Thou Shalt Wear Comfy Shoes

© Kaspars Grinvalds

 

It is 9:58 a.m., and the room is settling in the minutes before worship officially begins when I hear it: click, click, click, click, click. I sit a little straighter and flick my eyes toward the door, waiting to see who is walking into worship wearing heels. The sound—rare in a Quaker space—is music to my ears, and I am excited. When a family enters the worship room, I realize that it’s a child wearing tap shoes to worship, not someone flaunting against the unspoken Quaker convention of sturdy flats. I feel a little silly for being excited over such a small thing before returning to centering into worship.

I was not raised in a Quaker meeting and found Friends in college after a journey through several churches and worship experiences. I found a home in the theology of a pared-down faith and practice that made a raw, personal connection to the holy. I have grown a lot as a person since my convincement. I have journeyed deeper into the heart of justice and come to understand my testimonies as powerful, lived expressions of faith. These people are my people, and I am theirs. But I am still alienated by the painful cramp that is the shoe creed.

You may be asking: “What shoe creed?” “This sounds like a joke,” you might sigh. “What Quakers are you hanging out with if this even comes up?” you may wonder. It is real, dear Friends, that we love showing off our practical attire from our heads to our toes. Quakers sport sensible hats in winter and sturdy sandals in summer. It is as if we are ready for a hike at a moment’s notice, or could join in a 5k run if the urge to raise money for an animal shelter seizes us as we walk out of the meetinghouse on First Day. I am not sure it comes up in the affirmative: “Look at these new shoes! They are guaranteed to last until my children go to their forty-fifth college reunion! They have every practical feature and nothing frivolous like decoration or color!” But commentary almost always comes up in the negative: “How unpractical are those! Can you run after a child? Can you jog around the block? Won’t you twist your ankle just by standing? They seem flashy.” Nor are we shy about sharing comments on the fashions around us.

One of our Quaker tendencies is our commitment to speaking all of our truth at all times. We often say more than is helpful when we could instead be curious to listen to and learn from people making different choices. As a convinced Friend who has spent most of my life living and working outside of the deep saturation of Quaker enclaves and institutions, I retain many social norms at odds with our niche culture.


One of our Quaker tendencies is our commitment to speaking all of our truth at all times. We often say more than is helpful when we could instead be curious to listen to and learn from people making different choices.


Some of these norms are charming (I’m always surprised by the speed with which Quakers can set up a potluck), but some put me at odds with my faith and identity. This “shoe thing” is a place where I am painfully outside the norm.

It seems minor, I know, to call “Thou Shalt Wear Sturdy Shoes” an unofficial Quaker creed, but it doesn’t feel minor to me. It is a barrier between me and worship. It is a source of fear and frustration when I travel. It is the line between “I would visit here again” and “That was uncomfortable; no more.” It is one of those pains that seem trivial only because it has never occurred to most of us.

I knew this was a bigger-than-me moment when I complained during a social event about not being able to wear most of my shoes to meeting and three other voices in the room piped up with the same sentiment. We shared our fears and frustrations around getting dressed for worship, and I felt a comfort that I didn’t know I was missing. Inspired by that conversation, I’d like to share three reasons why the Quaker uniform of sturdy shoes does not serve as a welcoming creed.

© evgenyjs1

Joy of Gender Confirmation

Adulthood meant I could finally embrace my gender identity by name and fully lean into it. I could clothe my body with the trappings of my gender experience and fully delight in them. I could be wildly and completely myself at church without my parents leaning over my shoulder, reminding me of what was forbidden in God’s house. But for many trans and genderqueer people, dressing to our gender expression is unwelcome in Quaker meetinghouses because it is too formal, too fancy, or too feminine. My day job requires certain shoes and clothes for safety reasons, so weekends are a time when I can dress in a way that expresses my gender. That often means a rotating lineup of glittery heels, candy-colored suede driving loafers, patterned wedges, and eye-catching espadrilles.

