Time and Effort
Many women desiring to improve the way they dress become discouraged by abysmal market conditions. For instance, a woman desiring a graceful skirt to wear when running errands on cold winter days searches superstores and department stores, Amazon and Goodwill. She finds plenty of thin polyester maxiskirts in garish prints and several drab straight skirts of a design that flatters no one. But the graceful wool circle skirt or the elegant tweed A-line utterly elude her. After many hours of her fruitless hunt, she despairs and forces herself to come to grips with yet another bleak winter of jeans and sweat pants.
The situation is more or less the same in all seasons and contexts of life. Whether dressing for errands or a wedding, the moment a woman decides to seek clothing of better materials and more beautiful design than the standard fare, she comes face to face with the glaring reality that in today’s society, there is no easy way to acquire such clothing. And at this grim thought, she shakes her head sadly and leaves off her quest. She does not feel justified in putting any more time into the matter.
But I argue that she is justified in putting time into the matter. She need not think she acts on a frivolous whim. The instinct that urges her to look for something better, no matter how hopeless the quest may seem, is most certainly a good one. As I have argued in my previous essay, conformance to completely “normal” dress is not a neutral act. At least, not in the present day. It invariably means conforming to ugliness and often outright immodesty.
Although all souls claim membership in the mystical body of Christ, women particularly enjoy the privilege of embodying the Church (who is feminine, the mystical bride of Christ) and symbolizing her very essence. This fact, rather than daunting women, should renew their zeal and encourage them to take up the quest once again. One has only to look at the Book of Proverbs’ Valiant Woman to see that the acquisition of clothing for herself and her household takes up a good deal of her time:
She hath sought wool and flax, and hath wrought by the counsel of her hands… She hath put out her hand to strong things, and her fingers have taken hold of the spindle… She shall not fear for her house in the cold of snow: for all her domestics are clothed in double garments… She hath made herself clothing of tapestry: fine linen, and purple her covering… She hath made fine linen and sold it, and delivered a girdle to the Canaanite (Proverbs 31:13, 19, 21, 22, 24).
This passage appears in the traditional sanctoral cycle for most non-virgin, non-martyr female saints, e.g., St. Anne, the mother of Our Lady. Its literal interpretation highlights the human, and very specifically feminine, solicitude of these saints and may serve to encourage all women seeking to bring beauty to everyday life. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote:
Part of her [woman’s] natural feminine concern for the right development of the beings surrounding her involves the creation of an ambience, the order and beauty conducive to their development.
Needless to say, clothing is a fundamental part of this ambience, this order of beauty.
Of course, the structure of society today with its industrialization, mass production systems, and consumerism prevents a significant resumption of the ancient crafts practiced by the Valiant Woman. How then, does the Valiant Woman passage speak to women in the present day? In the literal sense, it shows that even in the present day, women can, and should, devote time to the acquisition of clothing for themselves and their households.
It is worth pointing out too, that as long as we clothe ourselves on a daily basis, we will have to devote some amount of time to it, be it ugly or beautiful. The acquisition of beautiful clothing may have a learning curve, but this can be surmounted. After some practice, women may find that due to the quantity of online shopping they undertake (with niche retailors producing clothes not in the mainstream market) they actually save time. They no longer stand in dressing rooms at Dillard’s or wait in lines at Walmart. They just measure themselves, review size charts, and click to purchase.
Etsy shops, Mormon vendors, or even Muslim vendors, though little known, will often yield better clothing than expensive department stores. Thrift stores too will sometimes have pieces worthy of wearing, though women must be willing to spend time searching through the racks in order to find these hidden treasures. In summary, the task is to despoil the Egyptians, but only so long as the Egyptians are actually worth despoiling.
Finally, those women who sew must prioritize the cultivation of this craft and seek to pass it on to their daughters. In this way, they may be armed with the ability to modify ready-made clothing as needed in order to make it more modest or more beautiful, or to make entirely new and successful works of art. I know a woman who sewed a lovely maternity dress for herself using a bed sheet from a thrift store and a hundred-dollar sewing machine. I know a young lady who turned a backless prom dress into a modest ball gown worthy of a princess. Neither is a professional seamstress, but both were willing to devote a little time and their God-given creativity to the art of dress.
In Catholic circles where true devotion and large families abound, one often encounters women unaccustomed to paying more than twenty dollars for any article of clothing. They may have grown up with older sisters and worn hand-me-downs their entire childhood, and now, raising families of their own, they strive to save every penny in order to keep food on the table. They might wish they could find better materials and designs for themselves and their families, but it seems to them unpardonably reckless to pay one hundred dollars for a skirt from an online boutique when they can obtain one for five dollars at a thrift store.
Here I would like to emphasize that though it has become a cliché, the maxim “quality over quantity” certainly applies. One beautiful skirt is better than ten ugly ones. The idea that one must wear something different every day is born from industrialization and is only made sustainable by shoddy manufacturing techniques and the use of synthetic fibers. It is far better to invest in fewer articles of clothing bearing higher quality as these will not only provide greater artistic success, but stand the test of time.
