Sunday, October 12, 2014

Penny Loafers Without Socks

In an otherwise lovely, little, preachy video on what it takes to be a church musician, I got sidetracked by the lip service paid to a supposed evil of the Church in our times, referred to as "clericalism". It reminded me of a casual fashion statement which held sway for a long time, especially in summer or in warmer climes, among preppy types and even among a middle-aged social elite (I bet it was the word "elitist" from the video which set me off!). If you don't know what penny loafers are, ask your mother or grandmother! The style was to wear them when dressed casually without socks and oddly enough the practice was never branded as smelly or unhygienic. Now, my father could never have worn penny loafers without socks on an evening out to the golf club for supper with Mom for two reasons: a) you had to have a slim build to fit the model, and more importantly, b) he did not belong to the professional class which could permit itself such a dress down, even if the missus had spent long hours picking trousers, knit shirt and sport coat at some exclusive men's shop.

Anybody who would brand penny loafers without socks as elitist would be laughed out of the house; it was no more and no less than a "guy thing" which persisted for years despite good sense and even comfort (maybe slim guys of a professional social category don't get sweaty feet?). 

Enough! On to "clericalism"! When I was a seminarian in Rome the non plus ultra of clerical dress was the black clerical suit, with white shirt, French cuffs and gaudy cuff links, and something we Americans referred to with the French name "gilet". It was a high button down the front vest with built in Roman collar: very elegant! Personally, I was never tempted to have myself fit for one because of the economic straits of my student days in the eternal city (Imagine that the Italian Lire was gaining in worth against the Dollar for most my four years there!). Lanky, long arms more or less took me out of the running for French cuffs as well. Sic transit gloria mundi! At any rate, of a cut that could not afford such vanities, I branded them clericalism and vowed never to indulge in such even when I could afford them (the excesses of youth!). 

Older and wiser, although still without a gilet for reasons of a neck which has gotten thicker over the years, I would have to say that such matters of dress are as much an indication of clericalism as penny loafers without socks bespeak some sort of elitist agenda. Approved authors to the contrary, I am beginning to suspect that clericalism as such does not exist at all, but is rather a construct imposed by anti-clericalists on a category because of the sins of the few. I do not say that there are not clerics who seek privilege for themselves, but I would like rather to see the sin on the side of anti-clericalism, tarring and feathering all my brothers with the same bucket and brush.

Maybe it is best just to ignore me this Sunday morning. At any rate, I remember Roman anti-clericalism for the 1970's quite well. It was something which spat upon every poor little priest in his cassock and "saturno" who attempted to run the gauntlet of center city. Perhaps it explains why the younger Italian clergy traded black for blue or grey so as to blend in with the city's bus and taxi drivers? Anti-clericalism drove the clergy out of the public eye and succeeded in fostering the indifference which reigns in most quarters of the Eternal City today.

My plea would be not to confuse the vanities of fashion, whether gilet or sockless penny loafers, with the quest for privilege and the abuse of power. I think the sin to be condemned is rather anti-clericalism. I say it boldly, not owning a gilet or a white shirt with French cuffs. Sorry to friends and fans, but any cuff-links gifted over the years are lost somewhere in the bottom of a dresser drawer.


  1. I greatly appreciate this brief reflection. I hope that at some point you will return to this idea at greater length.


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