Clergy Starter Capsule Wardrobe

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You get the phone call you’ve been waiting for. You sign the paperwork. You circle the start date on your calendar in bright red ink.

This is it! Your very first clergy job! Congrats, Reverend!

Then, still in the warm afterglow of that glorious call, you look in the mirror.

If you have been a full-time seminary student for the last several years, perhaps you are wearing your one pair of jeans, which are starting to wear through in that spot where your bike seat makes contact with your inner thigh.

Or you might be in your Study Pants. You know exactly which pants are your Study Pants: These are sweatpants, leggings, or yoga tights whose proper sphere is the home. Those Study Pants have helped you meet many a deadline and kept you cozy through many a late night. You know you’re not really supposed to wear them to class, but, uh, all the undergrads are doing it.

What’s that you’re wearing on top? Is it a hoodie from the campus bookstore? A long-sleeved T-shirt from a 5K race you ran last spring? Your favorite sweater, also hooded, which has gotten a little threadbare in the decade since you picked it up at a street market while studying abroad in Peru?

You sigh. You are going to need a serious wardrobe overhaul between now and your start date.

There’s just one problem: You have no money. Your first paycheck still glimmers in the future, and your final tuition payment is due in the uncomfortable here and now.

Enter the clergy capsule wardrobe.

Now, I am not a capsule fiend. My attitude toward minimalism is best summarized by the brilliant Mallory Ortberg. (“Replace your couch with a pile of the least frustrated lentils you can find. No more than seven lentils.”)

But compact wardrobes have their time and place. That time is the moment when you have to craft a whole new clergy ensemble on a budget of zero dollars, and that place is your new church.

If you find yourself in this situation, try starting with the list below. Even if you wear the same tab-collared shirt every day, these nine pieces will give you enough options to keep sniffy church ladies from asking you, “Didn’t I see you in those pants last Sunday?”

A note about shopping on a budget: If you most often wear a size Small, Medium, or Large and/or a very common shoe size (roughly sizes 6 to 9), it’s well worth your time to look for business casual staples at thrift stores — they often have barely-worn dress shoes, skirts, and blazers. If your clothing or shoe size runs smaller or larger, keep an eye on the clearance sections of your favorite stores. You can find some fabulous deals from retailers who are looking to unload that one last XXS sweater or pair of size 11 shoes.

Clergy Starter Capsule Wardrobe

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1. Black clergy shirt. Clergy shirts come in two basic styles: tab collar (also called “Roman collar”) and neckband collar (“Anglican collar”). Before dropping any cash here, check in with your rector or senior pastor to find out whether they care which kind you wear. Having grown up Catholic, I think of tab-collared shirts as the “real” kind and wear them almost exclusively, but some Protestant clergy frown upon them.

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(Photo credit: WomenSpirit)

If you choose a neckband collar, be prepared for many laypeople to wonder why you are wearing a shirt with a plastic turtleneck. If you choose a tab collar, be prepared for many laypeople on the street to ask you questions about it: “Are you really a priest?” “Can women be Catholic priests now?” “Are you in a play?”

Clergy shirts are not cheap, so buy one that fits you properly and treat it well. I have three of these dress shirts from Almy and they still look new after countless washings, though I had to get the side seams taken in to make them fit right. If you want a shirt that you don’t have to tuck in, here are some options from Almy, Clergy Image, and WomenSpirit.

2. Clergy shirt in pretty much any color other than black. Again, check with your boss first. Some clergy are black-shirt purists, but most will not mind if you want to double your outfit options by picking up another color. If you’re only going to own two of these shirts, don’t go too wild. Navy, hunter green, or royal blue will serve you better than paisley print or Barbie pink.

DO NOT BUY A PURPLE CLERGY SHIRT. Many Christian traditions reserve purple for bishops. Even if bishops are not a thing in your denomination, a purple shirt will not win you any points at the next ecumenical clergy brunch.

3. Printed skirt. Why shop for this next? Because the colors in a print go together (that’s why somebody printed them all on the same skirt) and will give you a color scheme around which to build the rest of your wardrobe. The more conservative the cut of the skirt, the more bold you can be with the print, although unless you work in a Las Vegas wedding chapel you might want to steer clear of animal prints and sparkles. I love the zipper details on this blue-and-green skirt from M Missoni, but there are plenty of beautiful lower-cost options, like this dark floral pencil skirt or this maroon paisley print (both from LOFT).

While skirt shopping, allow yourself a moment of shoe truth. Do you wear flat shoes almost every day? Unless you are seven feet tall, a knee-length pencil skirt is gonna look weird with those. But ballet flats are beautiful with a straight skirt that hits an inch or two above the knee; clogs look great with a flared or A-line shape; and pretty much every skirt style is destined for success with knee-high leather boots. Do make sure your silhouette is structured enough for the sartorial norms of your church. Undertake the “boho chic pastor” look at your own risk.

If you don’t care for prints, try a bright color or an interesting texture. How about this yellow lace skirt, navy faux suede skirt, or simple pencil skirt in persimmon or bright green?

4. Skirt in a neutral color. Not black — you’re already wearing a black shirt and you are not planning to rob a bank. Pick another neutral light enough that it won’t clash, like camel (love that laser cutout detail!), light gray, or dark blue.

5. Pants. Now, I hate pants shopping (unless it is Study Pants shopping!), so my capsule has two skirts but one lonely pair of pants. Feel free to switch these ratios around to suit your style.

