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In 1960 Cardinal Siri urged women not to wear trousers. I think he may have had a point

When women wear trousers, he wrote, it flattens out the natural distinction between the sexes

By on Monday, 5 December 2011

A model wears Chanel trousers in 1964 (AP)

A model wears Chanel trousers in 1964 (AP)

A friend has pointed me towards a blog by Fr Tim Finigan in which he mentions the late Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa and provides a link to a document written by the latter in 1960. Entitled “Notification Concerning Men’s Dress Worn by Women” it is a wonderful document and I am grateful to my friend (and indirectly to Fr Finigan) for bringing it to my attention.

In the Notification, which is addressed to his clergy, to teaching Sisters, to members of Catholic Action and to “Educators intending truly to follow Christian doctrine”, the cardinal noted that by 1960 many respectable women and mothers in Genoa had stopped wearing dresses and skirts and had taken to wearing “men’s dress (men’s trousers)”. He recognises that trousers might not be thought of as immodest “because they cover more of a woman’s body than do modern women’s skirts” – unless, of course, they are provocatively tight-fitting. His main point, however, is to do with the psychology of women wearing trousers: he believes “Male dress is the visible aid to bringing about a mental attitude of being ‘like a man’” ie it changes the psychology of women.

Cardinal Siri’s argument is that “male dress tends to vitiate relationships between men and women”; when women wear trousers, it flattens out the natural distinction between the sexes and thus helps “to pull down the vital defence-works of the sense of shame”. He believes, in short, that “the changing of feminine psychology does fundamental, and in the long run, irreparable damage to the family, to conjugal fidelity, to human affections and to human society.”

This is a large claim. Yet when I described the Notification as a “wonderful document” I was not poking fun at it. Of course the language used is quaint and old-fashioned and I feel sure the late cardinal would have been somewhat out of sympathy with “the spirit of Vatican II”; that Council was just two years in the future when he wrote down his thoughts. Indeed, he might seem – to modern eyes – as a reactionary old blimp. But he was writing in the days when bishops and cardinals took seriously their responsibility before God of their fatherhood of their diocesan flock. And was he entirely wrong in what he wrote?

Several years ago (long before I realised that Cardinal Siri and I were on a similar wave-length) a friend gave me a book about purity and women’s dress. It actually persuaded me to chuck out all my trousers and slacks for good. Friends and family were naturally aghast: had I gone mad? I could see all the reasonable arguments against me: modest Muslim women are allowed to wear baggy trousers; women’s slacks are not the same as men’s trousers and can be feminine; in very cold countries they are the only way to keep one’s legs warm; what do you wear when you are skiing or riding etc.

But I stuck to my guns – if this isn’t too unfeminine a metaphor. Why? Well, when I was a student at Cambridge in the 1960s I had worn mini-skirts – then the fashion – most of the time; this was sheer immodesty, though I wouldn’t have thanked Cardinal Siri for pointing this out to me then. When I wasn’t wearing mini-skirts I was trying to look like a character from a Hemingway novel: T-shirt, jeans and keeping a crumpled packet of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes in my hip pocket. I was, as Siri points out, deliberately dressing “like a man”. (There was a very brief interlude when I went into shiny black PVC from top to toe; goodness knows what the cardinal would have made of that.)

I decided there and then I ought to make reparation for my sartorial sins and those of others. “Reparation” is a very Catholic idea: making amends and sacrifices to atone for sin. I know it doesn’t fit into a Darwinian scheme of things but it makes a lot of sense to me. And as soon as I began to wear skirts – midi and maxi this time – I began to notice the ugliness of modern female dress: most women I saw, unless they were very elderly, were wearing tight jeans with a large expanse of flesh exposed at the midriff; unflattering and unfeminine at the same time.

Feminism, a huge subject, also comes into this debate. I suspect Cardinal Siri was right to suggest that the women’s movement was not doing women any favours. I am not talking here about the right to vote and equal pay for equal work; I am talking about the situation today when, if you try to say publicly that a “right” to abortion harms women or that staying at home when one’s children are young might be a good thing, the fearsome army of the feminist sisterhood simply shouts one down.

Back to the idea of reparation: when I mentioned joining the Pioneers (for a limited period, of course) in my last blog, some of the responses suggested I needed to lighten up, especially as I don’t have a drink problem. But female drunkenness, and the immodesty that goes with it, have a disastrous effect on society. What is wrong with making amends for this?

Mind you, I do worry where I might end up: first trousers, now drink. Will chocolates be next?

