A Pants-Wearing Woman Reflects on Skirts

(photo: Shutterstock image)

I recently read the fascinating epic memoir Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which is about three generations of women who grew up in 20th century China. The most riveting part is when the author describes the great upheaval that occurred under the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. Of the hundreds of pages the author spends describing the sweeping changes that overtook her country during that time, one section stood out to me the most. Chang writes:

One day in 1965, we were suddenly told to go out and start removing all the grass from the lawns. Mao had instructed that grass, flowers, and pets were bourgeois habits and were to be eliminated…Mao had attacked flowers and grass several times before, saying that they should be replaced by cabbages and cotton.

At the same time that Mao was eradicating all the flowers, he attacked something else as well: feminine dress; particularly, skirts. Mao wrote a widely-publicized poem in which he told women to “doff femininity and don military attire.” Chang says of this turn of events:

Out went my mother’s fluffy bobs; in came short, straight hair. Her blouses and jackets were no longer colorful or figure-hugging. They were made of plain quiet colors and looked like tubes. I was particularly sorry to see her skirts go. I remembered how, a short time before, I had watched her getting off her bicycle, gracefully lifting her blue-and-white check skirt with her knee…Her skirt had been flowing like a fan as she rode toward me.

I was struck by the fact that the same line of thought led to the destruction of both flowers and skirts. It was one of those moments of feeling surprised that I wasn’t surprised. The two things seem to be entirely different at first glance, yet when you think about it, they both represent similar concepts in the human mind. Both evoke femininity. They’re soft and flowing, strong yet delicate, require time and care, and give an air of whimsy and hope.

It’s interesting that these concepts are often reviled by atheistic regimes. Though banning flowers was less common, many of the Communist movements of the 20th century specifically targeted pretty dresses and skirts as undesirable (most of the exceptions being calculated attempts to make their societies seem vibrant and happy). Such attire was seen as inefficient wasteful—think of how much more productive time a woman would have if she didn’t worry about her clothes, and how much harder she could work if she didn’t have to fuss around with silky skirt! Feminine dress also represented something that was anathema to Communist societies: the idea that women are different from men. Somehow in the pursuit of “equality” male behavior became the default, and all traditionally feminine behavior was seen as inferior. In order to claim their supposed freedom, women had to dress and act like men. In this worldview, skirts were a dangerously countercultural statement.

I’ve been thinking about this over the past few weeks as I walk around the house in my super-efficient jeans and t-shirts. It’s interesting that the feminist revolution here in America also shunned classically feminine garb. And all the women’s religious orders I can think of that are happily faithful to the Magesterium wear dresses or skirts for their habits, yet when religious sisters rebel against the Church, the donning of pants is often a symbolic part of that breach.

Could it be that there’s more to this issue than meets the eye?

For the record, my closet contains one skirt and one dress, and I can count on one hand the number of times I wear them in a year. I’m most comfortable in pants, and feel secure that I don’t look masculine while wearing them. It wasn’t even on my radar that anyone in the modern world still thought that there could be “shoulds” involved in women’s sartorial choices until I came across some pants vs. skirts debates in the Catholic blog world. And when I first saw these discussions, I dismissed all pro-skirts arguments without a thought beyond, Sheesh, people, are we in 2011 or 1811? But the issue has continued to nag at me, and, the more I think about it, I can’t quite get comfortable saying that skirts and pants are completely interchangeable.

A beautiful dress is a little inefficient. A colorful, flowy skirt is decidedly girly. Both draw a sharp line between the genders. Could we women proclaim some truths of the Faith in the public square with our wardrobe choices alone? Could we add something positive to the world by wearing pretty skirts? To someone with my background it sounds laughable at first, but this idea just might be more powerful than we think. To wear a skirt is to shout the messages that the Communists described in Jung Chang’s book once tried to suppress: that a full life isn’t all about efficiency and work; that men and women are different, and that’s okay; and that femininity is something to be celebrated, not squelched.

I don’t think that women should run out and buy skirts because they think it will make them better women or better Catholics. I’m not going to feel guilty if I don’t have the money or mental energy to incorporate a few more girly items into my wardrobe any time soon, and I don’t think anyone else should either. However, I do think that maybe those of us who are firmly attached to our jeans and slacks should revisit this issue. It’s easy to go with the flow of secular culture and have a knee-jerk negative reaction to any suggestion that women dress a certain way. But if we can get past that, I think that we just might find that there’s a whole lot of power in a skirt.