Reverend Erin Jean Warde on Adapting a Timeworn Uniform

FIFTY YEARS AGO, THE idea of ordaining women as priests within the Episcopalian church struck many as all but unthinkable. Today, nearly forty-two years since the first ordinations of women – eleven in Philadelphia in July 1974 and four the following year in Washington D.C.1 – the next significant obstacle for some female priests stretches beyond the structural fabric of the church. For women like the Reverend Erin Jean Warde, who currently serves as Associate Rector for Christian Formation at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, Texas, it also lies in the subtleties of her work wardrobe.

Following their delayed admittance into the church in a leadership capacity, female priests inherited a relatively masculine-looking uniform – one that offers little variation where body types and sartorial taste are concerned. Upon their ordination, women in Warde’s position must adopt a standard code of dress. When leading services, clergy members don more formal, distinctive garments known as vestments alongside their ankle-length, long-sleeved robes, which oftentimes reflect the liturgical colour of the day or season of the religious celebration. Outside of church services, clergy people wear what they call clericals – essentially, their ‘street clothes.’ Along with a detachable white clerical collar, a black shirt, pants or a conservative pencil skirt for women are generally acceptable; these modest, non-distracting garments turn the focus away from materialism, thereby illustrating the wearer’s commitment to serving God and their communities as selflessly as possible, even in quotidian life.

Twenty-nine-year-old Rev. Warde has chosen to take an active stance against the stuffiness she saw in most clericals on offer. Instead of succumbing to years of dreary, ill-fitting garments for the sake of fitting in, Rev. Warde aims to modernise her wardrobe through a mix of DIY-alterations, thrift store hunting, and subtle – if liturgically appropriate – colour accents. In the process, she’s proved that dressing with a sense of moral responsibility and religious devotion need not imply a lack of style.

Rev. Warde has not been alone in this effort. Across the pond, Rev. Sandra Sykes, her friend Mandy Strevens and their daughters Sarah and Melissa founded what is thought to be Britain’s first retailer for ‘clergy couture.’ Rev. Sykes, an Anglican curate, points out, ‘So often all you can find is badly adapted shirts and women have been in the ministry for over twenty-five years. It almost seems like we are hidden as women rather than being celebrated…There’s a deeper theological thing to this. Women need to be recognised fully as women in ministry.’2 

As Rev. Warde tells it, the decision-making process required of dressing for work and leisure as a woman of faith occasionally feels like a curse – but she’s warming up to the idea that it might just be a daily blessing in disguise.

Catholic vestments designed by Henri Matisse for the Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominicans at Vence, France, in the early 1950s. The bright colors are in keeping with Matisse's oeuvre — and the church's liturgical seasons.
Catholic vestments designed by Henri Matisse for the Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominicans at Vence, France, in the early 1950s. The bright colors are in keeping with Matisse’s oeuvre — and the church’s liturgical seasons.

I love fashion generally – I’ve always loved it. On my Sabbath, I read InStyle sometimes. I mean, I read the Bible as well, but I do love a good InStyle. I follow Project Runway and I love What Not to Wear and all those sorts of things. I already had this teenage interest in fashion. Then I realised I would be given my work uniform, and my work uniform has a lot behind it – it carries a lot of weight when you walk into a room. That can either be a really good thing or it can be a really challenging thing.

I was trying to figure out what it was going to carry when I wore it and what it was going to say when I walked into a room – I think that matters. I kept looking at these [catalogue] pictures, and there was nothing wrong with them, but I just realised that I couldn’t imagine ever putting that [uniform] on and feeling beautiful. I don’t think that the priesthood requires that we trade feeling beautiful in order to serve God. Full disclaimer: I will say that my relationship to my own body has been a rollercoaster of just figuring out how to love the skin I’m in in the first place, much less adding a collar to it. I wanted to figure out how I could do this thing that I feel like God asked me to do with my life and that I want to very joyously do, but also hold up this interior feeling of beauty. I didn’t want to lose that feeling of beauty – a beauty that I believe God gave me – just because no one decided to give the girl in the catalogue a belt. I also saw all these ways that the clerical uniform could have been better. I just thought, it doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s typical to wear a black clerical shirt, some form of pants or a pencil skirt, maybe a blazer over it and heels. That to me would be the expected outfit to wear. And there’s nothing wrong with that – there are some people who make that exact wardrobe look amazing. But my body isn’t such that that actually looks good on me; it looks like I’m dressed up in my mom’s clothes when I wear an outfit like that. I’m 4’11” and curvy, so my figure doesn’t lend itself toward some of those lines that are a little bit more common … It wouldn’t surprise you that the priesthood – a male-dominated workforce – would have a more expected, masculine dress profile. But I don’t fall into that profile, so I’ve had to figure out how to wear clothes that I think flatter my body in an appropriate way, while also wearing this collar.

I’ll go to a boutique and find a black dress with scalloped edges on the bottom and on the sleeve, and I just put that over the collar. They have this thing called a ‘janie’ – it’s basically a ‘dickey,’ but it’s a ‘janie’ for women – and it hooks down right under your bra basically, and you can connect your collar to it. You would typically wear your undergarment, your janie, and something over it as long as it covers the janie. I take dresses from boutiques – like maybe a houndstooth dress, but it’s black-and-white – and I throw that over the janie and go. But that would not necessarily be something that most people have seen with a collar attached to it. The typical colour for clergy wear is black, but if you go to Women Spirit or Almy – companies that make clergy attire – you’ll see that now you can get clericals in myriad colours.

