Baptist Shorts — Culottes

polly gerencser late 1990s

Polly Gerencser, late 1990s, carrying water from the creek to flush the toilets. An ice storm had knocked out the power. Oh, the clothing! But she was and remains one beautiful woman.

Many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers spend an inordinate amount of time instructing congregants about what clothing is acceptable to God. This is especially true when it comes to the clothing of girls and women. Last week, I posted a quote by Gerald Collingsworth, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Mogadore, Ohio, that stated in no uncertain terms that girls wearing “immodest” clothing can and do cause male family members to sexually assault (commit incest with) them. Consider the following graphics from an article written by IFB zealot Daphne Kirkland titled, A Return to Biblical Modesty.

modesty check

dressing modestly

Girls and women are not permitted to wear anything that draws attention to their feminine shape. The goal is to keep weak, pathetic church boys and men from getting boners while in their presence. Girls and women are viewed as gatekeepers, and it is up to them to dress and act in ways that extinguish sinful unmarried sexual want, need, or desire. The goal is no sticky underwear before marriage.

One universally banned item of clothing is shorts. Usually, attention is only paid to what girls and women wear, but I remember a spring day when I was playing pick-up basketball after work and came to get Polly from the Newark Baptist Temple after I was finished. I was wearing a T-shirt, gym shorts, tube socks, and Converse basketball shoes. I went into the church building to let Polly knowing that I had arrived. As I neared her classroom, I ran into her uncle, the late James “Jim” Dennis. As soon as he saw me, he laid into me about my inappropriate dress. He sternly lectured me about wearing shorts, informing me that I was to never, ever again enter the Baptist Temple wearing such clothing. A year later, I witnessed Jim go ballistic at Polly’s parent’s home over her sister wearing slacks to work. She was a nurse’s aide at a nearby nursing home. Her dress was quite typical for people who worked at the home. Keep in mind, Polly’s sister was an adult. It mattered not. As Jim had done with me, he took my sister-in-law to task IFB- preacher-style, telling her that wearing slacks was a sin. Sound almost beyond belief? Yep, but it’s the truth, nonetheless.

polly pontiac michigan 1977

Polly, 1977, Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac, Michigan. Notice the shirt under the sundress?

As temperatures warm in Ohio, it’s natural to see girls and women wearing shorts. Many women find shorts cooler and more comfortable than pants. IFB congregants sweat just as much as the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world, so it stands to reason that Fundamentalist girls and women want to wear cooler, more comfortable clothing too. However, shorts are verboten. Some girls and women will wear sundresses. Polly wears sundresses to this day. Never one to wear shorts, she spends most summers wearing colorful sundresses. Because sundresses tend to show side boob and cleavage, IFB girls and women — Polly included, at the time — wear sleeved T-shirts underneath their dresses. I often find myself smiling when I see Polly wearing a sundress today — sans T-shirt. Damn girl, that’s some mighty fine cleavage. I know, I am so w-o-r-l-d-l-y. All praise be to Loki for breasts!

Many IFB preachers encouraged church girls and women to wear what is commonly called in the movement, Baptist shorts. Baptist shorts are culottes. Almost every IFB girl and woman has several pairs of these pastor-approved “shorts.” Usually, culottes are loose fitting, especially around the legs. Reaching to the knees, culottes are meant to be comfortable, “modest” clothing. That said, many IFB girls and women HATE wearing culottes. When worn in public, culottes are a blaring, flashing sign that says to the world, I’m a member of the IFB cult! The same goes for shoe-top length skirts or maxi dresses. Polly and I can spot IFB families (and homeschoolers) from a mile away. The “uniforms” and the hairstyles give away their religious identity. Of course, their preachers think this is wonderful. Christians are SUPPOSED to look different from the world, IFB preachers say, but why is it that it is only women who look different; that IFB boys and men look just like their counterparts in the world? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.

As an IFB pastor, I held to the party line on Baptist shorts for many years — that is, until two events forced me to change my mind.

