, than to buy a top that almost fits.

Don’t worry about sizes. Sizes are not consistent from one clothing brand to another. Many many women wear XL or XXL and do not appear fat. Buy whatever fits you.

Ponchos are your friend.

Get Your Colors Done

You could find the perfect garment, one that is modest but attractive, fits you perfectly, etc., and drop a lot of money on it … but if you hate it, you just won’t wear it.

A big part of whether you hate the garment, and whether it actually looks good on you, is color. No matter what your favorite color is, there is probably a version of it that flatters you and a version that doesn’t. Getting your colors done is a cheat code to help you find the shades that will look best on you.

The basic idea behind getting your colors done is that someone helps you determine whether you are a “Spring, Summer, Fall, or Winter” based upon your natural coloring. These aren’t personality types or anything like that … they purely describe different types of skin tone, and to a lesser degree eye and hair color. There are also YouTube videos that can help walk you through this process at home.

On the related issue of figuring out what looks good on you, I recommend finding an older fashion book from the library (not a magazine, which will just try to sell you the latest looks). I stumbled upon one in the local library which had a bunch of ordinary-looking women for models, with pictures, and it was incredibly helpful. It was a revelation, for instance, to discover that if you have a lot of color contrast between your skin and hair, you will look good in patterns with a lot of contrast such as black and white, whereas if you don’t have a lot of contrast, you will look good in softer tones. Seeing this illustrated with a variety of models was invaluable.

Pick A Few Looks You Like

Why “pick a few looks”? Why not just individual pieces? Having a look in mind will help you determine what pieces you need, how they best go together, and which ones you can and can’t combine when you get dressed in the morning. (Also, of course, every look comes with its attendant hairstyles, makeup, and accessories, but that is beyond the scope of this post.)

Why looks “you like”? Do this mean that it is all down to individual taste, and you are a modern liberated woman who can wear whatever you want? No, I am not saying that. Coming from a Christian world view, we know that no one can do whatever they want, with no limits, in any area. You have to consider modesty, being appropriate to the occasion, and what kind of image you are projecting when you go outside.

But this does not mean that individual taste is entirely irrelevant. As discussed, we live in a society where clothing is not prescribed. There are a great variety of ways to get dressed, and the choices among these are thrown back onto the individual. This is especially true for women, for whom in most situations there is no “neutral” outfit. (I owe this point to Deborah Tannen.) In this kind of social environment, you have no choice but to make choices. And that means that one factor you need to consider – you must consider – is your own taste. If you like the look you have put together, you will wear it. If you don’t, you will just keep reaching for the old t-shirt you loved when you were 15.

What look(s) you select will depend upon what region of the country you live in; whether you live urban or rural; and what kinds of social circles you move in. Perhaps you live in a city environment where you have to dress rather formally just to be taken seriously. Perhaps you are in a Christian community where the consensus is that women should always wear skirts and dresses. Perhaps you’re a farm girl who looks perfectly fine in jeans, flannel or fleece tops, work boots, and a baseball cap or maybe even a cowboy hat.

You also have to consider whether your typical day involves frequently climbing in and out of a vehicle, and if so, what vehicle. I love skirts and dresses, but if I am going to be running errands, I opt for pants instead because they are more convenient and modest when getting in and out of my car. Also, pockets.

Now we are getting into opinion territory. I’ll give you my opinions about some looks and whether they can be adapted by a Christian woman to look dignified and wholesome. This will not be comprehensive. New looks, and new variations on old looks, keep popping up all the time. I am not an expert, and have made my share of sartorial mistakes. (Oh, so many mistakes!) I am an artistic person who always secretly kind of wants to wear a costume. So take this for what it’s worth.

Some looks, in my opinion, cannot be adapted by a Christian woman because it’s integral to the look to appear very sexy, very edgy or very rebellious. Here are a few:

  • 80s rocker
  • 70s dance party
  • Punk
  • Goth/Vampire
  • Steampunk
  • Rockabilly (but see 50s housewife below)
  • Lady rapper
  • Anything pirate (Sorry, fellow costume afficionados!)
  • Motorcycle gang
  • Viking-inspired

Other looks can be made modest, classy, or at least sweet without doing violence to the look. Here are a few:

  • Hippie (there are variations on this – beachy hippie, hippie chic)
  • Preppy (also formal preppie/Audrey Hepburn/Jackie O)
  • Academic (corduroy, sweaters, blazers, sensible shoes, neutral tones)
  • Sporty
  • 90s Grunge (baggy jeans, flannel shirts, beanies)
  • 50s housewife, like Lucille Ball. Believe it or not, this is a look that is coming back. The thing that distinguishes it from Rockabilly is that the Rockabilly look combines 1950s clothes and hairstyles with an intentionally rebellious attitude, shows more skin, and features lots of tattoos.

