Found Out Where the “Dress Like the Virgin Mary” Thing Came From

In 1953, a Fr. Bernard Kunkel in Bartelso, Illinois got the idea to start a campaign identifying prom dresses and wedding dresses that were modest enough for Catholic women to wear. These were to be given a special “Marilyke” tag by department stores. Slogans for the campaign included: “Be Marylike! Buy Marilyke Gowns!”, “Be Marylike By Being Modest”, and “Whatever the Blessed Mother Approves”. So apparently department stores in Catholic areas went along with it. (I sure as heck don’t ever remember hearing about this before, but apparently that’s where the Internet meme comes from.) The stuff about Fatima condemning modern dress also came from this campaign. There was a big push to get girls to make a Blue Army-like promise to dress modestly.

Apparently the very word “Marylike” was popularized in the US by Kunkel, because some academic who did a study of the American version of Kolbe’s Immaculata magazine (for annoying gender study crup, of course) found that the first time the word was ever used was in a Marilyke promotional article in 1953.

However, the word does seem to have had a lot of vogue in the 1850’s and 1860’s, when it was used not so much about modesty, as about holiness and gentleness in behavior (often a description of devout men), or as the two poles of being Mary-like and Martha-like. “Un-Marylike” was used only to describe an Australian May’s weather. (This is only the fruit of a quick search, however.)

Here’s an old Time Magazine article about the Marilyke campaign. Apparently Fr. Kunkel ran an outfit called the Purity Crusaders of Mary Immaculate, which eventually morphed into being called “the Marylike Crusade” or “the Marylike Apostolate”.

Notice that much of the wording in the article is still quoted word for word on the Internet, thanks to the extensive reach of their pamphlets.

Apparently the campaign was still around in 1965, because some Catholic magazine had an article about Marilyke bras coming out! But it ended in 1972. Somebody has tried to revive it, but this group seems to be unapproved and to be connected with the Fr. Gruner “the Pope is lying to you about Fatima” crowd.

I found out about this Marilyke stuff from a book called A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character and the Promise of America by Jenna Weissman Joselit. (Lots about churchwear. Had no idea that Jewish ladies wore chapel caps in synagogue in the Fifties and Sixties, until rabbis decried their similarity to yarmulkes.) Apparently many books about the history of American fashion trends mention it.

I’m ambivalent about this. Obviously, there’s a need to promote modesty (ie, not dressing like a skank or an idiot), and I’m not so naive as to think nobody dressed like a skank in 1944, when Kunkel began the group. But a group that was against sleeves above the elbow in 1953, and still is, is somewhat out of touch with pastoral reality. Also, it’s ahistorical, since there’ve been plenty of Catholic countries where women wore short sleeves or commonly tied or rolled them up to work. (Depending on climate.)

Apparently I missed some kerfuffle in our local traditional Mass group a few years back, when the attempted revival of this group was ordering women not to wear blouses cut “two inches below the pit of the throat” instead of the traditional “three fingers below the collarbone” (about two inches), on pain of not receiving the Sacraments. If you were a tall lady with a short neck and a long chest, you’d practically have to wear a high collar to fit this recommendation. Also, instead of the traditional “fingertip length” or “X inches/fingers above the knee”, they didn’t even want females to wear skirts at all above the knee. That means that my parochial school plaid jumper from 1978 and most of my childhood dresses (which of course hit above the knee) were the clothing of a hussy. Um. No. I’m a dowd and a prude, and yet I think this is ridiculous.

I don’t know why this sort of thing goes so bad so quickly. You’ll see (allegedly Catholic!) condemnations of skirts that taper inward from hips to knee as inherently immodest, or of fitted suit skirts, or of wearing clothing that is fitted at all. (And of course, the “modest clothing rules” are usually either entirely aimed at women, or there’s a lot of transvestite guys going to traditionalist events.)

Things that were more than modest enough for these people’s great-great-grandmothers aren’t modest enough for some of these people; they aren’t so much “spiritually Semites” as spiritually the Saudi religious police. You can’t lay all this at Kunkel’s door; but a lot of folks seem to have started down the crazy separatist road from his driveway. It’s worrying.

