Discover more from Dominion Press
What Frump Wave is Trying to Tell Us
What we lose in the loss of decorum
Decorum has become one of those musty words that immediately conjures up images of strained conversation, uncomfortable shirts, and platters filled with inedible tarts. At its heart, however, decorum is about harmony. It’s about created creatures living in congruence with a created world. It’s about the sweetness and simplicity of submission to a fixed order outside of oneself.
Some might say that bringing up decorum while matters of biology are at stake is a cart before the horse kind of error. That may be, but I find the older I get the more I need to take a break from flogging dead horses and just go uncart some live ones.
Before we start getting tangled up in application, I want to situate our discussion in a context where there will be less chance of me being called petty or small-minded.
I'm very sensitive about that kind of thing.
How Sweet and Fitting
We could define decorum simply as suitability of expression; and don’t get hung up on the terms, here. Expression is just that — to embody, voice, or express a form.
In classical rhetoric, decorum had to do with how well a certain style of theater “fit” with the subject matter it was attempting to portray; a Greek tragedy that ended with an ode to flatulence would not likely be considered very “fitting” to its theme. Or we could consider the well-known Latin dictum, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — “How sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Horace, rightly or wrongly, considered a citizen’s sacrifice in war an appropriate and fitting expression of loyalty. We could even consider Jesus’ incarnation as a kind of exercise in decorum par excellence, since in him “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”
During the medieval ages, decorum received an extra infusion of gravitas — likely from exposure to the actual holiness of God as opposed to a pantheon of reprobates. Here the stakes were raised beyond mere fitness/discordance to terms of sacred/profane; painting a fresco of a nearby brothel on the east chapel wall wouldn’t just be indecorous but condemnable. It was not a new facet of decorum, but an old one recovered. We even see it portrayed in verses like Romans 1:28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, he gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” Some translations read, “to do those things which are not fitting.” In other words, it isn’t merely unsuitable, but punishable, that humanity would choose to live contradictory to the purposes for which they’ve been made.1
This latter emphasis began to fade during Victorian times — not coincidentally with the fading of sincere religion — so that by the 1960’s decorum had largely been reduced to matters of fashion, conversation, and etiquette.
In our day we have witnessed the almost total rejection of form: gender, gender roles, family, traditions, religion, and nature itself. Instead, expression has become the new form. Which also explains why our current cultural moment resembles a collaborative art project between Salvadore Dali and Cheech and Chong. The sundering of fact from expression means there is no longer any recognizable link between what we are and what we do. What does it matter if a woman shaves her head and dons a pair of combat boots? What does it matter if a man wears nail polish and a pink scarf? What does it matter if someone wants to be a dragon or a root vegetable?
The notion of decorum in such a world is almost laughable.
The problem here is how skilled the modern mind is at breaking stuff and how unskilled we are at being able to put it back together. We’re sure we know what women aren't — they’re not homemakers, mothers, helpers, nurturers, or anything related to biology — but then, we have no idea what they are either. The saddest thing is that we’ve been led to believe this existential purgatory is a good thing; after all, if no one can explain what you are, that must mean you can be whatever you want.
All this to say a large part of the expression-recovery project is the form-recovery project. And here more than anywhere it's important that we think medievally and not Victorianly. We need to be thinking in terms of Romans 1 sacrality and profanity — not in terms of the social fallout of eating our lemon ice course with a salad fork.
And if you already thought my subject was hopelessly narrow — it’s about to get positively claustrophobic all up in here.
Some Futile Provisos
Let’s let the ladies go first . . . after all, it’s only fitting (wah, wah, wah, wahhhhh).
The accusation will of course be made that any opinions I have about femininity are automatically invalid by virtue of me being male. And that, in fact, any opinion I might have about anything is invalid by virtue of me being a Christian and therefore a cotton-headed ninny muggins.
Part of me doesn’t even want to justify this accusation with a comment. The other part of me wants to say that the validity of an opinion has nothing to do with where it came from but from how well it holds up to scrutiny. Not so long ago, it was assumed that whenever an opinion leaves the quiet nest of thought, it proceeds into the free market of ideas. From there, it either gains momentum or is pelted with sharp stones until it plummets to earth. It’s no surprise that as we have allowed the ideologues to apply their superficial controls on ideas, the amount of small, worthless ones have exponentially increased. The fear of addressing anything or anyone due to a lack of “lived experience” isn’t making us more kind; it’s just making us more stupid.
Second, a friendly reminder. The purpose of this publication isn’t just to re-toss all the things everyone else is already saying into a slightly more appealing hash. Rather, our hope is to reassemble a biblical grid which will allow today’s Christians to build faithfully in every area of their lives. Part of this process involves interpretation; and part of interpretation involves the possibility of missing a step and shattering your nasal bone on the landing. Guess what? There’s no building without blood. Like it or not, mistakes are part of growth — just ask the cartless horse we met earlier.