All of these looks also have immodest versions featuring very short skirts, crop tops, and the like. They also have rebellious versions. For example, the hippie look can go in the direction of a ton of beads, peace signs, and not taking a shower. But it doesn’t need to. For preppy, you could wear a tennis skirt. For 90s grunge, some people would do their makeup to make themselves look like a heroin addict. But none of these things are integral to the look and you don’t need them. You can get the look by picking its distinctive fabrics, patterns, and colors.

Of course, you can also, if you so desire, go in the direction of Amish/Little House on the Prairie/Anne of Green Gables/Cottagecore. I love that look on other people, but it makes me look like a grandmother and I’m not ready for that yet. Also, though modest, this look is actually more conspicuous in the modern world than the looks listed above.

Good Luck, Sisters

Finally, realize that you are not locked in. You won’t be buying new clothes as often as when you were a growing child, but you will switch out your wardrobe every few years as your stage of life changes and as you get older and (probably) gain some weight. The good news is that clothing marketed to older women tends to be more modest and dignified than clothing marketed to younger women. Also, you will know yourself better when you are older, and will probably have a husband whose tastes have influenced your own, and probably more income to spend on clothes. So, feel free to take the time and money required to look classy in a way that fits your body and personality right now, realizing that this will probably change and that’s fine.

And when you have done all this, you will be a dazzling Proverbs 31 woman, “Clothed with strength and dignity.”

Terrifying Quote of the Week

[The megachurch’s] ads extolling the virtues of flexibility in changing times, adaptability in the face of difficulties, and going-with-the-flowness in the event that your church was ever caught in a flash flood of scandal, were ads that were hip, ironic, self-effacing, detached, and exuded a coolness unto death.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 202

Quote: Don’t Worry, This is Totally Natural

“Childbirth is natural, and not an event that has to be conducted in a hospital. I am here to help women understand how natural this is. But I will have to go in just a moment. How may I help you?”

Rourke had delivered at least three babies in the back seats of cars and taxi cabs, and thought he was qualified to assert that there was nothing whatever that was natural about it. It was the craziest thing in the world. Women were the kind of people that people came out of, for crying out loud, and he thought it was the kind of thing best monitored by world-class doctors and sophisticated electronic gear, maintained closely by teams of nurses with graduate degrees in astrophysics. But that was just his opinion.

Evengellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, pp. 86 – 87

Quote: A Liar Telling the Truth

Chad smiled a sad, pastoral smile. Rourke looked at him, sympathetically impressed. Man, this guy was good. But Rourke had been on the force for many years, and he was just as good. Rourke tightened the muscles in his jaw. That man across the desk is telling the truth for now, just this moment. But he is a liar telling the truth, and it almost suits him.

So Rourke just sat and watched admiringly. Chad chose his words with care, but with a carefree care. Everything was parsed, but it looked as though it was spontaneously lying about. Shabby chic.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 49

Evangellyfish: A Book Review

It’s been a busy week, so instead of the usual exciting rants about prehistory, I’m forced to cross-post this review from Goodreads.

The Amazon Blurb

Chad Lester’s kingdom is found in the Midwest. His voice crawls over the airwaves, his books are read by millions (before he reads them), and thousands ride the escalators into the sanctuary every Sunday. And Saturday. And Wednesday, too. He is the head pastor of Camel Creek – a CEO of Soul. And souls come cheap, so he has no overhead.

When Lester is (falsely) accused of molesting a young male counselee, his universe begins to crumble. He is a sexual predator, yes. But strictly straight (and deeply offended that anyone would suggest otherwise). Detectives, reporters, assistant pastors, and old lovers and pay-offs all come out to play.

John Mitchell is also a pastor, but he has no kingdom to speak of – only smalltime choir feuds. He is thrilled at the great man’s fall, but his joy quickly fades when the imploding Lester calls him – and a lover or two – for help. How low can grace go? Whores, thieves, and junkies, sure. But pastors?

My Review

This book is sort of like one of those treats from Mexico that are, technically, candy, but they also contain chile powder and a ton of citric acid.

In other words, it’s funny, shrewd, and a quick read, but also super misanthropic.

The narrative voice is Douglas Wilson’s own, which is to say, full of sardonic psychological observations, bon mots, and silly but deep metaphors. The plot is P.G. Wodehouse-esque.

