Free Newsletters


« It’s Time for the Church to Speak against Injustice toward Our Youth | Main | Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead »

August 8, 2013

When Clergy Fashion Goes Wrong

“The Mysterious Third Nipple” and other horror stories


At a recent ministry event, I seized an opportunity to test out my favorite new party trick among clergywomen.

“I’m just curious,” I queried, “if anyone has had a professional wardrobe malfunction…”

Though the term was officially coined by TV execs in the wake of the 2004 Super Bowl fiasco, as an attempt to explain Janet Jackson’s accidental exposure, clergywomen have been well acquainted with other variations of the common malady for…ever.

I’d long suspected these stories were out there, based only on my own fashion debacles: the inch of wrapped tampon sticking out of the breast pocket of a dark denim jacket before a college chapel service; catching a weighty falling gold earring, with my catlike reflexes, during a Scripture reading; chucking an unwieldy red headband under the pulpit mid-sermon; and, of course, terrifying innocent worshipers by swooping into the women’s restroom robed like Darth Vader.

When my colleagues chimed in with their own stories, however, Vader-gate suddenly seemed like a fun day at the Super Bowl.

One denominational executive offered, “The crotch of my hose had slid down to my knees, so I had to waddle out to the communion table like a penguin.”

The Penguin received a round of knowing nods.

“While I was preaching,” another offered, “my pantyhose had fallen all the way to my ankles.”

Now it was getting fun.

“I kept preaching, slipped off my shoes, wiggled out of the hose, and put my shoes back on. Then I realized the choir was behind me and saw the whole thing.”

These vignettes only confirmed my long-held suspicion that pantyhose are of the devil.

Being Great With Child

The women who had been pregnant pastors sounded like the most miserable among all women. Yes, it’s heartwarming for your prego clergyperson to read Mary’s Magnificat while dressed in a tent—or robe…whatever they’re calling it these days—but Mary didn’t have to deal with something I’m discovering are called “pulpit shoes.” While my preferred pulpit shoes would be red Converse high tops, my fashionable diva friends seem to wear sleek stylish heels to deliver the Word.

If you can believe it, bloated pregnant women no longer fit into these death traps.

One, confident her duties would keep her behind the reliably obscuring pulpit, wore fuzzy pink bunny slippers in worship. Her secret was safe until she walked down the aisle.

Another expectant pastor, who keeps her “pulpit shoes” tucked in her office closet, found that—like Cinderella’s devious stepsisters—she could no longer squeeze her fat sausage-feet into them. (These “pulpit shoes” sound, to my ear, as horrible as walking around on…glass. Really, Cinderella?) In a pinch, she was forced to preach in flip-flops. Thankfully, they were a nice liturgical black.

When one woman was, like, 27 months pregnant, she was providing pastoral care at a Catholic hospital. At five feet high, and just as wide, she wore a white-tabbed clerical shirt. One unsuspecting older gentleman glanced up from his sickbed and, without thinking, greeted her, “Hello, father.”

This one, technically not a wardrobe malfunction, actually did afford her an accidental respect of authority.

X-Rated Ministry

Laura—name changed to protect ministerial standing—typically wore a thick black robe, in a church she describes as “super-formal.” No air-conditioning. In Michigan. In July.

I think you can see where this is heading.

After one summer wedding where, bending over bride and groom, she’d poured sweat all over them and their shiny new rings, Laura was fed up. At the following week’s nuptials, she was prepared with a plan.

With a happy glimmer in her eye, Laura explained to us, “I wore my panties and just my robe.”

Awesome, right?!

The multi-staff church was so formal, there were actually regulations about how and where to hide the base of the cordless microphone.

Laura, awkwardly clipping hers to the fabric of her robe, simply assured the concerned senior pastor, “Just trust me. It’s not going to work today.”

After she shared with our group, one baffled colleague queried, “Didn’t you have that class in seminary where they suggested you always have a collar peeking out of the robe, because men imagine you’re wearing nothing under there, anyway?”

The round of silence and horrified looks suggested that none of us had taken that weird class.

The Clergywoman’s Archnemesis

Truly, so much of clergywomen’s agony does come from (cue horror soundtrack) the dreaded cordless microphone.

Once, unrobed, I glanced down and wondered why I had a third nipple. Daring to squeeze it, I realized that the mic’s foam cover had migrated down my shirt and taken up residence near legitimate Nipple 2. Case solved.

The bigger hassle, as Laura discovered, really is where to clip these things on Lady-Clothes.

One innovative dress-wearing clergywoman, without a place to clip hers, simply removed her pantyhose (on purpose), tied them around her waist, and clipped her mic to them.

