December 7, 2014 by lucieromarin
Whaaaaat? I hear you ask. Traditionalists? Beauty? From the people who have a giant modesty thing and wear head-coverings and think it should be the olden days? Lucy, haven’t you yourself complained about denim and frumpiness?
Well, yes, I have, and I’ll be the first to admit that the trad subculture co-exists in many minds with the same thing, and that that element still exists. However, I’ve also written about the ways in which I’ve noticed the trad landscape changing, and I am now compelled to admit that this is one area of noticeable change (in Australia, anyway. I can’t speak for everywhere else.) People can say what they like; the reality is that, these days, there is more individuality and variety in the trad pew than anywhere else, and one of the secret pleasures of Sunday Mass and great Feast Days is looking at the outfits, and stealing everybody else’s style.
I’ve been wondering why this is so. I think it’s a valid question, because an outfit is a manifesto, and, sometimes, the quickest way to arrive at a man’s philosophy is to look at the way he dresses, and that goes doubly for women, who have more options in dress than men do. These are the reasons I’ve come up with thus far, in no particular order:
1) We’re multicultural. No, really. The whole point about praying in a universal language is that everyone in the universe can pray together, which means that trads from all over the place worship in the same place. Our demographic isn’t suburban. (I remember one morning Mass in which there were only seven people in the pews. There was one Slav, one Hun, one Chinese, one Malaysian, one Vietnamese, one Irish, and one Francophile Australian of British heritage.) And every culture Does Beauty a little differently. The Japanese women in our pews will never wear the bedazzled bling-fests that some of the Maori women favour for head-coverings. I would look like an absolute clown in the outfits that look in-your-face-awesome on the resident middle-aged Chinese hipsters. Lebanese street-glam does not look anything like vintage Eastern-Euro-chic. And so on. But they all go to the same chapel. Now, I’ll grant you that there must be other parishes around with a comparable ethnic variety in their pews; we can’t be the only communities in the church in which there are something like ten different languages being spoken over tea and coffee after Mass. But…
2) We believe in dressing up for Mass. We talk about Finding My Christmas Dress and Finding My Easter Hat. Our finery doesn’t express wealth; it expresses what we believe the Mass is. And a commitment to Dressing Up instantly introduces a degree of personal style and opportunities for self-expression that you won’t find if you’re worshipping somewhere more casual.
3) The liturgy encourages it. Okay, yes, there are ugly trad vestments around the place, but even they tend to be of ugly cut, rather than of ugly fabric. Generally speaking, if you frequent a Sung Mass in a place in which colour, texture, embroidery and embellishment are not only beautiful, but meaningful, you will, in time, incorporate that lesson and that inspiration into your own use of colour, texture, embroidery and embellishment.
4) We don’t have a policy of engagement with contemporary culture. I don’t mean that we have the Anabaptist or Muslim commitment to preserving the dress standards of a specific moment of the past as a form of deliberate resistance to secular culture. I just mean that, unlike other conservative subcultures, we don’t count blending-in or ‘looking normal’ as a virtue. While we do have a commitment to modesty, to femininity and to beauty, we don’t have a commitment to the idea that we can’t evangelise unless we make other people think Catholicism is cool by dressing like them. We can, in fact, do what we like. This is very liberating. It means that if you want to wear an ankle-length orange dress and a broad-brimmed hat to Mass, you don’t have to care that no one else in Sydney is wearing such a dress. If you wish to grow your hair to your waist and then sweep it into an intricate and interesting braid, you don’t have to care about whether or not this will look funny to somebody else. And so on.
5) We’re poor. Yes, yes, I know that there are rich, faux-intellectual men in trad communities pontificating over wine and cigars, but really, there’s more to us than that. We’re often assumed to be rich, because we all dress up for Mass; people see hats, skirts and heels and assume we’ve got money to burn. But this is a mistake. Someone else will have to explain why it is so, but it is so – we count more poor people in our communities than other conservative subcultures do, and that means that trad communities are crammed full of girls who aren’t ashamed of op-shops, and who glory in narratives of vintage dresses discovered and re-made to be as knew. (Meanwhile, I know of women in another subculture, one normally associated with the rich, who express actual horror at the thought of thrift-shopping, describing it as unhygienic.) The thing about op-shopping not merely that it’s thrifty, but that it’s individual. The reason why ten trad girls all look dressed up, pretty, and completely different from one another is because they’re all wearing blouses or skirts bought from racks on which they were the only one of their kind. Or they inherited a blouse, and then sewed new buttons on it, thereby changing it completely. Or they shop on Etsy.
6) We love old stuff. If you belong to a community which openly loves thousand-year-old rituals, you’re not going to feel weird about having a secret yen for 1940s dress. I remember one glorious Easter in which I saw outfits inspired by four different decades and three different cultures in the space of two pews. A love of Old Stuff is often assumed to be some form of restraint; a kind of mental shackle that prevents you from Moving Along with the rest of the world, but it can, in fact, be, in it’s own way, liberating. I don’t have to care if everyone else is wearing jeans! I like my Edwardian lace and I’m sticking with it!
7) We wear head-coverings. This introduces a breath-taking variety of individual styles into the pew. I’ve seen cloches. I’ve seen flower-bedecked straw. I’ve seen broad-brims. I’ve seen curled brims with black rhinestones. I’ve seen Spanish lace. I’ve seen pashminas. I’ve seen blue polyester lace. I’ve even seen something that looked like a megaphone, which I assume was meant to be some kind of fascinator presumed suitable for the ordination at which it was worn and burned into the memories of all present forever. It was truly unique. Hey, I’m not saying we never make mistakes!
Of course, anyone is free to argue that our priorities are wrong. Perhaps we should, in fact, shudder at the thought of buying second-hand. There’s no doubt that our degree of dressed-up-ness can confronting to visitors – it’s such a culture-shock, and that’s even before you notice the covered heads. Perhaps a love of modesty and beauty is nothing more than a cosmic conspiracy to oppress us all, smothering us all beneath pillows of hand-made lace. If I appear to gloat about the increasing variety in my particular demographic, it’s not only because I happen to enjoy thinking about clothes, and therefore appreciate being served regular food for thought. It’s because I recognise in all this meaningful change for the better. Not only is it a movement away from things wrong with world (immodesty, ugliness, gross consumerism), it’s a movement away from things wrong with us. It’s a movement from scruples to self-expression. It’s a movement towards a confident self-identity, which is not beholden to any one particular era, culture, or subculture, but fuses all three, as seems good to each individual. It’s a movement from purity-as-bear-of-being-noticed to purity as something that goes hand-in-hand with personal beauty and a delight in the same. It’s a movement from traddery as a joyless resistance to modernity into… well, something that enjoys natural goods such as colour and texture, and uses them to personal advantage and the glory of God. And this is good!