What Not to Wear

Post Author: Sarah Kinney Gaventa

We never got so involved in the game that we developed costumes, but if we had, this women’s clergy blouse I once saw on the Wippell site would have served the purpose nicely.


While I still reflect on my childhood novels, I no longer aspire to embody them, so a professional blouse that would look at home on a pioneer in the 1870s is not quite “the look” I want to present as a young clergy woman.

Finding clerical shirts as a young woman priest can be tricky. We want to present ourselves as professional persons, but also spiritual persons. We also want to present ourselves as modern and relevant. Is all this possible?

At times the deck seems stacked against us.

When I asked The Rev. Dr. Robert Prichard, professor of History and Liturgy at Virginia Theological Seminary about the history of the clerical shirt, he wrote, “Detachable collars were popular for any well dressed male from the middle of the 19th century until the 1920s. At that point, the Arrow Shirt Company introduced the fixed collars that we know today. Clergy, always conservative in dress, retained the older detachable collar style at least for Sunday dress. The only real mystery is why the clergy turned their collars around backward from the way that others wore them.”

This tendency towards conservatism may explain why the design of women’s clergy blouses are so different from design of a modern woman’s professional blouse. Most modern clergy shirts made for women today lack breast darts or curved panels, making women with smaller chests look like young boys, and larger women look shapeless. They are also designed to be worn with pants that fit at the waist, which very few pants now do.

The design of the shirts is only the beginning of the problem. When ordering clergy shirts from the two most popular vestment companies, I have had friends told, “Our men’s clerical shirts are so much less expensive than women’s clerical shirts because there is more demand for men’s shirts.”

(To a tall and thin woman)
“Well, if you want sleeves long enough for you, you should order your shirts from Womenspirit.”

“Those can’t possibly be your measurements.  Those measurements are a child’s measurements.”

“Your neck can’t possibly be that small if your bust is as large as you say it is.”

“And no, we cannot accommodate breast darts. We are not in the business of fashion, we are in the business of clerical wear.”

The very companies that are supposed to clothe women clergy seem fundamentally uncomfortable with
women’s bodies. The female body has long been an object of discomfort in Christian history, representing temptation and even evil. Any woman minister who has been ogled or groped knows that her body represents things to others that she could not even imagine. However, if we, as the church, are supposed to teach God’s grace and love for people of every shape and size, should we not begin by respecting our own bodies and clothing them in dignity?

My women friends do not want flashy clergy shirts that show cleavage or belly rings, we simply want
shirts that fit. Some of us have found private tailors that will make shirts that suit us (at a hefty $120 to $150 a pop); others have used their ingenuity and sewing skills to modify brand name blouses to fit a clerical collar. Thankfully, some clerical wear companies are beginning to listen. Womenspirit, a women-run company, recently released their “fitted shirt,” a modern blouse with three-quarter-length sleeves that can be worn un-tucked.

We may not ever get affordable clerical wear as forward thinking as Maria Sjödin’s Swedish “Casual Priest” line of clothing: a jaw dropping collection of well fitted women’s clergy shirts with dramatic, architectural cuffs, soft lines and even one shirt made of (gasp!) jersey. While some of my friends find her clothes too fitted, to me they exemplify my image of a young clergy woman—rooted, confident, not afraid of her femininity, but not defined by it, either. (Unfortunately, due to the weak dollar, these shirts run from $154-$235; prices that are prohibitive for most young clergy women.)

Even if the large clerical wear companies are not comfortable with Sjöden’s cutting edge aesthetic, I do hope her work can serve as an example of how well-fitting shirts, cut specifically for a woman’s curves, can be both professional and feminine, without the help of puff sleeves or other features of 19th century women’s fashion.

In the meantime, young clergy women are showing great ingenuity—even engineering their own clergy shirts. Susan Fawcett, an Episcopal priest, demonstrates how to adapt a mandarin collar shirt sold by Target by adding two small buttons to the collar in her clerical wear blog, Collar This! In other posts on Collar This!, young women clergy (including this author) share shirts they have found that are easily adaptable. For those who prefer not to muck about with needle and thread, a clerical dickie can be worn underneath many blouses, suit jackets and sweaters. But all of these are simply adaptations, adaptations that no clergyman I’ve met have ever had to make.

For after all, young clergy women do not want to play dress up, or feel like we’re playing dress up when we get ready for the exciting life of ministry every day. We simply want to find affordable clothes that help free us to do the work we’ve been called to do.

