Culottes! They’re not just the spork of the sartorial world, they’re also a very telling signifier for a particular brand of white American fundamentalist Christianity. So let me explain why this creepy Christian candidate for the Colorado legislature’s endorsement of culottes makes my skin crawl.
We’re not talking here about the kind of 18th-century men’s breeches that Francis Schaeffer adopted as an affectation. We’re talking about the past-the-knee split skirts worn in enforced-modesty white fundie groups of the sort that think Schaeffer was a dangerously liberal threat to Real, True Christianity.
I’m a graduate of Timothy Christian, a private white fundie school in Central Jersey. Sometimes when I tell stories about good old TCS — the quirkier rules of our multi-page dress code, or the trivial matters we treated as taboos of great moral import, or the folklore we learned in “Bible” classes, or the classmate whose parents grounded him for listening to David Meece — people will gasp and laugh awkwardly in disbelief. “Whaaat? No! C’mon ….”
People who have never been part of a white fundamentalist subculture don’t quite seem to fully believe me when I tell them that, yes, those stories are true and that stuff really happened, and we were really like that, honestly.
TCS was staunchly fundamentalist — young-Earth creationist, Rapture-awaiting, KJV-inerrantist, etc. Back then, it was also part of a regional athletic conference for private Christian schools (i.e., private Protestant schools) that included some schools that were way more fundamentalist than us.
The hallmark of those ultra-fundie schools was that their girls soccer and basketball teams had to wear culottes. (Baggy, knee-length, unflatteringly “modest,” hard-to-play-soccer-in culottes.)
We Timothy kids would talk to kids from those schools about what other kinds of rules and “biblical” teachings they followed and their answers would make us gasp and laugh awkwardly in disbelief. “Whaaat? No! C’mon ….”
That is what culottes signify in white fundamentalist churches.
For some dismaying photos, see this 2012 look at the “Top 10 Worst Christian Fashions” (culottes are No. 2). That post notes that:
The special thing about culottes is that they are still mandatory at some Christian schools for girls to wear … assuming they are allowed to wear anything that isn’t an ankle-length skirt. These schools are usually affiliated with Bob Jones curriculum or Pensacola Christian College. Many Baptist schools still adopt this style. These school usually are called ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) schools because they use the ACE curriculum to teach their students.
Those schools are also mostly segregation academies, even if that fact was buried beneath layers of pious euphemism. That history, white theology, identity and purpose is still what shapes such schools and churches.
It’s not hard to see that pro-segregation agenda when you look at those “Christian school” curriculums produced by Bob Jones and Pensacola. Their history lessons are still full of paeans to devoutly benevolent white slave owners and other white nationalist Bartonian nonsense. But these texts are now being produced and read by people who are a couple of generations removed from the “crisis” of Brown and the Civil Rights Movement that sparked the founding of all of these schools (and of the religious right more broadly).
For these contemporary white fundies — as for the current version of the religious right in all its forms — the original loaded language of the original euphemisms is simply all they have ever known. It is their subcultural inheritance, absorbed from birth, with little understanding of how those piously theologized euphemisms originally functioned — and still function — as proxies for segregationist politics.
So people like right-wing anti-pants pastor Corey Seulean and his flock may not be fully, consciously aware of the extent to which their sartorial and doctrinal totems and “banners” arose as, and still serve as, proxies for a white nationalist politics that dates back to before the second founding of the United States. Their confusion — partly honest, partly just convenient — is the whole purpose of such euphemism. (“Redemption” sounds good doesn’t it? It sounds positively spiritual and holy.)
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—r, n—r, n—r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—r, n—r.”
A generation or so after 1954, you’ve got a bunch of white folks whose politics are centered around the abstract euphemisms — “cutting taxes and all these things” — as all they’ve ever known of their ideology. They know the euphemisms and the proxies, but are less aware than their forebears of what all these things are euphemisms and proxies for. So they get really defensive and angry and offended when anyone points out to them that their whole agenda was introduced — and still functions — as just another way of “saying N—r, n—r, n—r.”
They get very angry at that suggestion because on one level that’s not what they personally meant to be saying and promoting. And they get very defensive at that suggestion because on another level they’re realizing that, wait, that explains a lot, doesn’t it? And oh no, what exactly have I been doing all this time?
The same dynamic has shaped white Christianity in America for the past 400 years. You start out in 1619 by saying, “N—r, n—r, n—r.” But generations later you can’t say that, it hurts you, backfires to be so overt and explicit. So you say stuff like, uh, “inerrancy,” “literalism,” and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about “defending the authority of the scriptures” and all these things you’re talking about are totally theological-sounding things but a byproduct of them is white-centered politics and the politics of white nationalism.
It’s a hell of a lot more abstract, but it serves the same purpose and function.
The culotte thing is also, of course, all about controlling women. It’s part of Comstock-vintage white Christian “purity culture” and thus has as much to do with anti-feminism and patriarchy as it does with white nationalism. But, as with Comstock himself, these things have always been intertwined. The “purity” of purity culture has always had an element of racial “purity’ to it. Reactionaries have always been intersectional, long before the rest of us had a name for it. Pro-segregation white Christianity has always been, and still is, anti-suffrage too. (They are not just coming for your birth control, they’re coming for your vote.)
In any case, if you see a bunch of Christians wearing culottes, run away. (Don’t worry, they probably won’t be able to catch you — it’s impossible to run in those things.)