I emerged from the womb thrilled to be a girl! I tell you, I came into the world wearing the sweetest little dress with black patent leather shoes and a matching handbag. Similar to the surprise, exhilaration, and gratitude one feels at being chosen for the most favorite part in the school play, from my earliest recollections I had this sense of being feminine and of being different from my brothers. I was vividly aware, and so delighted in my otherness and the gift of my girl-ness, and so with my toddler-level understanding I fully “owned” it and rejoiced in it.
Growing up, though pants were part of my attire, I was very much at home in skirts and dresses. By attending both a Catholic grammar school for five years and high school for four years, I had the daily conditioning of my school uniform which was a skirt and blouse or, in the summer, a dress. It wasn’t something I thought about a lot. But had I been asked, I probably would have said I felt most myself in a dress or skirt. Note that I did not say necessarily the most comfortable, but the most myself.
To this day, my mother has only ever dressed herself in female garb. With my mother as the example and model of womanhood, along with conditioning through the practice of wearing skirts and dresses, I was unknowingly formed in my understanding of femininity without any additional philosophical reason or explanation.
My understanding was sorely challenged, however, as a young teen during one of my annual summer vacations visiting my aunt in Germany. I can still feel the shock, aversion, and confusion I experienced upon encountering her one morning in the kitchen. It was as if she was a different person.
What she was wearing made it seem my aunt was no longer who I knew her to be. In my innocence I exclaimed, “Tante, du hast eine Hose an! Aunt, you are wearing pants!” “Ja,” she proclaimed, “Man kann sich ganz anders bewegen! One can move entirely differently!” With a strange tone of triumph she made exaggeratedly mannish movements as if she were marching.
My aunt had no conscious feminist agenda in donning pants. She was simply going along with the times as pants were becoming more and more commonplace for her generation which had grown up with the “day dress” and probably with little thought about it other than the factors of comfort and practicality.
Nevertheless, my heart recoiled in horror. This discord between who she was—my aunt, a woman—and the entirely other way she was now presenting herself to me, left me with an empty pit in my stomach as if something had been lost and I had somehow been betrayed. Until that day, I had only known her as one who dressed in a very feminine manner. Now that image—the other strong image and example of woman for me, aside from my mother and maternal grandmother—was shattered. I had to struggle to see past this image that spoke to me like a mask conveying startlingly new messages about who she was.
This was the 1980s, when pants were increasingly replacing feminine garb as the everyday garment for women. So this was part of my daily experience even though my mother herself did not give in to the trend. She rejected it fully after a one-time experiment that left her feeling “exposed” and self-conscious.
This bears witness to the fact that our parents are the most powerful models for us—in this case, women for their daughters—in our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman and how to take hold of our masculinity or femininity in how we comport and present ourselves. While I did not give the episode with my aunt much more thought at the time, and though pants continued to occupy a part of my wardrobe, a seed was planted that germinated later in life.
Then came my conversion in my early 20s and with it the question of my identity in Christ—who redeems and transforms our humanity to conform to his image, male and female. I had to revisit the question of what it means to be a woman. With my consecration to Our Lady, and constant reflection on this question along with much observation of women and their dress and comportment, I grew more and more saddened by the image of woman that I saw around me.
I felt that women had betrayed themselves—whether through androgyny, hypo-sexualization or hyper-sexualization. I wanted no part of this distortion and lie. I made a decision and promise to Our Lord that no one would ever look upon his daughter and see anything other than a celebration of femininity in what I wore.
Not quite as radically as St. Francis throwing all his belongings out the window, I did in one instance discard the few pants in my closet and never looked back. To this day, I don’t own a single pair of pants. While there was a certain physical comfort that pants afforded me at times, I was never so comfortable in my own skin as a woman as when dressing unequivocally and unapologetically—in total accord with my glorious feminine nature!—as a woman.
God’s designs are perfect—there is no ambiguity, no semiotic falsehood. There is clearly a mission and a purpose. We have adapted our anthropological understanding of the value of our femininity to the world’s which is always a diminishment of our dignity. If we women are honest, though this might be hard to empirically substantiate, we must conclude that we have been partly complicit in the loss of the sense of the sacred that a woman can offer and also responsible for the confusion about what is male and what is female.
If there is going to be a renaissance there must be a reformation in the way women dress. Rather than “borrowing from the boys,” much could be done to heal not only ourselves but the culture if women were to lovingly and with great boldness take hold of the gift of our feminine beauty. Imagine if every Christian woman and every woman of good will were to “make the transition” towards embracing fully her femininity with utmost authenticity and integrity in gratitude and celebration of her womanly identity. I am aware that there is much woundedness and many women have not experienced their femininity as a gift in this way. But reconciling ourselves with, and thus reclaiming, our femininity is an urgent task not only for ourselves but for the world.
In this day of rebellion and disorder, and confusion and disintegration, may this be a clarion call. The one thing that a woman can do every day to evangelize and preach the truth and the beauty of our humanity as man and woman—the Imago Dei—and which will bring delight and healing as well as promote communion and thus peace with all those whom we meet, can be summed up in six words: nothing says woman like a dress.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Serenade” painted by Federico Andreotti (1847-1930).