Sarah Kinney Gaventa is the Associate Rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia. Her areas of responsibility include Christian Education, Youth Ministry, and Newcomer Ministry. Her favorite Sunday morning stress relief is to sneak into the Preschool Sunday School class and help someone make a craft.

Sarah is married to Matthew Gaventa, a Presbyterian, and they are eagerly looking for a dog, preferably Methodist or Lutheran, to complete their ecumenical family.

33 replies
  1. Teri
    Teri says:

    oh my. That outfit is….something else.
    Right now I am so happy to be serving in an only mediumly liturgical church where we wear robes but normal clothes!

  2. Lisa Barrowclough
    Lisa Barrowclough says:

    Thanks for a great reflection on a difficult topic. I wouldn’t tell them this, but I often envy the men I serve with for the simplicity of their wardrobes!
    Check out Coldwater Creek for – great, reasonably priced, usually washable, often lightweight, and almost always “wearable” with a black shirt and white collar – jackets and blazers. I have several that are worn on a regular basis. (Just don’t wear them to convention, since many colleagues have also discovered this previously well kept secret!)

  3. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    The Rev. Dr. Robert Prichard makes me laugh:
    “Clergy, always conservative in dress, retained the older detachable collar style at least for Sunday dress.”
    I don’t think he’s met the Fidelia’s Sisters readers — or at least, not this one.

  4. SKO
    SKO says:

    I only wear clergy shirts once in a while–based on the type of congregation, etc. And I’m older than 39, but I like to think I dress a bit on the young side. Here’s my deal with the clergy shirts—I want a clergy camisole.
    I’m not a blouse wearer (generally), so no matter how cool the blouse is, I’m going to wish it was a T-shirt or a sweater. I like soft stretchy knit next to my skin, thankyouverymuch.
    And the clergy dickies? They either leave a lump in an unfortunate location, or flop around. (Although I do give one thumb up to the dickies that have the collar already attached–were it not for the unfortunate lump, I’d be down with them.) Both styles make it hard to wear knits over them.
    I say, if it’s possible to create a camisole with a bra inside it, why not create a camisole with a clergy collar attached?–tight to the skin and flat, washable, and thin enough to go under anything?
    I will give one thumb up to the womenspirit fitted shirt, though. It’s attractive and fits–except for the arms, which go to my wrist, but the petites thing is another issue altogether.
    Color me whiney on clergy shirts, but color me impressed with this article!

  5. page95
    page95 says:

    As a Methodist I don’t often find the need for a clergy shirt…but, I’ve been assigned as an associate pastor in a church where no one wears a robe of any sort during worship, and I find it very difficult to find plus sized clothing appropriate for preaching (unless I dress like I’m 80!) and I’m contemplating making the clerical collar my usual Sunday Morning attire.
    I did purchase one of the long sleeved shirts from the “Lydia” collection and found it better than the men’s shirts…but my size 16 certainly wasn’t cut for a plus sized bust and I worry I strain the buttons a bit.
    Converting shirts that really do fit me give me some hope! Thanks for the links…and now I’m going to pray for forgiveness for coveting the Swedish Casual Priest clothing.

  6. Heather Culuris
    Heather Culuris says:

    The Lydia shirts are some of the best out there at the moment. Better than the previous Friar Tuck pastel-see-through puffy shouldered women’s shirts… But those aren’t a perfect fit either.
    I generally wear men’s short sleeve clergy shirts, but then they are so long in the waist and boxy….
    Thankfully in this call, I generally wear clergy shirts less than half of the time!

  7. reverendmother
    reverendmother says:

    Even though I don’t choose to (nor am I expected to) wear a collar, I thought this was a great article. Awesome job, Sarah.
    I hope someone out there might write an article for FS on how she decided to wear a collar, or to not wear one (for those who have the choice).

  8. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    Collars are a choice in my denomination, and I choose never to wear one, but I really enjoyed this article anyway. It’s hard to find non-collared clergy-appropriate women’s clothing, too.

  9. mibi52
    mibi52 says:

    Having studied with Bob Prichard, I can attest that a) he is very familiar with many women clergy who wear clerical blouses and b) he never looks below their collarbone. Thus, he did not address the issue of lack of darts in women’s clerical wear…

  10. Emily
    Emily says:

    I think you raise an excellent point Sarah: We do need American designers who make the exact same styles as Maria Sjödin and expand to include other styles that fit women who are large, small, in betweenk, etc.
    Why have we allowed Almy, Whipple and a couple of others to have the market? I feel this is an AMAZING opportunity for designers to make a direct impact on clerical wear.
    I do not sew–nor do I have the time to sew–but I demand to have shirts that fit. It’s all about a woman’s right to choose…and this begins with our clothing.