One late spring day, I drove up from Somerset, Ohio to the Newark Baptist Temple to talk to Pastor Dennis. Our oldest two children were attending the church school — Licking County Christian Academy — at the time. As I drove into the church’s main parking lot, I noticed four teen girls bent over pulling weeds out of the flower beds. These girls were cheerleaders. Typical of IFB schools at the time, the cheerleaders were not permitted to wear short skirts. Instead, the girls wore red culottes. What set them apart was the fact that their culottes were quite tight, so much so that I could have bounced a quarter off their backsides when they were bent over. I thought at the time, I thought culottes were supposed to be modest. These are NOT modest!

Several years later, we gathered up the teens from several churches and took them to Loudenville, Ohio for a canoe trip. The girls from my church begged me to let them wear pants, but being the stern pastor I was at the time, I said no. The trip was a blast. Most of the teenagers spent more time in the water than out. By the time teens debarked, they all looked like drowned rats. As was our custom, I gathered all the teens up and had them sit on the ground so I could preach at them. IFB Rule #6 — Thou shalt not have fun without spending time listening to a boring sermon. As the teens settled into their seats on the ground, I turned to speak to them and was astounded by what I saw. On the front row were a dozen or so Baptist-shorts-wearing girls. Legs splayed wide, I could see their underwear. Worse yet, an afternoon in the water made their T-shirts see-through. I quickly asked the girls to put their legs down and then I preached my sermon. I later told Polly that I no longer believed that baptist shorts were appropriate for outdoor events. From that moment forward, church teens and women were permitted to wear pants to such events. I know, I know, big deal, right? Remember the context, and where I was at that point in my life. Deciding to let girls and women wear pants in some circumstances was a monumental decision. As time went along, my views on clothing liberalized, so much so that I stopped preaching about the matter.

In the Gerencser home, change came slowly. Polly was in her 40s before she wore her first pair of pants. It had taken me months to convince her that she was not going to go to Hell if she wore them. Today, Polly is a confirmed member of the sisterhood of the traveling pants. Her Baptist shorts? She continued to wear them when working in the garden or painting. Once they wore out, they were pitched into the trash, never to be seen again.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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7 Comments

  1. Karen the rock whisperer

    I was raised Catholic in the relatively liberal post-Vatican II church of the ’60s and ’70s. Outside of school, where we wore uniforms, most Catholic girls and young women felt free to dress like everyone else…except me.

    I was the only child of older, conservative, overprotective parents. They saw me as their sweet, self-effacing, shy, modest daughter. What I really was, was a very depressed, introverted teen who learned early on that blowing my own horn only got scoldings at home. I was fat, never had a romantic interest, and to outward appearances a proper young lady.

    I really, really wanted to go to my junior prom, and the brother of a friend agreed to escort me. My mother and I shopped for my dress, and she was not about to tolerate me showing any skin. The dress she chose for me was something someone’s grandmother would wear to a formal wedding. I hated it, but what was I going to do, show up in my school uniform? So, the evening started out okay, with dinner at a nice restaurant. Then we went to the prom venue, a rented hotel conference room. We walk in and first thing, meet my best friend and her then-boyfriend. She, too, was fat, but that didn’t stop her mother from helping her find the most gorgeous red dress. It showed a nice amount of cleavage, and she positively shone in it. I wanted to sink through the floor. I learned my lesson and skipped my senior ball.

    I remember one visit to my parents when I was in my late 20s. Husband and I drove there for dinner (1.5 hours each way) and I was wearing a comfortable, kinda baggy, buttondown shirt over my jeans. I had the top couple of buttons undone,, but it wasn’t as though my very un-sexy bra was showing. My mother and I were talking in a hallway, and she reached over and buttoned the lower open button on my shirt. Without missing a beat, I unbuttoned it again. The next day I dug that old prom dress out of a box in the closet, cut it into little pieces, and threw them away.

    Reply
  2. ObstacleChick

    The Christian school I attended was staffed by mostly IFB faculty though many families in attendance were not. Girls had to wear dresses/skirts to school – originally the length was middle of the knee but that was changed to below the knee. No sundresses or sleeveless attire. Boys had to have short hair (a diagram of appropriate hair length was in our manual) and wear pants with shirt tucked in and belt. Students were sent home for noncompliance.