The third thing I’ll say is that when I say things like “women should express themselves femininely,” I don’t want anyone to picture me leering from behind a newspaper with two eye holes poked in it. In general, I try not to scrutinize; in fact, many would call me criminally oblivious. What can I say? When you let an awkward silence sit for long enough, at some point even the stones are going to start making anxious, squeaking noises.
The fourth and last thing I’ll say is that I am against the dehumanizing project on all sides. I am just as against the reduction of women into sex objects as I am against the reduction of women into vaguely-humanesque camping equipment. I am against the reduction of men into vapid steroid receptacles as I am against the reduction of men into meek and flailing sheep. I am against all reductionisms and for all biblicisms.
Riding the Androgynous Frump Wave
I want to address the rise of what seems to be a reaction against the overt sexualization of women. Now, obviously viewing women as sex objects is a serious problem, and something our current culture seems to take special delight in. But many young women seem to be responding to this abuse by turning around and charting a course towards the desert island of desexualization.
Over the past ten years, a particular “style” has emerged that, for lack of a better term, I’ve called “Androgynous Frump Wave.” Though it’s hard to break down technically, picture the intersection between Scooby Doo’s Velma and the distilled essence of 1970’s kitchen tile. It doesn’t seem to be modesty. If anything it feels closer to . . . breakneck-shapelessness. It’s kind of like this, with a bit of this, and a pinch of this.
Lest anyone imagine I’m a closet misogynist, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of the women in these photos. The wrongness manifests as the feminine form is afflicted with afeminine drapery; in this, as in overt sexualization, a vandalism has been committed against an inexpressably valuable thing. It is so far away from adornment as to approach utter abandonment.
Now when I say that a woman’s clothes should adorn her femininity, I am not saying anything icky. I am not saying anything close to, “Let’s see those curves, ladies.” I am saying that femininity, and masculinity for that matter, are definable forms (Gen. 5:2) which means there are also corresponding expressions. I am saying that femaleness is not the empty construct our culture would have us believe. I am saying exactly what the apostle himself already said, except far better than I could: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Cor. 11:14–15)
In other words, there is an inherent form to male and female, with fitting — one might even say sacred — expression. The reason the high violin strings start playing when a butch haircut hoves into view is that we all instinctively whiff profaneness on the wind.
I am aware that discussion about the jots and titles of fashion would be hopelessly myopic of me; and if you want to get into some deep and meandering (like a river, not like a drunk) commentary on femininity, I encourage you towards Nancy Wilson’s Femina podcast. What I’m trying to get at in my own meandering (like a drunk, not like a river) way is the problem of a cohort of twenty-something women who, if not determinedly opposed to relationship, are at least determinedly ambivalent towards them.
What I’m concerned we’re witnessing isn’t just the attempt to escape sexualization, but the attempt to escape sexuality. This is a problem because God created us as sexual beings; not only sexual beings, but a crucial part of what obedience to the command “be fruitful multiply” means. The problem is the malevolent little “a” that recently crawled out of the alphabet spawning pool and the suspicious correspondance of young women who, judging by their clothes, have resigned themselves to early-onset spinsterhood: big sweaters, big dresses, big glasses, and big instagram catalogues made up of equal parts cats and being in a field staring into the middle distance.
I am not placing the blame solely on women; I am placing the blame on all of us together. The inglorious rise of frump wave is just one of many symptoms that suggests a collective exisistential crisis. If we’re at a point where a simple question like “what is a woman?” provokes firery debate, we are so far off track that more and more I'm convinced that recovery is going to look like reformation. Which, by the way, is what every earnest Christians really needs to start praying for.
I care about these things not just because I’m a pastor, but because I’m a Christian citizen. As such, I happen to be interested in the furtherance of life on earth, as well as the furtherance of flourishing in general.2 I want the overweight young men and the frumpy young women to come out of their brown little caves and breathe the free air again. And then I want them to invite me to their wedding. And then I want them to go on and have lots of children who will go on to take care of them in their old age.
It isn’t too much to ask, is it? WELL IS IT?!
At the end of the day, none of us live to ourself; as God’s creatures, we live coram deo, “before the face of God” — the question remains whether we do so in obedience, or defiance. To live according to what we are isn’t just a matter of personal wellness or conservative propriety, but of worship. The extremes our culture has led women to believe are “fitting” expressions of femininity are as old as they are bankrupt.
Christian women must lead the way in rejecting the bill of false goods being sold to them by bitter feminists and bewildered transgenderists. They must lead the way in reminding the world that there is such a thing as beauty . . . and it’s something worth fighting for.
If you enjoyed this content, why not consider supporting Dominion?
It’s interesting to still see people grasp for categories of sacred and profane during seasons of especial blasphemy — the recent response to the "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence" debacle comes to mind.
Many people seem to think that pastors are sour, unpleasant people who feel generally uncomfortable in the presence of laughter. I much prefer Dickens’ recollection of the clergyman from Dingley Dell, “And [he] looked pleasantly on; for the happy faces which surrounded the table made the good old man feel happy too; and though the merriment was rather boisterous, still it came from the heart and not from the lips; and this is the right sort of merriment, after all.” The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens.