When I finished my presentation on Dress Codes and Pentecostal Purity Culture in a class at Regent a few weeks ago, I was genuinely worried because my talk was meant to be subversive. It went well, the class was receptive, and since it was mostly women, the fact that there are few, if any, regulations aimed towards men, they got it. Dress codes, historically and today are rooted in gendered notions of women’s sexual power over men being so overwhelming, that it is almost unfair to subject men to a woman’s gaze, should he become captive to her whims and have his piety dashed against the rocks–women are the sirens in Pentecostal seas of piety–luring men to their spiritual deaths.
I had the class examine two websites in particular, this post on a typical Dress Code–from an African American church where the “First Lady” of the church, (the pastor’s wife), had a long blog entry that contained so much great material, that it took up 20 minutes of my hour of lecture time. What we discovered in this blog, was that, the pastor’s wife, was concerned about how women comported themselves–aesthetically as well as for piety’s sake. There were exhortations to use girdles to tuck in the “jellies,” and to use a good-fitting bra, so that when the Spirit moved–women did not move too much. Apparently, this First Lady, keeps her purse well-stocked with items such as a sewing kit (to sew up skirt hems that show too much leg or something else), extra lap blankets, (when women fall indelicately on the floor under the Spirit’s power, they should be properly covered), and even an extra camisole. The need for camisoles was stressed by the First Lady of this Church of God in Christ church in suburban Virginia.
Camisoles, it seems, counter the “sheer” look, which while stylish, turns out to be completely unsuitable for women, since it reveals way too much. Of particular note, is that the camisole should have tummy control and be tight fitting, (I did not even know such things existed), the reasons for this are aesthetic–tummy control secures for women, the fact that if they are overweight, they are not looking slovenly. With their tummies securely tucked away, camisoles also serve to keep the “raisins” in check. I will let your mind wander over what a great euphemism that is for nipples.
When a student raised their hand and asked about why men’s “raisins” raised no similar piety “flags,” I responded that “no one cares about men’s raisins.” As Janet Jackson can attest–once the raisins are out of the bag–you’re pretty much done.
We concluded the class by examining some other blogs where the onus of dressing properly was clearly all on women to bear. Causing men to “fall” seems to be most acute during summer months, when, bereft of reasons to pile on layers of clothes for the frumpy look, summer gives way to sheer blouses, sleeveless tops, shorts, and yes, the dreaded swimsuit. The multimillion dollar purity clothing industry, closely tied to the even larger and more financially successful Purity Culture industry–spends an inordinate amount of time and money on fashions for women and girls during the summer months. Of particular note are the varied takes on the swimsuit–since among some Pentecostal groups, women must wear skirts over shorts, so it seems that culottes never do go out of fashion.
As most theologically inspired mandates tend to morph into something completely different, the reasoning for dress codes from Pentecostalism’s Holiness roots, had a lot to do with the ostentatious display of wealth and worldliness that accompanied things like jewelry, certain hairstyles, and lavish clothing–solidarity with the less fortunate–with the poor who could not afford such things was intimately tied to being a holiness advocate, for wearing plain clothes–and, as far back as the early church–for wearing black. This solidarity born of necessity and humility is now solely concerned with regulating women’s bodies–attempting to ensure that sexual aesthetics tied to revealed parts of the body do not tempt men to disorderly behavior.
The last picture I displayed during this wonderful teaching hour was a silhouette of a trio of Apostolic Pentecostal women–all wearing the iconic long skirts and long long hair–only these silhouettes did not hide their forms–if anything, those Apostolic women looked like James Bond girls that dance over the beginning credits of nearly every Bond film. Most of those women on screen at least, are supposed to offer the illusion that they are dancing without any clothing. I could not help but see the irony of that picture–and how those Apostolic women posed for those revealing silhouettes, but would never watch a Bond film, (given that we should all skip the Timothy Dalton era). The class concluded with a guessing game of how much the elaborate hat the First Lady wore cost, with the consensus being that the hat alone cost about $300 dollars and the rest of the matching dress and shoes would have added several hundred dollars to the First Lady’s Sunday best, a number of students shook their heads at the excess and the overall sense was that they knew best how to maintain their own sense of purity and piety and did not feel the need to subject themselves to “experts” from the Purity Culture.
Next week…completing our Hunting Heresy at Regent series–some thoughts on a plenary I delivered on decolonizing Latino/a Pentecostalism–all under the ever seeing eyes of Pat Robertson…