  • Tesab

    I really appreciated the
    book, and have shared it with many a woman and young girl. However,
    some things bother me. I wear sweats and loose pants when I garden and
    for a few other activities. Normally, I wear skirts and hats (I just
    love hats). I notice that I get better
    service, more smiles, and kindlier assistance when I am not wearing
    pants or a “grunge” outfit. The problem I have is if
    “trousers flatten out the natural distinction between the sexes,” what
    about short haircuts on women? In later Western society, men had
    shorter hair and women grew their hair long. After one was married or
    reached a certain “mature” age, a woman put her hair up. This stopped
    during the 1910s and 20s, when women began bobbing their hair and
    smoking in public. If one rejects women donning trousers, it seems
    hypocritical to allow “bobbed” hair. Padre Pio condemned
    sheer stockings, and forbade a woman absolution because he knew she was
    wearing a pair when she came for confession. Everyone goes bare legged
    now, men and women. Times do change. I think a good question to ask
    oneself is, “Would Mary wear this?”

  • Amyriderone

    One of the most comfortable things I had in my closet was a red shirtwaist, A-line dress made of a fine stretchy  terry cloth. I could wear it anywear and be cool and comfortable. 
    Another thing I wore out was a gause nightgown with lots of cloth in the skirt and it was long to the floor.  Much more comfortable than any pants.  I would still wear these if I could find them again.  I do like to wear work out pants around home because they are more comfortable than jeans, but I have to wear jeans to work in my garden. But if I could find simple A-line comfortable dresses, would be glad to wear those instead. If I could find a stretchy comfortable loose fitting denim coverall, with a detachable bottom, I would wear that to work in my garden.  I remember seeing them in magazine ads when I was a girl, and wanted one even then.   
    I to,o am appalled at the wa y many women dress for Mass.  One Mother dressed as though she were attending a prom, wearing asatin  strapless dress for her babies, baptism.  And many wear jeans and, and not dressy jeans.  I suppose the Priest is glad they come to Mass at all, so doesn’t say anything, but I do think we should dress respectively in God’s house.            

  • Anonymous

    Here is an article, from a Calvinist POV, that makes the Cardinal’s strictures look positively lax:

    The footnotes are fascinating, and informative – as is this:

    “The Sacred Volume is our rule, and while giving little information on precise details of articles of clothing – replication of ancient garmentsbeing needless – it provides the principles necessary for appropriate and modest covering. These may be learned by searching the Scriptures and observing the standards of the godly”

    ## Which is all very well, but the Sacred Volume has very little to say about the morality of trouser-wearing by the ladies:

    “Not only is physical clothing absolutely required of God, but from the beginning it was bestowed upon men and women to be worn in the way that He sees fit, in a manner that fulfils the purpose of clothing.”

    Parkas may be needed by Eskimos – but by the inhabitants of Yemen ? Hardly. God has yet to vouchsafe any direction upon the morality of scarf-wearing by men; apparently He, being a good Calvinist, disapproves of this, and would prefer men to wear beards.

    Joking apart, this is the kind of pedantry that goes far to make Christianity, and the Bible, and God, odious and incredible; a dead book written by a bunch of ancient Semites is no guide to how people of very different cultures and times should dress, nor can it be. To imply that the Almighty will have a fit of the vapours if women wear skirts an inch or two above the ankle is fatuous at best & spiritual tyranny at worst. Calvinists have a tendency to confuse the Lordship of Christ over all aspects of life, with the tyranny of the Bible (as interpreted by them) over all aspects of life.

    From a more balanced POV:

  • Anonymous

    What is wrong with sheer stockings ?

    The worrying thing about all this fussing about clothes is that it implies men (say) are so utterly without self-control that they will re-act wrongly to anything female with two legs that is not draped in yards of material. As a man I find that deeply insulting. Not all human beings are the prisoners of their hormones. The Italian women Padre Pio knew may have dressed like degenerates, but not all Catholics do.

    Mary didn’t have a garden in the UK – many women do. She didn’t have indoor plumbing or a washing machine or a hair-dryer, but that’s no reason for Christian women not to use these things. Jesus never played pool or darts or footy – that’s not a reason for Christians not to.

  • Annielynnewitz

    No offense but wearing two skirts with flannel pants sound dreadfully ugly. My husband would hate me to dress like that!