Genius, right? Kill two annoying birds with one stone.

Though the solution was a success, she’d forgotten about it by the time worship had ended, and she dropped the mic on her desk and hung up her robe.

While she was mingling in the fellowship hall, her daughter whispered, “Mom…mom…”

Engaged in ministry, the mother ignored her.

More insistently, the daughter hissed, “Mom! Mom!”

This went on for awhile before the mother scolded, “Hush, child, I’m talking!” (#southernmama)

By that time, the daughter was happy enough to huff off with a “Fine! But I’m not the one wearing pantyhose around my waist!”

That had to have been a little satisfying.

My Dream

I actually have this fantasy about appearing on ABC’s Shark Tank to pitch an innovative new line of clothing for clergywomen.

Proposed line includes the following:

• Sturdy lapel, to secure microphone. There’s a reason they don’t call them brassiere microphones. (Note to self: The Brassiere Microphone.)
• Pants with belt loops, belt, and pockets, to secure the lapel microphone’s heavy black box.
• Discreet inner pockets to stash manuscript, breath mints, loose change for fifth-grade bake sale, etc.
• Socks and comfortable walking shoes
• No pantyhose

Spoiler alert: My innovative new clothing line for clergywomen is called MAN CLOTHES.

Margot wants to hear your stories! Yes, she wants to know if anyone in your congregation has ever stroked your hair and cooed, “I love that you wear your hair back. I wish my granddaughter would.” And she also wants to hear about the liturgical banner that fell on the organist, the denominational meeting gone awry, and the Sunday you ran out of bread before you finished serving communion. If she likes your story, she’ll feature it in an upcoming post.

Send your horror stories to Margot at this address:

Margot Starbuck is the author of the recently released Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor. More at

Related Tags: Clothes; Fashion


That's a great story. Got a good laugh. We all try hard to be proper sometimes reality just smacks us.

not a clergywoman myself, but WAS a choir director. back in the day when "half-slips" were worn (why were they worn) I could feel mine slipping as I directed the choir. Since I didn't sit on the platform at that time due to having a child in the nursery, I inched my way down the aisle after our song, as the slip slid lower and lower. By the time I made it out of the sanctuary, it was almost at my ankles. Fortunately, the door to the pastor's office was unlocked, so I opened it slightly and kicked the slip inside. Of course,I then had to make a point to hustle and get to the pastor or his wife before they entered the office. THAT would've been a far more serious crisis :)

" pantyhose are of the devil"
At times they are, of course, but mostly they are fine, I guess. "Clergy women", Western church shameful surrender to a common culture of feminism, are, probably, more close to that sad reality.

Oh, Margot, you slay me. I do believe MAN CLOTHES would be a wonderful relief: conceal nicely, clip wonderfully, avoiding anything remotely resembling pantyhose from the platform.

Clergywomen are fighting more than one battle, aren't they? Thanks for the comic relief. My only addition is the humiliation of getting the mic out from underneath your shirt in the control booth. A little privacy, please?!?

I was leading the high school worship team when I heard a THUD directly behind me. I turn around, and one of the teenage girls had fainted and fallen right off the stage in a heap. At least it was between songs. I helped her up and toward a chair, till a doctor and his wife took her off my hands (or more accurately, my shoulders) and got her something to eat.

One time I thought the choir was going to sing at a certain spot in the program and sat there looking down daydreaming for quite a while until I realized there was dead silence, looked up and saw everyone looking at me, looked at a choir person and mouthed "Are you singing?" to "No". I had the wrong page. Another time I was reading from the Bible, flipped the pages, and reread the story. I never figured out how I had goofed flipping the pages (I now staple them twice). Got half way through before I announced without thinking, "Haven't I read this already?" Another time I was getting over a sore throat, apologized for it and kept talking. The choir director came over and lowered my microphone during the passing of the peace, "I said, "You can't hear me?" He said "We can hear you breathing." To which, all stopped passing the peace and looked to the front because we were still on top of the microphone. Sometimes I feel like my church goers are listening too much to me because it has brought many a laugh and comment from each person as they're leaving. I also wonder if from their laughing about it if they needed the goofs because I'm boring.

well, there was the time my bead necklace kept banging against the microphone. And the time my heel got stuck in the floor vent on the way up front. Having done community theater for ten years, it didn't phase me a bit to be handed a cordless mic and drop it right down the front of my shirt. That's what we do. It surprised the sound guy quite a bit, though.