First Day is the day when I pick up the shoes I want to wear to meeting, try them on, then realize that I cannot face another snide comment about rolling my ankle (which has never happened) or misplaced joke about being taller than my wife (not a concern in our marriage). I usually put the shoes back with a sigh. I compromise with a pair of shoes that leave me feeling less than whole. More than once, I’ve put on work shoes to go to meeting because nothing else matched—besides the three pairs of black dress heels I knew wouldn’t be welcome. One week I had no matching flats and a commitment to volunteer after worship. I didn’t have time to change again without making us late to worship so I went barefoot. The whole hour was spent keeping my humiliated sobs silent, robbing me of a worship experience.

A trans woman told me about her joy in wearing fashionable pumps to worship, something she couldn’t do during the workweek. She also shared her heartbreak when a member of her meeting remarked on the pumps with a sneer, suggesting loudly that perhaps “formal trappings weren’t the right fit for Quaker meeting.” Meeting was a place where this trans Friend could bring her whole, dazzling self, and that was taken from her because another Friend insisted that conformity of comfort trumped her validating gender expression. I’ve heard from several genderqueer and non-binary Friends who say that the pushback they see cisgender women receive over shoe choice has been enough to keep them from wearing the shoes they crave at meeting. I don’t blame them. I’ve been humiliated for a lifetime by Quaker commentary on my shoes. I ache for a place where my gender expression is as celebrated as the liberation of my soul.

© jchizhe

CAYA Not CAWA

The acronym CAYA (come as you are) is a popular way to describe church services in the liberal religious tradition. This slang is a way of saying, “You don’t have to dress up or do your hair or get all fancy to do church with us.” Sometimes, it’s also a way of saying, “You don’t have to be less gay to worship here.” Quakers are proud of our open attitude to how people come to worship—until someone comes dressed up too fancy, with beautiful but impractical shoes. Then the meeting turns into a “come as we are” (CAWA) environment. We are desperate to grow our numbers, but we are also hung up on the outward trappings of expression.

This attitude is challenging for many convinced Friends. My wife was raised Quaker and has never known a formal church environment. I am glad that she can be fully present, dress comfortably, and enjoy worship. But I was raised differently and know different norms. Some of these inform how I want to present myself for myself. By expecting Friends to buy new wardrobes just to suit the sartorial whims of the meeting, we close ourselves off to the gifts that come from those Friends. A Friend’s suit does not mean the meeting is sliding into a dress code more suited for corporate America. Another Friend in a smart pair of spectator shoes does not mean everyone must buy three-inch heels for the following week. Our doors are open to seekers and searchers, but are they also open to those whose First Days are a day for starched dresses, crisp slacks, and shiny shoes? Although Quakers have long chosen fashion as a medium for some of our testimonies, modern Friends observe a diversity of dress. We are not united on the subject of fashion in the twenty-first century. But when we cleave to these narrow interpretations of what a First-day outfit looks like, we draw a line that says very plainly that we value outward appearance more than gifts of the heart.

It seems a strange hill to die on, to be honest. There are so many ways to be a peculiar people in this world, including taking a stand against injustice and the rule of law. Insisting on sensible dress and humiliating others for differences of style is a waste of energy when there are bigger callings. When we insist that everyone must conform on the outside, we miss the chance to bring hearts together and grow toward a deeper faith. We have driven many people out of our doors over something almost comical. My aunt always says, “Keeping your mouth shut is free. Speaking rudely is costly.” In this case, our judgmental attitudes are costing Quakerdom the gifts of many seekers.

© splitov27

I Am Not Your Own

My mother loved to quote the First Corinthians 6:19–20 to her children on an almost daily basis as a cue to assess what choices we were making:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

This call to action from Paul will look different for everyone, just as every temple looks different. Even among Friends—who eschew the outward decoration of our worship rooms—we exhibit a great variety. The placement of windows, benches, and flower arrangements create a unique tapestry of meetinghouses around the country: just so with the temples that are our bodies.

My relationship with this verse is clear: I want to bring my clean, pressed, and styled best to my weekly date with Spirit. So many layers of my identity have informed my church clothes, including the high church traditions of my grandparents and the evangelical leanings of my parents. I am femme. I am Southern. I am one of four children in a busy, wild family. I am the child of a pair of white-collar workers. All of these pieces come together to form my relationship with what I should wear to worship no matter where I am worshiping. Your own layers and history inform the story of your presentation at worship and in meeting. Yes, the culture of the meeting means something. But my own personal leading does not dictate yours. Conversely, yours should not dictate mine.