  11. Emily M
    Emily M says:

    Amen, Sarah!!
    Before I was ordained, I wondered what it was about all those ordained women who wore frumpy clothes… well, now I know!! It’s because you can’t buy clothes that make Wippell’s shirts look good on a woman.
    [Almy and even Womanspirit don’t make blouses small enough so I can’t speak for theirs…]
    I recognize that we’re never going to get the clergy-shirt-business to make really good shirts to fit all of us – it’s economies of scale – there simply aren’t enough of us, compared to the rest of the population, for most of us to find something more-or-less flattering and comfortable for all the varieties of body we have…
    But it will continue to be an issue – because clothing profoundly affects how people see us (which, after all, is why I wear my collar in the first place – even with it on, I get asked if I’m the patient’s grandaughter…) and being able to look professional instead of sloppy is beyond price (at least, miles beyond my budget!)

  12. alice quint
    alice quint says:

    Whooee! Great ideas here.
    I sew well (make shirts for husband, even a suit); I knit pretty good. I need clergy shirts now and then, too. Bring me my portable sewing machine right now! (Whether it’s coffee or Spirit, I’m feeling inspired.)
    Give me a week from today (7 November 2007) to get designs up and running.

  13. Loren Hague
    Loren Hague says:

    I just bought my first clergy shirts yesterday (a fact I’m still getting used to!) and was a little disheartened by the whole process…thanks for the advice, links and good humor!

  14. Kary
    Kary says:

    Thank you! Thank you! But, please realize that middle-aged women also no longer own pants that rise to their waist. Nor do we tuck our shirts in. Finding a decent clergy shirt is a big problem but it doesn’t just affect young women.
    Alice Quint, if you get up and running with your designs, tell us how to find you!

  15. Rev Julia
    Rev Julia says:

    Dear Sisters in Ministry
    This past spring, I was I dialogue with Emmy Kegler of Augsburg Fortress. I was
    inquiring about shirts in new colours- something other than pink/grey/lilac etc.
    She pasted on my query to the manufacturer, and I have hope I will see “warmer colours” eventually. Maybe you would like to added your voices to mine, and maybe we can see some changes.
    Blessings Julia
    Emmy Kegler
    Customer Service Associate
    Augsburg Fortress, Publishers
    P.O. Box 1209
    Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209
    Customer Service: 800.328.4648
    Direct line: 800.426.0115 ext. 105
    [email protected]

  16. Mary Goshert
    Mary Goshert says:

    This story made me remember buying my very first clergy shirt some 33 years ago. NO clergy shirts for women existed then. But the rector of the parish where I was doing field work wanted all his seminarians to be wearing clericals.
    The shirt I finally bought hit me right above the kneecaps, and the tab collar (the smallest one available) looked like Pluto Pup’s collar. It was surely one of the ugliest garments I’ve ever purchased.
    I took that shirt to my mom the next summer while I was doing CPE, and she made me several shirts for a neckband collar and a couple of summerweight jumpers as well.
    When Almy first stocked women’s shirts, the shirts were made for very flat-chested women and they were a stiff poly-cotton blend.
    There’s still not a lot of great choice, and I often wear a suit shell blouse with a dickey insert, but there’s a good deal more choice than back in 1976!
    BTW, Molly Bennett in Austin, TX, was making great clergywomen’s clothing for awhile, but I don’t think she’s still in the business.

  17. Sandy@Dog Costumes
    [email protected] Costumes says:

    How are you adjusting a lot of your shirts to be fit for clergy wear? Seems like you’d need to buy additional material to sew and combine it into current clothes, which seems like it’d make the clothing look “off.” Mind sharing some tips?

  18. Lea Colvill
    Lea Colvill says:

    I am not a priest…yet. But I am looking at solutions for this attire question.
    Here’s what I like:
    http://sewingworkshop.com/ The Liberty shirt looks like “Casual Priest”. It runs big but is so lovely. I saw it made up in linen in yummy fabric shop.
    http://www.wildginger.com/ patternmaking software for your measurements with mandarin collar option…if you liked paper dolls you will love this.
    Do you want color? Do you want linen and silk? Are you looking for a classic shape? http://www.clericalshirtsclergyshirts.co.uk/ Available in cotton rich fabric (56 Colours), Thai Silk (106 Colours) or Pure Linen (61 Colours) – Made to measure and custom clerical shirts and blouses.
    This is wacky. Women’s Chef coats a that may work for you if you add a clerical collar http://www.culinaryclassics.com/home.php?cat=100
    How to make a clerical collar http://www.ehow.com/how_6643284_sew-clerical-collar.html
    I hope some of these resources make you shine.