I was wearing a long skirt and the elastic in the waist was a bit loose. Underneath my robe I accidentally stepped on the skirt and pulled it down to my hips. As I stood behind the pulpit I could feel the skirt sliding further down my body. After my sermon I reached through those "pockets" in my robe and not so graciously hiked up my skirt. The choir was full of understanding women.

Worst thing is having issues with your nursing bra and pads during your sermon. ANY baby in the room could set me going. By the end of the service if my robe wasn't damp it was darn sure that I couldn't take it off to wander around. Sticky mess!

yes. well.

I was wearing a half slip and the elastic failed catastrophically. I was standing and preaching (a non-robing church) and when I walked from behind the podium to make a point, it fell around my ankles. I quickly improv'ed and said, "you know, let's stop and pray right now about this point." While heads were bowed, and ALMOST every eye closed, I picked up my half slip, balled it up in my hand, and tried to figure out what to do. My senior pastor (God bless him) held out his hand, took my slip and wadded it in his jacket pocket.

I said my Amen, then moved to my last point. And salvaged my pride. Except that his wife had seen the whole thing, and sent me a new half slip "with love from Rev. and Mrs. Deep Pockets."

I have never worn a half slip again.

I was once the shortest member of a staff of short clergy. The purple vestment set was extremely long, and the chasuble hung perfectly touching the floor in the front and the back when I first put it on. Unfortunately, through the course of the service, with all the pew aerobics, the darn thing would shift around. One day I was giving the bread to the altar party with a colleague following behind giving wine. As we went, she stepped on the hem of the chasuble and clothes-lined me. The person I was serving got "The body of ugh," then, with head tipped back, and trying desperately to hold in giggles, "Christ, the bread of Heaven."

Dressed for a funeral in the early 80's, a somewhat full skirt was great for the church, but at graveside had to ask the undertaker to hold my dress down as it was a windy day in Wisconsin. They also then thought to buy a hearse with mirror on passenger's side...

I think over the last 20 years I have done most of the above! Just last Sunday I got my shoe heel stuck in the hem of my long skirt while coming down from pulpit with books etc in my arms. I just stood for a while wriggling it free. Afterwards people said they thought I had taken ill! my abiding memory though is while I was in full flight of my (brilliant?)sermon, a tictac mint flew out of my mouth and landly firmly on the bald head of the senior elder!

Here in the South, summers are hot, even with air conditioning. While I robe during the winter, I do not between Pentecost and World Communion Sunday. I had a skirt that was a favorite for the summer because I had two different tops that went with it, and it was somewhat loose and flowing for coolness and comfort. It was a favorite until one Sunday morning when a parishioner came up to the pulpit right before prayer time to hand me a note. The note said "your skirt is tucked up in the back." Sure, enough, it had gotten itself nicely tucked into the elastic of my panties when I had used the ladies room before service. I was able to use the "eyes closed" moments of the prayer to get myself untucked, and I've been forever grateful to the parishioner who warned me before the offering when I would have had my back to the congregation twice. I wore that skirt very seldom after that, and always triple checked myself when I did.

Stepped discretely into the vesting room at an opportune time during the service so I could blow my nose. Forgot the mic was still on. Walked back out and was very confused as to why everyone was laughing so hard. I still hear about it to this day. I'm just glad I didn't also decide to sneak in a potty break.

I once was supplying at a congregation who had a male pastor. Because he usually slipped the microphone box into his pocket, he didn't give me a clip. Of course I wasn't wearing pants that had pockets - or a belt. So, what was I to do? I slipped the box in between my hip and my pants, hoping that the microphone would stay in place. During the sermon, I could feel the mic box slipping down my leg! Thankfully, nobody noticed and I was able to recover it gracefully.

I wish my microphone disaster had just been blowing my nose. One Sunday, in the few minutes before I went to join the procession, while I finished vesting, someone accosted me with a complaint. My secretary was there, and after the person walked away, I turned to the secretary and said, "That's such a bunch of sh*t." At which point, the deacon came running to tell me the mike was on. So, I took a moment in worship to apologize for my inappropriate behavior. After worship, many came up wanting to know what I had said. Apparently, only the deacon heard me. Still, I tried to clean up my language thereafter.

After reading this I am thankful that I do not wear pantyhose, nor do I typically wear a lapel mic, but after preaching my first sermon at our church the biggest complement I received was about my purple painted toenails which were peaking out of my wedge sandals!