  • David Armitage

    Flattens out distinctions between sexes? Poor man. Should have changed his optician. Silly old man. But the revelation that the Dutch hierarchy has let between 10-20’000 assaults pass unnoticed shows our leaders probably are attentive to higher things, be it so noble as ladies’ bottoms.  Perhaps as a seasonal goodwill gesture our hierarchy might care to set up a similar independent commission of enquiry? In view of the proportionately higher population might there be a more frightening result? Notwithstanding figleafs such as the CSAS. my guess is that our hierarchs would disappear to leave room for Christ’s Church to emerge.

  • Dwayne Colemanjr

    Elizabeth, I’m proud of you over your waking up to the fact that pants don’t belong on females. It is the same as a male wearing a skirt or dress…. and JUST AS wrong.

  • Berty O’fin

    The author neglected to answer and left me wondering what to do when you are riding, skiing etc. Being something of a tomboy as a girl I hated dresses and only wore them when forced by school dress codes. Later as a young woman with an attractive figure I chose a variety of dresses and skirts that flattered my figure and were professional in design. Now as a middle aged woman I wear slacks, jeans, (women’s of course). They are comfortable, don’t expose my unflattering flesh at the midriff,(loose blouses and sweaters take care of that) and keep my legs warm while I engage in outdoor winter activities. I stayed home with my children when it was not fashionable despite the sneers of my cohorts.  My independent nature has enabled me to not pay too much attention to what anyone thought or dictated with regards to form or function of clothing.

  • Acefast Ipswich

    i agree that when someone wear trousers, gender is quite confusing. so it’s up to you if you want to use it or not ;)

  • Marshall Kinsey

    Well said “TracyinND”. I grew up in eastern Montana not far from Golva, ND if that says anything to you. So I know how cold winters are there but I still miss them. 

  • Ana4316

    Actually I read that in their culture, priests (men) wore a type of shorts under the robes, and later on this became pants… so pants did have their origin as a men’s form of clothing. But I don’t really think that the point about robes really changes the argument: robes are not dresses… and both men and women have worn this type of clothing for centuries. Pants however, have historically been worn by men, and it’s only last century that women in the West began wearing them. It’s strange to me that this happened all of a sudden.

  • Ana4316

    I live in Canada too, and I wear skirts, I’ve found that it’s warm in a skirt if it’s long and you wear it with boots and warm tights :) actually I’ve found it to be warmer than in pants, because of all the layers. Especially if the boots are up to the knees. :)

  • Ana4316

    I’ve started wearing skirts recently as well, and I love it! :) I feel more feminine and it’s easier to be modest. Of course it depends on the skirt: midi/maxi skirts are good. :)

  • James P.

    I really don’t think that God cares very much what His daughters wear. If they act decent, behave modestly, and are faithful their whole life long, then what else is there? Please my friends, don’t forget that God loves and forgives His children.
    If you pardon me changing a well known phrase, my opinion is that Actions Speak Louder Than Clothes. I think that no-one on Earth has any right to judge, condemn, and choose what others will wear. That is their choice, and their business.
     However, how they behave is any Christian’s business. That is what I think God truly cares about, and how we get into His Kingdom.

  • Charles

    Puff is in the minority—someone who reasons!  “Cross dressing” is one of the big ways psychiatry interferes with human rights—denying men choices about what to wear.  Persons who can’t freely choose what to wear aren’t in full control of their affairs.  In clothing, only women have recognition of rights.  Calling skirts female based on association is so dismal.  Anatomy dictates skirts more closely match men’s wear!  Because without a crotch—no inseam making a loop all the way up, this gives men free, open space where they need it more than women.  Facial hair on men, voice differences, differences of shoulders and waist, and chest—these are all anyone needs to tell the genders apart.  Then there was the Pope in AD867 who told the Bulgars they could be Christians, even though they didn’t wear pants!  Does anyone think Christ didn’t understand Deuteronomy 22:5?  This was the same person who told the (skirt wearing) Roman centurion in Luke 7, his was the greatest faith of all.  Greek men have been traditionally wearing heavily pleated, petticoat like skirts for generations, this doesn’t make them gay or effeminate.  Theodosius I exiled men in pants from Rome in AD 393 as political subversives.  Evelyn Bross was arrested in June 1943 in Chicago and ordered by a court to see a psychiatrist for six months.  Her offense?  Being a woman and wearing pants in public!  Skirts/pants are not, have never been, and can never be, actual sex differences.  Pants are about riding horseback.

  • Lydia

    Doesn’t anyone think it rather funny that a man who wore skirts should accuse trouser-wearing women of blurring the difference between the sexes?