    The school made national news in 1980 or 81 when they were to play football against a team from another Christian school in AL or GA. the team traveled to TN, but when our headmaster saw the mid thigh length cherrleaders’ skirts, he told the coach the girls wouldn’t be permitted to cheer in those skirts (our cheerleaders wore culottes). Their coach said no. Dr. Bruce offered that the girls could wear pants. The coach said no. They were at an impasse. So the other team packed up the bus and drove home, all over cheerleading skirts.

    My family didn’t hold those clothing rules, thank goodness. I wore whatever I wanted except to school and church. My grandma wore shorts around the house to do work. Jer mother excoriated her for it, calling her daughter “common” (her word for slut or whore). My grandma told her mother, “I’m hot, I’m menopausal, I’m in the privacy of my home, and I have work to do.” My great-grandmother never wore a pair of pants a day in her life and dressed like it was the 1950s til the day she died.

    Reply
  3. Carolk

    ObstacleChick, I am reminded of making a trip to Pecknel music store in Greenville, SC with our band director in the early 70s. (I think we may have been there to pick out sheet music for solo and ensemble festival.) While we were there, we walked down a few doors to the Little Pigs barbecue for dinner. Some cheerleaders from Bob Jones Academy were there and they honestly looked like throwbacks to the ’50s. Their cheerleader skirts came down below the knees.

    We used to live in The Neighborhood of Baptist Shorts, I saw lots of neighbor women wearing those Baptist shorts. One friend would wear them when she ran. I thought good for her to run, but it was damn shame she couldn’t wear proper running clothes. The last time I saw her she was waiting her som to finish a half-marathon and she was wearing slacks Of course, Southside Baptist had moved out of our neighborhood about the same time we did. They had been KJV-only, but started using the NASB or maybe even RSV after the move.

    My oldest daughter had gone to their school for kindergarten as it was right down the block and I had a new baby. I became friends with the mom of one of her classmates. She told me about this one time when she went to the office to pay tuition wearing what she’s worn to her job in a factory. They reamed her out but good. We both agreed that was not a very Christian reaction.

    Since when does wearing high heels make a skirt tighter?

    Reply
  4. angiep

    Polly’s photo depicts her with a short haircut and earrings. Even that would be totally unacceptable by many right-wing sects. I also heard a preacher once say culottes were ok on occasion, while working in the garden and the like, but he discouraged wearing them because they could be abused (worn when not really necessary)!! The thing is, being forced to wear dresses or skirts severely limits a girl’s/woman’s life, and I think that is the entire agenda under which these sects operate.

    Reply
    1. ObstacleChick

      angiep,

      I always felt that being forced to wear a skirt/dress to school was designed to limit my physical activities, which it did. At the Christian school, we had recess time to play on the playground. There were no gym uniforms. Being an active kid who liked physical activity, I wore shorts under my skirts/dresses until the teachers called my mom and said that was unacceptable, that I was hanging upside down from the swingset and was inappropriately showing my shorts while hanging, so then I was restricted to upright activities and felt severely limited. In 6th grade, we had gym uniforms so we could enjoy full range of motion. Is it any wonder that (a) I didn’t wear a dress/skirt for 2 years after high school (unless going to a formal event) and (b) as an adult I participate in obstacle course racing where I’m covered in mud and in compromising positions trying to complete obstacles?

      Reply
  5. Carolk

    One of my mom’s sisters married a Wesleyan Methodist, unfortunately. I remember my aunt had to have sleeves to her elbows and I never saw her in slacks or shorts -skirts only. After my jackass of an uncle died, a great weight lifted off my aunt. She could wear what she wanted and it was NOT what my uncle would have approved of. She could wear sleeveless shirts, slacks, whatever. I recall seeing her at my mom’s house in her underwear. There were only women present, but that would not have happened before my uncle died. She also accepted her lesbian granddaughter and had her and her partner visit her home.

    Reply
  6. mary g

    raised in holiness church and dress codes/hair were a big thing. started changing in the 80s and they realized money would dry up if they did not change. so they did. mom never got over judging people on appearance and still does today. she is obsessed w/how her grown daughters look and will make nasty comments on hair and clothing. we have pulled away and she does not know why. this whole thing is sick.

    Reply

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