Additionally, frugal women might see this matter differently if they recognize that a woman who seeks beautiful clothing for herself and her household, seeks their spiritual nourishment just as much as their physical protection from the elements. Man does not live by bread alone, but requires the spiritual food and profound sense of repose which beauty in everyday life invariably brings.
Clothing is also a powerful pedagogical tool. As the part of the material world that comes in constant direct contact with our bodies, it has profound power to teach us incarnate beings who we are. In a 1960 letter concerning dress, Cardinal Siri, aptly pointed out:
[S]ince the world began, the clothing a person wears so determines and conditions gestures, attitudes and behavior, that clothing comes to impose, from the outside, a particular frame of mind.
This observation cannot be over-emphasized. Clothing has the power to shape the mind. The secular world driven by evil forces certainly uses this to its advantage. Unfortunately, most of today’s Catholics have yet to do the same. Instead of clothing that speaks the lies of sensualism, “gender-neutrality,” and dystopian utility, Catholic women could wear clothing that helps them understand themselves in the eyes of God: graceful skirts and dresses—not impractical but not utilitarian either! Needless to say, tawdry, ugly, or immodest clothing clashes with the ontological value and beauty of the wearer and seems to say, “You aren’t worth anything better.”
When it comes to educating children through clothing, a little girl given a costly wardrobe will of course become spoiled if her parents fail to teach her gratitude and proper stewardship of this possession. But a girl given nothing but ugly garage sale purchases will be spoiled in a different way. She will not develop a proper view of her own dignity in the sight of God. Her ugly clothing will make it difficult for her to realize her own ontological beauty. And she will not learn how to practice the art of dress successfully because, like a painter with runny paints, her defective materials will impede her ability to create something beautiful, leaving her tired and frustrated. It is vital then for parents, the primary educators of their children, and for all Christians, bound to speak the truth in word and act, to consider the message their clothing conveys.
Finally, viewing the family circle from without, one must acknowledge that the ontological beauty that emanates from a large Catholic family holds greatest sway when all members are clothed well. This is because the visible beauty of their outward appearance produces a perfect harmony with the note of ontological beauty that sings from their unity. In the prevailing discord of today’s world which promotes family strife and ugliness in all possible domains, they stand like an abundant oasis in a barren desert. They bring the food of hope to all who see them because they reflect the Image of the Triune God. For this reason, to invest money into better clothing is actually an act of generosity, a work of mercy, like the Valiant Woman who “hath opened her hand to the needy, and stretched out her hands to the poor.”
Laughing in the Latter Day
In all discussions on the restoration of Christian culture, one inevitably must face the reality of the Cross. For all the beauty of sunlight shining on white linen, of ribbons fluttering in the wind, of young girls in pastel dresses like so many flowers in a field, one must toil like the valiant woman who “rises in the night,” and this may often seem a thankless task. Clothing ordered online will not always fit as expected, things will get dirty, wrinkled, or not deliver the desired effect. There will be disappointments and setbacks and temptations to question whether the constant effort is worthwhile after all.
And yet, we read that the Valiant Woman “shall laugh in the latter day.” Why does she laugh? What makes her so triumphant? St. Albert the Great explains her laughter as springing from her faith in an eternal reward. Everything then—tedious online shopping, hours at the sewing machine, the daunting task of ironing linen, the incessant work of stain removal—can become acts of faith for the woman who seeks the glorification of God.
The more trying the task, the more elusive the earthly gain, the more she can trust in heavenly victory and the laughter of the latter day. She who has persevered in her labors to raise the minds of men to Heaven by the humble means available to her, will herself be raised to the face of God; and then she will labor no more, but rest forever, clothed in His infinite beauty.
 St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Essays on Woman, trans. Freda Mary (Washinton, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2010), 237. “Thus woman achieves a particular organic position in the Church; and lastly, she is called upon to embody in her highest and purest development the essence of the Church—to be its symbol.”
 St. Teresa Benedicta, op. cit., 78.
 For a commentary that deals largely with the allegorical reading of this text see: Albert the Great, The Valiant Woman, trans. Benedict Ashley O.P. and Dominic Holtz O.P. (Chicago, Illinois: New Priory Press, 2013).
 Although the lack of the “human” element in online shopping is certainly regrettable, like so many problems in post-modernity it must be accepted. One can hope that with an increase in demand for beautiful clothing, the market may provide once again traditional brick-and-mortar boutiques in which customers can interact with those who produce their clothing.
 Some promising examples of such stores include www.eshakti.com, www.shopxiaolizi.com, www.simpleretro.com, and https://www.petallush.com/dresses. My mention of these is not necessarily an endorsement of every one of their products, but an acknowledgment that they sell (at least some) beautiful and modest pieces.
 For a valuable summary of the concept of “despoiling the Egyptians” see: Peter Thomas Elliott, “Plundering Egyptian Gold: Christianity and Culture,” Gonzaga Socratic Club, Friday, March 21, 2014.
 St. Albert, op. cit., 245-246.
Anna Kalinowska is a Catholic writer from St. Louis, Missouri. Recently, Anna’s main writing work has involved keeping up a feverish (mostly one-sided) correspondence with her siblings in religious life. When she is not writing in English, Anna writes in C++, C#, and Python.