We are looking to be welcomed. We want to be here. Is there a place under the bench for our different-yet-comfy shoes alongside yours this First Day?


Friends who are called to give themselves rest by slipping into a comfortable shirt and their favorite jeans are following a leading. Friends who are called to spend intentional time putting together a more complex outfit are also following a leading. My choice of shiny patent leather heels is not a reckoning on your favorite scuffed tennis shoes. It is a gift to find comfort and rest by following what we know to be true about our presentation. We are not yours. We are not holding you to our standard when we pick out a lovely pair of heeled boots that probably have rolled a few ankles along the way (but not ours).

Every time the creed “Thou Shalt Be Comfy” pushes me further out the door of the meetinghouse, something is lost in the life of the meeting. I want to be a Friend in community, and I want to be seen as a whole person in all my joyful sartorial energy. Denying our meetings the vibrant love and worship of those who find comfort in a snappy pair of wedges is denying our meetings untold gifts. We are knocking. We are looking to be welcomed. We want to be here. Is there a place under the bench for our different-yet-comfy shoes alongside yours this First Day?

Suzanne W. Cole Sullivan

Suzanne W. Cole Sullivan is a convinced Friend who lives and worships in Georgia (mostly), but they can often be spotted at meetings around the country during weekend adventures. Suzanne carries a concern for hospitality and a culture of welcoming. Suzanne is often heard before they are seen.

28 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Wear Comfy Shoes

  1. Re Suzanne W. Cole Sullivan, “Thou Shalt Wear Comfy Shoes”

    Loved your article, “Thou Shalt Wear Comfy Shoes,” Suzanne. I completely take your point. I gave up skirts decades ago. Oh, I do have a few tucked away in the back of my closet — my “sparkly” clothes that I wear on occasion to galas and formal events associated with my work. However, I’m aware of how my usual clothing in meetings for worship feeds into Quaker stereotypes.

    The unspoken Quaker dress code has been “weaponized”! Before moving to Florida, I attended a Quaker meeting in the greater Philadelphia area where I several times heard a “weighty” Quaker, a cisgender man, disparage Quaker women as “unattractive” or “ugly” because they insisted on “sensible” shoes. In that meeting, several women in fact “dressed” for meeting for worship – that is, they wore skirts and feminine flats or low heels. Nevertheless, this man felt moved to express his misogynist take on dress among Quaker women.

    Also, the gospel of comfy clothes in Quaker meetings is clearly a white, middle class thing. What an older white man considers comfortable is much less likely to draw disparaging commentary than what a young black man might wear. And a white working class take on comfortable clothes will make many uncomfortable indeed. Let’s not even discuss grooming. (nails! hair! makeup!).

    Again, thank you for your article, Suzanne. I won’t promise to show up for meeting for worship wearing heels or a skirt. But I will do my best to embrace (and applaude!) all sorts of sartorial expression.

    Peace,

    Richelle Ogle
    St. Augustine, FL

  2. Great article, Suzanne!

    One nice thing about being a Quaker in a comfortable Baptist church. I can wear the heels – or – I can wear the comfy shoes, nobody cares. And by the way, I often see women carrying babies around and chasing after toddlers in three to four inch heels, so not sure that argument holds.

    The concern about dress and simple dress is primarily a cultural thing and Quakers need to realize that generally among Quakers, there is a strong cultural bias in this area. Consider especially that historically there there weren’t many places, and church was one, where members of the African-American community could dress sharp – there were no required uniforms, or work clothes. Now it has almost become part of worship – at least from my observations as a White congregant in a traditionally Black church. Being free to dress as you like, as you noted, is an important part of self expression, and a reflection of knowing you are in a safe space. If you show up at my Baptist church in plain clothes, old clothes, or casual clothes, you are welcome just the same. If you look altogether raggedy, someone may offer you a bag of good clothes or invite you to ‘shop’ at the church ‘clothes closet’, but that’s about it.

    We Quakers could learn a thing or two about that, and would do well to remember that the reason Quakers quit wearing all grey was because they realized they were too hung up on their clothing. It had become its own form of ritual and contrary to the Spirit of Quakerism that disdains ritual requirements.