I had to preach with the mic box attached to my Bible because there was no discreet place to put was thoroughly akward having the antenna jutting out of my Bible :)

We had an older woman catch her hair on fire while officiating communion...her overly sprayed hair ignited and she rapidly patted it out...everything was fine until the chair slowly began to fill with the smell of burnt hair

I was supply preaching at an unfamiliar church. At the time I was 8 months pregnant and large enough to stretch out the pleats in my normally fully gathered robe. I sat down on the Chancel Steps to do the Children's Sermon. Had a great time with the kids, dismissed them and then realized there was NO WAY I was ever going to get back up without help. The sermon happened to be about helping our friends. so, I adlibbed something about needing to make some new friends so they could help me up.

My personal list of "this can only happen to clergywomen" started in my first appointment during my first meeting with the DS in his office. Only clergywomen could have a live, very wiggly ant trapped in their bra trying to escape.

My first time preaching at a church other than my own my 1 year old twins wanted to be held during the children's moment. So I sat with them on my lap talking with the other kids. When it was over my mom and husband came to claim them and the smaller of the two decided to hold onto my dress as I sat her down and offered the congeration aa frontal view... Thankfully most were watching the other kids joyfully depart for the nursery.

I have a problem with excessive sweating. We Episcopalians wear a clergy shirt with a white "dog collar"[Anglican vs. Roman tab collar] (as my mother called it)and I had gained weight. The collar was so tight I was sweating. I thought to myself, "Self, good you are wearing your black, short-sleeved clergy shirt under your alb." At coffee hour, after I had disrobed, I had VERY distinct sweaty, salt stains on my black shirt under on my shirt where my bra ended. I, of course, had a nice woman inform me discretely about the situation, What was I to do- take off my shirt? And that was a southern shirt with good air conditioning!

These are great! A few crazy moments in my Episco-clergy experience involve being pregnant or a new mom. There was the day when I was great with child and eating lunch at a local deli (w/collar on) when someone walked up to me and asked, "What ARE you?" without missing a beat, I looked at the woman and said, "A pregnant Episcopal priest. And you?"

Or one of my first Sunday's back from maternity leave when I was still nursing and my boobs became engorged and I started to leak. It was one of the most painful, uncomfortable moments I could remember. No coffee hour that day, just the pump behind the closed (and locked) door of my office.

Or the time when my belly was so large that I had to saddle up to the altar at a funny angle b/c my bump was in the way. Someone caught a picture of that, which I appreciate, actually!

I do think "Man Clothes" is a deep answer on many levels as for the ultimate solution to all these female challenges. And maybe that's your point - but God help us if we have to resort to surrendering our feminine identities as WE would define them for ourselves. Personally, I just don't wear pantyhose any more - my choice. And that's the point, right? our choice? Bless all of us women (and men) who dare to live and minister within the structures of these ancient institutions.

OK, there was that time when I just felt "it" start, a week early and 15 seconds before we were to walk down the aisle. I swooped into the sacristy and grabbed a purificator and put it you -know -where. Never gave it back, never told the altar guild....

More pedestrian, I guess, was the time when my high heel got stuck in a crack in the floor as I was offering the chalice. The blood of Christ went flying!

Gave up pantyhose a long time ago, due to similar issues others have shared (*and I thought I was the only one!). I always try to wear a skirt or dress with pockets, due to the microphone issue, and regret when I don't! My nursing pad/bra story dates to my first child, when I was serving a three-point charge - and no time to nurse or pump in between, of course. The top part of my dress would be soaked by the middle of the third service.

In the category of microphone mishaps . . . . having to do a last-minute and *very fast* microphone switch between male pastor and me b/c one battery pack was dead, while we were standing at the rear of the church waiting for the processional to start, organ already playing, both of us already fully vested and wired w/ cords under vestments, running from hips to chest. We agreed that if either of us had had any enemies, one out of context smartphone photo showing where each of our hands were on each other at one point during that switcheroo could have had us both immediately defrocked.

Ah this did make me chuckle. While men do have it easier in this department, my male colleague did once have a bit of a faux pas....he had a very cool red t-shirt he was wearing to preach in, however the picture on it, when you gazed upon it (and let's face it, our congregation are gazing upon us as we preach!) was of a half naked woman on a surf board. Ooopsie!
Myself, I am conducting my first wedding next February, Lord of the Rings theme, and have been requested to wear a cloak....oh my....

I've always been grateful to be a pastor in a denomination that robes for worship--it solves so many (but not all) of those difficulties, and living in an era where pantyhose and slips are dispensable solves many of the rest! During summer when it's hot, I have a white clerical shirt and a white flowy skirt to wear on Sundays. Most people never notice it's not a robe.

Post a comment:

Verification (needed to reduce spam):


see more