For my first ordination, I went to a Goodwill in Austin, Texas, and found this black, button-up shirt-dress. It was really cute and it was the appropriate length and everything; hitting right at or just above the knee is best. Why do I care about the length? I think when you meet with the priest, the greatest presence you should feel in the room is the presence of God. Sure, I want to teach and preach from a place of confidence that is sometimes enhanced by my clothing: but the thing of the greatest importance to me is that the people I care for feel God’s presence. I don’t want a hemline to distract from that. I’d rather break every fashion rule in the book than challenge that.

One of my seminary classmates was a former tailor and she was about to get ordained as well, and I said, ‘Would you mind tailoring this for me?’ She tailored it, so I wore the black dress, leggings and black wedges. The colour for an ordination is red, so I put on a red scarf; I thought it would be appropriate for the liturgical season, but I also thought it would be fun and offer some colour. I have a red pair of cowboy boots and since I’m a priest in Texas I always wear them on Pentecost. The only reason I can even remember what I was wearing is because I did get some comments, but they were all positive. People were commenting on how they’d never seen such a fashionable priest.

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Catholic vestments designed by Henri Matisse for the Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominicans at Vence, France

That said, I was serving in a diocese when I was ordained a priest that considered white to be the appropriate colour for the vestments for ordinations, which was new to me, but I went with it. White is how we recognise the majesty of resurrection: it’s how we celebrate All Saints, Easter, baptism Sundays, and funerals, because white celebrates the resurrection of Christ and how we share in that via our own resurrecting acts and our final resurrection in death.  Ordination could also be seen as a resurrecting act, because we take on a new way of life with new vows, new beauties, new challenges and new eternal joys. My colours change based on context.

The ironic thing about the clerical uniform is that one of the early significances of it was to make a clergy person be in the background. It was worn as an act of humility, so they wouldn’t be flamboyant; they wouldn’t be outwardly dressed in a way that would call attention to themselves. It’s ironic in a postmodern world, because I can’t walk into any place in a collar and not have a million people staring at me, like, ‘What on earth? Did a priest just walk into this coffee shop? And she’s also a woman? I don’t know what to do with that right now.’ That’s a whole other layer. The fashion aspect is constantly also being confronted with the reality that there are people who believe that women should not be ordained. And I have a physical manifestation of my ordination that goes with me when I walk into those places – that’s another challenge that just comes with it. Now the joy of it is that you also end up having conversations that you otherwise wouldn’t have had. People can see your collar and sometimes they have needed a sign for years that they could talk to someone, that they could have a prayer – you walk in, and you’re just trying to get your groceries, but they see this opportunity and there’s a really holy moment that is offered to me because of the fact that they can see on my neck an opportunity for a prayer or maybe hope or someone that they can trust. 

As far as negative feedback I’ve received, I think that every good has a shadow side. And the shadow side of adding fashion as a thing that I’m thinking about in my ministry is the idea that it might become self-centred – that putting on this collar might be about me. And to some degree, yes, by adding aspects of my personality to it, it is becoming about me. But my belief around that is that I’m not trying to take God out of it. God is the focus of my life and I want my life to be a ministry to God – I just think that God called me, Erin Jean Warde, to be a priest. And so I’m going to bring who God created me to be into that ministry. I think I want to honour the worry – that it then becomes self-centred and it’s no longer about God, it’s about you and your ego, and all of that Freudian, terrible stuff that we don’t want to show up in our priesthood – but at the same time, I think it’s okay to say, ‘I want to feel good about myself. I want to feel beautiful, because I believe that God desires that I would feel beautiful.’ That’s part of this abundant life that I believe the ministry is calling me into. 

If you know me personally, you know that I am comedic, I am extroverted, and I think that laughter is the best accessory to any outfit. But I’m also outspoken and I like to talk and I’m curious, so for me, I wanted those parts of my personality to be reflected in my fashion, even from before I was a priest. There is a connection for me between when I look my best and I feel like I look my best, in being able to more confidently walk into a room that might otherwise be intimidating. The life of being a priest, at least in my setting, involves standing in front of a lot of people. And it’s not necessarily four hundred people, but it’s a congregation of people. I think for me, it’s not so much appearance for the sake of anyone else, but I want to be able to feel self-confident, because that’s when I believe I do my best – for God and for the church.

My exploration is wrapped up in the fact that I am a very feminine person. I have really long hair, and I like to curl it, and I like red lipstick and I just went to a gala at my church in a black midi-dress with my collar and my red heels and a red lip. And it was fantastic. I loved every minute of it. That’s who I am. If you didn’t put me in a career where I would wear a collar, I would wear the same thing. It just wouldn’t have a collar on it. As I get older, and as I go through this journey of self-exploration, I’m just trying to figure out how to be the same person in every room I stand in.

Rev. Erin Jean Warde is the Associate Rector for Christian Formation at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, Texas.

Olivia Aylmer is a New York-based writer, editor and graduate of Barnard College at Columbia University.

  1. B Tammeus, ‘Episcopal church celebrates 40 years of women in the priesthood.’ National Catholic Reporter, 28 July 2014 

  2. J Bingham, ‘“Clergy couture” range launched for fashion-conscious female priests.’ The Telegraph, 21 May 2016