    The Spirit doesn’t care about our shoes, and shoes don’t make us any closer to experiencing our Inner Light. But who knows, if we are too hung up on the comfy shoes, maybe wearing a nice pair of heels would elevate our experience. 🙂

  3. This is thought provoking and the biggest reason I haven’t joined a meeting. Any religious mentality that sets a norm about personal dress or eating habits or anything particular that is essential to being human, …. That is cult mentality and I have had enough of that already. This article did remind me that I don’t have or need “a people” to tell me who I am.

  4. When I am bored in meeting, I often look around our circle impressed with the various states of people’s shoes. I then move on to thinking if this person switched socks with that person, the whole “look” would improve. I make a point of wearing shiny shoes, striped socks and a colourful sweater in winter or a happy blouse in summer. I’ve given up my bangles so as to not disrupt the auditory silence, but remain convinced that clothes with colour add depth to life. I like colour, you like shoes, let us be bright birds together.

  5. When I grew up when we went to meeting we put on “Sunday go to meeting clothes”. As a child that did not include heels, but nice shiny patent leather shoes. I loved getting dressed up. I understood it was part of the respect shown to meeting for worship. I still at 69 at least wear my better clothes and shoes to meeting but I am afraid my feet do not tolerate high heels.😟 That was going to Toronto Monthly Meeting.

  6. As George Fox said to Wm Penn who was worried about wearing a sword, “Where it as long as you can”. I guess the same applies to clothing.

  7. I have to wear comfortable shoes because over the years that is what works best. Fortunately, they fit all aspects of my life. Although I do joke that Birkenstocks are the semiofficial shoe of the Religious Society of Friends, I would never presume that my choice in footwear is part of being a Quaker. As Margaret Fell said, “it being silly poor gospel.”

  8. Loved, loved, LOVED this article – even though I’ve never owned a pair of heels in my 65 years! I am finding such delight at the expanded acceptance and embrace of gender variety and expression! Just as I do diversity of faiths and cultures. It is such a joyful experience to let go of one’s judgements!

  9. Thanks so much for your willingness to share and jolt some of us out of our smug conventions! Please be yourself. It will be a model for the rest of us!

  10. Some woud prefer to wear Rubber CROCS…so the may sneak up…almost slently, to the Quakers in their solemn faced & eyes closed trance!
    LOL

  11. Thanks for writing this eye-opening article Suzanne. I am a convinced Friend also and remember well my first pair of high heels (bright red!) and how wonderful I felt walking in them. I was 14 years old, and they were a badge of becoming a woman in my mind. I wore heels most of my working life, and by the end of the day, couldn’t wait to kick them off and get into flat slippers, because my feet hurt.

    Then in my 40’s I started running/jogging and learned very quickly the value of a good supportive running shoe that supported my feet, ankles, knees and hips in a proper alignment. This prevented injury. Still I wore heels to work because that was expected. I became a convinced Quaker when I was 70, and by then clothing was for me about comfort and practicality. Flat shoes and comfortable dress were what I wanted. I am now 81 and there is no reason in the world why you should dress as if you are 81–any more than I should dress as you do. I WOULD break my neck in your heels.

    Quakers should be about the inside and not the outside. Your article should be a wake-up call for those of us who see fit to advise others on how they should dress. It’s none of our business.

    1. Love that last line! We shouldn’t mess with each others’ choices in dress. Margaret Fell Fox would agree — “a silly poor gospel”! In our Meeting (some years ago) there was a man who came in Birkenstocks just about all year, except when the snow would have covered his feet, and a woman who wore a beautiful dress hat (not a practical one!) to meeting with special care for its matching her outfit. We loved them both!

  12. Thanks so much, Friend Suzanne, for this thoughtful article. I recently attended “Seminary for the Day” with the Unitarians. I saw women dressed down (like unprogrammed Friends), and dressed up, which included makeup. I loved the diversity and the acceptance. Frankly, I think we can go too far with our unwritten “dress down” code. I really wish more Quakers would “dress up” when it comes to memorials. ( Inevitably, we will be hosting guests who don’t understand why Quakers aren’t “respectfully” showing up in a suit, or at least a jacket & tie for the men, and something dressier than jeans and sport shoes for the women.) I think it’s about more than shoes. Would an African American woman, dressed as she would for church, feel welcomed in an unprogrammed meeting wearing a dress and heels? I hope to see the day that Quakers truly embrace diversity: in race, and in sartorial choices. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wear makeup – at least lipstick – most days. And I honestly don’t care what Friends think about that. I was born and raised in NYC, and it’s my choice..)