If you’re only going to own one pair of pants, however, make them a workhorse pair. They should be machine-washable and comfortable enough that you can kneel on the floor with the kindergartners in Sunday school, crouch to pick up a hymnal that has fallen behind the altar rail, and slump through an evening board meeting at the end of a long day. You can’t go wrong with khakis, but since you’re going to be wearing so much black, you might also consider a go-with-everything color like olive, burgundy, or hunter green. Find something that works with both of your shirts, the sweater, and the blazer. Gap chinos are a classic; if you want to look a bit more dressed up, try the Editor or Columnist pants from Express and the Marisa or Julie pants from LOFT. Decide which pair of shoes you want to wear them with and get them hemmed to the right length.

6. Sweater. This sweater should go with both your new shirts, as well as your new pants and skirts (we’ll get to that soon). Wear your clericals while trying on sweaters — some necklines that normally suit you will look kinda weird with the high collar of the shirt. Also, keep in mind that pastels and earth tones can look washed out against black. Jewel tones and other saturated colors are a good bet.

You’re going to get a lot of wear out of this sweater: Churches are hard to heat and your office will be cold. Go for a pullover, cardigan, solid color, Fair Isle, whatever makes your heart sing. J. Crew Factory is a nice place to pick up inexpensive, durable sweaters; my favorites are the V-neck (solid or striped) and the Caryn cardigan (solid in a million color options, striped, or polka-dotted).

7. Blazer. Nothing says “I may be only three weeks out of seminary but I sure do know what I’m doing” like a well-cut blazer. Think about what you will most often want to wear it with: Shorter blazers look better with skirts, longer ones with pants. You don’t have to spend a zillion dollars on a blazer, but if you’re buying a cheap one, consider sticking with gray or black — colorful blazers have a way of looking very polyester-y. J. Crew Factory makes a great basic wool blazer (also in petite!) and LOFT has this edgy fringe tweed jacket if you’re feeling adventurous.

Blazers tend to be dry-clean-only and that business is expensive. To maximize wears between trips to the cleaners, always wear sleeves under your blazer, and give the armpits a spritz with white vinegar if they start to get funky.

8. Very comfortable everyday shoes. I do mean VERY comfortable. If you cannot walk a mile in them, they fail the test.

But never fear: You can wear comfortable shoes without succumbing to Frumpy Priest syndrome. I swear by these White Mountain flats — I love the patent cap-toe detail, which dresses them up a bit, and they offer fabulous arch support that is hard to find in a ballet flat.

Other options include ankle boots (there are plenty of flat options, but these low-heeled Style & Co. booties also pass the comfort test), riding boots (I can walk for days in these b.o.c. boots), or wedges (these ultra-comfy Naturalizer wedges are marked down to $21). Dansko clogs are the shoe of choice for many clergy women and come in a variety of colors that are eye-catching but still professional. Just please, don’t wear them with a pencil skirt.

9. Reasonably comfortable dress shoes. Do you want to officiate a black-tie wedding in your Dansko clogs? No, you do not. If you ever wear heels, it’s worth investing in one well-made pair in real leather. I love the Cole Haan Juliana pumps (which come in two different heel heights), and these days you can find plenty of glamorous choices from comfort brands like Ecco and Clarks.

That’s it! These nine pieces are all you need for a full year of business-casual clergy life. Look at just a few of the outfits you can make:

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It’s a chilly fall weekday. You’re going to attend some meetings, make a hospital visit, and then return to church, where you will inevitably plunge a toilet or move a bunch of folding chairs.

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It’s a beautiful spring afternoon and you are going to tea with the altar guild! Look at that pretty skirt. Also, they will love your shoes.

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You’re going to an evening board meeting. Why is it always so cold in this room at night? Good thing you remembered your cardigan.

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You’re going to some boring denominational gathering for which you wish to look very serious. You forgot about the opening reception, where you will have to stand for hours on end. You probably should have gone with the flat shoes.

Meanwhile, if you’re getting ordained soon, people are going to want to buy you presents. Here are two bonus items you should put on that list.

10. Cross pendant. The cross itself should be between 1.5″ and 2.5″ long (any smaller will look weird with your collar; any larger says “Halloween costume”). Stay away from gold, which is reserved for bishops. I treasure this silver deacon’s cross, which was a gift from my dad for my diaconal ordination, and still wear it all the time now that I’m a priest. I am also a sucker for all Tree of Life variations, like this silver-finish one and this bronze cutout version.

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Sharpest-lookin’ pastor on the block.

11. Grown-up handbag or briefcase. The board members of your congregation may or may not appreciate the fashion statement you are making with your neon pleather hobo bag, so it’s time to start toting your prayer book around in something with a little more panache. This bag needn’t be expensive to get the job done. Here are some options under $30 from Forever 21 and Old Navy, and you can often find good deals at discount retailers like Marshalls and TJ Maxx.

Me? Almost every day, I carry the Lucky Brand April tote in black. It’s under $100, made of real leather, can fit my laptop, and has a zip-top closure to deter subway thieves. I am also a big fan of the pebbled texture and the tassel detail.

That’s it! If you are a seminarian or new minister trying to build a work wardrobe, I hope these suggestions come in handy. No matter what you buy or how you dress, at the end of the day, remember that the only real non-negligible item is your passion for building the kingdom of God. If you are fabulously dressed while doing it, well, that is only the icing on the cake.

… Oh, and hang onto those Study Pants. They will become Sermon Writing Pants soon enough.