My biggest problem with it, and the reason I gave it only four stars instead of five, is that almost all the characters talk kind of alike, both in the dialogue and in their internal monologues. And the way they talk is also very similar to the narrative voice. This isn’t realistic, and it sometimes makes the characters harder to keep track of in a comedy of errors that has a very large ensemble cast. Also, they sound too educated. What teenaged daughter says to her father that Costco was “a perfect madhouse”?

As for the expose part of it, I have been in the evangelical world my entire life but I have never been in a mega-church — at all, really, but certainly not a mega-church like this one, where the pastor originally wanted to run for governor, has never been to seminary, doesn’t read the Bible, seduces all the women he “counsels” and then pays them off, has bestselling books written by ghost writers and sermons written by same. If this kind of thing is truly widespread, that explains why Wilson is always chiding evangelicals. And why, perhaps, I shouldn’t take his chiding personally, as it is apparently not directed at me. 

Funny Grammar Quote of the Week

Fussy grammarians needs friends too, and so you may seek out and encourage them. Drop them a little note, telling them that they are your very favorite fussy grammarian, out with whom you like to hang. And if anybody winced there at my use of a plural pronoun for an indefinite singular, then may I suggest counseling?

Douglas Wilson, Wordsmithy, p. 100

Two Short, Clever Books on The Writing Life

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Black Irish Entertainment, 2002 and Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson, Canon Press, 2011.

Both these books are pamphlets (165 pages and 120 pages respectively). Both have short, punchy chapters that are easy to dip into or re-read as desired. Wilson ends his sections with a takeaway point and recommended reading. Both, as they are written by seasoned pros, have plenty of self-deprecating humor, laugh-out-loud moments, and pithy bits of wisdom. I aim to keep them on hand (as a writer should) as reference books, to be dipped into when I need good quotes about writing or need to have some starch put into me.

The authors are professional writers and also manly men. Pressfield is a former Marine; Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor. Interestingly, it’s Pressfield whose writing-about-writing is more mystical by far.

Pressfield’s The War of Art

The main thrust of The War of Art is that an aspiring writer (or, really, anyone aspiring to do anything good) will encounter Resistance.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:

1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.

2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.

3) Any diet or health regimen.

4) Any program of spiritual advancement.

5) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals …

In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.

The War of Art, pp. 5 – 6

Pressfield then discusses the characteristics of Resistance, the fact that everyone experiences it, and ways to combat it. This is extremely helpful, because we tend to think we are the only person experiencing it.

When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly …

Resistance also told me that I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.

Ibid p.30

About two-thirds of the way through the book, you get some Jungian explanations and you find out that according to the author, God, just like Resistance, is Within. Obviously Pressfield can’t develop all these ideas in this little pamphlet, so I’m still not 100% sure precisely what he means by some of his short essays. But you don’t have to completely buy Jung to benefit from this book because it tells us some shrewd psychological truths and confronts us about our character. The things it says are true, whether or not you also think (as I do) that God and Resistance both exist not only within but also outside of us. Some day I may do a post that explores more deeply how my understanding of Resistance compares and contrasts with Pressfield’s.

Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy

Wordsmithy, being less Jungian than The War of Art, is aimed at a more specific audience. It addresses young people who want to be writers about the various things they need to do in order to become one: read widely, get some life experience in something besides writing, practice, play the long game, accept criticism, familiarize yourself with English grammar, vocabulary, and classics, learn at least one other language and more if you have opportunity, etc. It has much more content than War of Art (which is really just about one topic), despite having a lower page count. War of Art employs a lot of white space, sometimes with only a few sentences on a page. Wordsmithy is packed.

Much of what is in Wordsmithy is stuff that I have already been doing for years, some of it by accident, some of it by design. Some of it is stuff that I do, but not in the exact way that Wilson recommends. (For example, he suggests writers keep a “commonplace book” in which to jot quotes and ideas as they come to you. This is something I’ve done from time to time, but don’t currently feel the need for.) So in some ways, I’ve moved past the need for this book. However, I still plan to keep it around to mine for gems like these:

Read books of complaints about the decline of our language by word fussers and who-whomers, and read the hilarious refutations of those word fussers by word libertines. You can learn a lot from both. Anyone who can’t learn from a word fusser ought to have their head examined. A word fusser is anyone who would have a problem with the previous sentence.

… [perhaps] the reason your query letters are all getting round-filed is because of that apostrophe in the return address. It would violate a decent editor’s conscience to mail anything to “the Smith’s,” even if doing it with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The Smith’s failed writing career is not stated, merely implied.

Wordsmith, pp. 54, 56