  13. Suzanne’s concern with high heels and dress in general has me a bit disturbed. She certainly does not reflect the teachings with which I was raised as a birthright Quaker in New England. Simplicity, living simply, was seen as being one of the most important tenants by which we were known. Querie #7 asks in part “…do you observe simplicity and moderation in your manner of living?…”. Where has this gone? Is not this a universal Quaker tenant?

    I am no longer living in New England, and Sunday mornings find me serving in a capacity that prevents me from attending first day meetings, the closest of which is over one hour away. So I must content myself with solo meditations, the Bible, and periodic reviews of the Quiries in my old Faith and Practice book. Yes, I wear heels. But thankfully that does not serve to define who and what I am.

  14. I could relate, too, Suzanne, though my foot issues (they are many) won’t allow me to wear heels any more, I grew up in Louisiana and South Carolina, and putting on a dab of makeup was part of getting ready to go out the door, whether I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt to the grocery store, or dressed to go to the office or out to dinner. I often felt uncomfortable about this “peculiar” habit in Quaker Meetings, especially after I moved to the Pacific Northwest — even in non-Quaker circles, cosmetics seemed to be an oddity! Nonetheless, there are so many of us “transplants” from other parts of the country here these days, it seems that our collective habits about how to dress our faces and our bodies are part of the “norm” for our Meeting. And, blessedly, no one at our Meeting has ever had the effrontery to say anything negative about clothes or makeup to me! Your article makes me wonder, though, if others have felt uncomfortable just because of the REI look that’s definitely the norm around here. It’s rare to see a tie or a pair of heels, admittedly, but if someone wanted to wear them, I hope to heaven no one would bat an eyelash! I hope you continue to express your WHOLE self at worship, and speak your truth to anyone with the ill manners to be critical. It’s so important for us to bring our true selves to worship. However we choose to express that by our attire, it’s for our kind words and deeds that I hope we will be remembered and appreciated.

    1. I am probably the only woman in my Meeting who wears make-up, and I color my hair. No one has said so much as boo about it to me. You cannot choose the times you live in, and I live in 2021 not 1968. I am 61 and fabulous.

  15. When I started going to Quaker meeting, back in about 1980, my wife came with me. She’s a faithful Anglican so had experience of how the religious classes behave. I was a faithful nothing but was looking for somewhere to belong. Several years and much unhappiness later it turned out not to be Friends’ meeting. But let that pass. The important point here is my wife, who is a footwear fanatic. After meeting one Sunday she said to me something like ‘Is there a rule about shoes?’ I pleaded ignorance but from then on started paying attention to people’s feet. And my wife was right. Part of the Quaker uniform was brown, round-toed, flat heeled shoes. I would never have noticed myself, partly because I’m just a male of the species but mostly because I just don’t care.

    So I took a special interest in your article because I didn’t know the Shoe Brigade still existed on either side of the Atlantic. I might be over-thinking your piece but it strikes me that shoes are a very good metaphor for much else that afflicts postmodern Quakerism (even if Quakers don’t know they are afflicted). Replace ‘shoes’ with race, gender, poverty, arms or any one of a dozen other worthy issues that are close to the Quaker heart and you will find the same Friends telling you what to think and how to behave in order to be properly ‘Quakerly’.

    I am now a meeting of one, which I recommend because I can wear whatever shoes I like, or even none at all. Thanks again for a great article.
    Peter

    PS: I thought I understood American English reasonably well, but cisfriends has defeated me. What are they?

    1. DescriptionCisgender is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth. For example, someone who identifies as a woman and was assigned female at birth is a cisgender woman.
      Just recently learned this myself.