  19. Christine
    Christine says:

    Any suggestions on where I can find clerical blouses, etc. for TALL women? I am 5’11”, 145 lbs., wear a 10 or 12 top and am busty. I have to wear a clerical collar 5 days a week in a CPE program starting in September. Help!

    • Jacqueline Hopkins
      Jacqueline Hopkins says:

      House of Ilona http://www.house of Ilona has beautiful women clergy wear. A little pricy, but very feminine and classy I’m very pleased with their female clergy wear. Also modern priest. Suit Ave. Reasonable and quick ship.

  20. Christine
    Christine says:

    I have read a few suggestions on converting mandarin collars, etc., to clerical collars, but no one explains HOW to do it? How, exactly, can I convert a blouse with a regular collar or a mandarin collar to a clerical collar. Help!

  21. Christine
    Christine says:

    Thank you, Katie!
    Thanks to Rachel and Lakeithea at The Limited at Ross Park Mall in Pittsburgh, I found the great Notch Collar Shirt Dress, which is really cute and stylish, and easily adaptable to a tab collar. I can easily pin the top sides of the dress together where a top button would be, and sew “pockets” on the back for the sides of a tab collar. Now I can wear it as a regular dress; insert the tab collar for ministry work; then take the collar and pin out and it’s a great, comfortable dress again, the style equivalent of comfortable jeans that go with anything! It’s on sale this weekend for 4o% off; it was $89.90 and is now $53.94. I brought a tab collar into The Limited with me, and Rachel and Lakeithea gave me a real education and a lot of great ideas. Now I have a good start on a clerical wardrobe that I really like. (I also learned to search for “notch collar” in addition to “nehru collar” and “Mandarin collar” when looking for adaptable dresses and tops.)

  22. Jeanie Manson
    Jeanie Manson says:

    It’s pretty easy to take a nice shirt with a smallish collar, slit the fabric and stick the white “dog collar” in to make a fashionable, bespoke, clerical shirt that actually fits! Oh….and maybe try for a Quaker dog…..much more peaceful with children! 🙂

  23. Xanax
    Xanax says:

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  24. Teresa Davis
    Teresa Davis says:

    I have caught a few videos here and there–even movies or television shows, in very brief appearances–where women wear clerical collars with regular clothing–especially turtlenecks–as a CHOKER. They all seemed to be in England. Is this a thing? They were usually the stepped kind of choker, with the black circle below and the white circle above. I found it a little odd looking over the collar of a pastel turtleneck, but it did show which of the people sitting in an office as a visitor arrived was the pastor! And I envied the wearing of a turtleneck. I have seen the collar worn this way with regular blouses, too. Mostly also with a jacket to heighten the authority and professionalism, I guess. Those didn’t look half bad. But I worry about creating separate “female clergy collars” that are completely divorced from tradition and from their male colleagues. Another way of prairie-styling it? But I would LOVE to wear more ethnic style clothig and add such a collar if it were a thing. Don’t care to be the one to start it, though!

  25. Arwen
    Arwen says:

    I know I’m very late to finding this article. It’s fantastic. Unfortunately, even so many years after it was first published, the issues are all still current. I did buy a lady’s tab collar shirt from Suit Avenue this year for just $30, and the fit is perfect, tailored but not too tight. I got the short-sleeved tab collar in black, but they have many options. http://www.suitavenue.com/clergy-shirts/women-s-clergy-shirts.html

    I’m still horrified that the cheapest dickie I can find is $45 for something that is not even a full shirt. I’ve been considering buying a used men’s priest shirt from ebay for $16 and cutting out my own dickie from that. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that, the search continues. 🙂

  26. Constance McIntosh
    Constance McIntosh says:

    Well, I’m a seasoned clergy woman and, yes, I absolutely agree that it’s ridiculous to pay so much for a clergy shirt. AND THEY ARE SO BLOODY BORING!. I have found an old fashion seamstress and I’m going to start having her make my ‘shirts’…one will be white silk and I’m going to paint my own design. The first one will be a soft brushed denim….comfortable, casual, and still projecting that pastoral authority that I have to always be mindful of in the Deep South. Thank you for posting this. Clergy women rock!


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