  16. Thought provoking and well done article, Suzanne. I appreciate and look forward to your insights, always.

  17. I am so surprised that Suzanne Sullivan met with comments on her high-heeled shoes! I have never heard comments about footwear in any of the half-dozen or so Meetings I have attended in the U.S. and Canada!
    I myself choose flat shoes for comfort and also for a statement that I can wear what I want and do not have to conform to the custom that women need to wear heals to look”feminine”. After all, heels were de rigour for upper class men in the 15th and 16th centuries, to keep their footwear from being stained by the filthy streets of London of that time! What is fashion for one time or gender is out of fashion for a different setting. But I certainly do not approve of criticizing anyone else’s choice! I do think, for health reasons, good fitting flat shoes are preferable, but that is just my private opinion. And I love coloiurs and am usually in bright colours. boosted by Margaret Fell’s noting of the bright-coloured leaves that the creator provides us! I think Suzanne’s experience derives from the overly-criticalness that many of us Friends have about Everything – with Friends’ belief in the possibility of perfection, we may be too critical and less sensitive of others’ about – what is spoken in Meeting; political opinions that differ from ours; the cars people drive, and of course dress! Lighten up, Friends! There are many paths to the spiritual – Dancing and music used to be criticized, whereas now we recognize the spirituality in these arts!

  18. I have visited a lot of meetings and have attended one for more than 30 years. One thing I tend to do at Meeting is look around and appreciate Friends’ shoes. I can’t imagine a judgment on what anyone is wearing–I enjoy them all. I’m 76 and haven’t worn a pair of heels since I was 20–I never learned to walk in them–but I would enjoy seeing any style that comes in the door. Maybe because I’m in a smallish meeting (Birmingham, Alabama), I’m just happy to see the presence of Friends, attenders, and visitors. I wonder if the judgment isn’t coming from within more than from without. I’d love to see you in our Meeting!

  19. Ah the freedom of being born in a conservative Friends Meeting in Iowa and attending Olney Friends School, class of ‘60. We/I could wear any shoes we wanted from high heels down brick walk to Stillwater Meeting House or flats.
    Still wear whatever I want including skirt and dresses to Oberlin Friends Meeting or slacks and boots.
    Curious ideas. Suspect flat-sole persons early on were dealing with kids or walked through mud /gravel drives to get to transportation?
    Yes, please keep me entertained about Quakers—have only had 77 years to observe all branches of us around the world.

  20. I’m so sorry for your discomfort spiritually and physically. I taught at a Quaker college for 25 years and all were welcome. All were welcome. I can’t imagine shoes/clothes/gender/sexuality….ever bring an issue. Eldering would be in someone’s future. 😳

  21. Thank you, Suzanne, for writing this essay. Dressing plainly is part of the Friends discipline I follow. BUT over time, informed by the writings of transgender pioneer Kate Bornstein, I have also come to understand that for many people a joyful and exuberant gender expression is a vital and important part of being or becoming free. I just never let that line of thinking assert itself in my view of being in a Friends Meeting for worship. What you have written starts bringing both those lines of thought together for me in a way that I will now be able to reflect on them. I begin that reflection with this, that I learned from an early age that plain, simple, serviceable clothing could be used by Quakers to reduce the harm done by barriers erected through competitive dressing to advertise possession of power and wealth. But the lesson to me now is that the clothing one chooses as a Quaker may be in the service of more than the single issue of, call it, democratization, but may address other important issues such as freedom of gender expression in our sacred places as well as in the everyday places of the world.
    In a slightly different vein, a phrase in the thumbnail bio at the end of your essay leapt out at me, “Suzanne carries a concern for hospitality and a culture of welcoming.” I had a sense of recognition when I read it and it arose from an experience I had last year, about a month after some surgery. I was in my kitchen early one morning, when I had a sudden, powerful mystical experience. I felt myself to be swept up into the presence of the Spirit. The most important thing was the incredible feeling of welcome, a welcome so powerful that it permitted no feelings of inferiority or shyness or anything less than the wonderful feeling of being welcomed in its presence. As I recovered my composure from this encounter, the importance of welcome, of learning to be a welcoming person in the way that I had been shown, has been a goal. I especially agree with the formulation “…a culture of welcoming.” If you have written or read anything further in that regard, I am interested to know more.
    Again, thank you for this inspiring essay.

  22. When you have wear a uniform (name tag, overalls, etc.) all week, what you choose to wear on Saturday night and Sunday morning becomes much more important.

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