UPDATE: Apparently the earliest Internet copy of the Marylike Crusade pamphlet is not even a true copy, even though the transcriber retained the Nihil Obstat (and it’s interesting that it never got an imprimatur, huh?). The transcriber helpfully “updated” it and “interjected” material from unapproved private revelation. But that’s totally okay, because the transcriber prayed over it. (Nothing like being so traditionalist you’re functionally a Protestant….) So yeah, you can be really really secure using it. Really. Yup yup yup.

The pamphlet (hopefully only in the made-up update) actually starts off by condemning Barbie and all fashion dolls, apparently totally unaware that fashion dolls have been around as long as women have sewed clothes samples. Oh, and apparently they cause they cause little boys to lust in their hearts. The fact that little boys mostly use Barbie as a hammer, or to distress their sisters by popping off Barbie’s head or limbs, is apparently not known to the writer of this pamphlet. So you can see what sort of bad name it’s determined to give to modesty.


Filed under Church, Dress code

7 responses to “Found Out Where the “Dress Like the Virgin Mary” Thing Came From

  1. I don’t know why this sort of thing goes so bad so quickly. You’ll see (allegedly Catholic!) condemnations of skirts that taper inward from hips to knee as inherently immodest, or of fitted suit skirts, or of wearing clothing that is fitted at all. (And of course, the “modest clothing rules” are usually either entirely aimed at women, or there’s a lot of transvestite guys going to traditionalist events.)

    I think you answer this in the next paragraph– the Saudi religious police aren’t unique among humans, they’re just odd in that they’re given authority to indulge in their authoritarian goals.

    I’m sure you’ve seen the same thing with D&D; I know I have. A lot of folks are driven away by these sort of self-declared authorities.

    Come to think of it, wasn’t Martin Luther pretty hard core about how traditional/true/orthodox/TRUTH!!! he was?

    • Apparently the revival of the Marylike Crusade has been a thing with a sedevacantist group known as CMRI (Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen). I think some of them came back to union with St. Peter, but the rest of them are apparently still doing their thing. They also misquote St. Jacinta’s little fashion comment as Mary saying “offensive to my Divine Son”, even though the Portuguese has nothing whatsoever like that. Sigh. (And yet they do have an article on their website warning, very temperately, against bad devotion information. God is very merciful and good to those who wander.)

  2. I’ve always wondered about the origins of this, so thanks for sharing. When people say women should dress like the Blessed Virgin Mary, I always assumed they meant they should dress like a Jewish woman in ancient times. Seems that may not be the case most of the time…

  3. Charlotte Allen

    I wrote this comment on Fr. Z.’s blog post on the subject. It is a response to “Inara,” who cited the 1930 Vatican document “De inhonesto feminarum vestiendi” as the supposed source of the directive, supposedly from Pope Pius XI, that necklines must be two fingers below the collarbone, skirts must extend below the knee, sleeves to the elbow, etc.

    I found “De inhonesto feminarum vestiendi more” (1930) here on the Internet (p. 26 is indeed the correct page):

    Click to access AAS%2022%20%5B1930%5D%20-%20ocr.pdf

    I’m a reasonably good Latinist, and I can assure you that there is not a word in this document about necklines, sleeve lengths, skirt lengths, or transparent fabrics. It is a general exhortation concerning Christian modesty in dress for women and girls. There are no specific standards.

    Thus I’m inclined to believe, along with Suburbanbanshee, that the “two-finger rule,” the rule about hemlines below the knee, etc., are interpolations dating from the “Marylike dress” campaign of the 1950s and have no official Vatican provenance.

    That said, I’m all in favor of modest dress in church, and I think that women–and men–ought to dress up for Sunday Mass.

    • Charlotte — read your contributions to Father Z’s thread. Awesome investigation! It’s good to know what was actually written, by who, when, for what reason, and what force of law or guidance it was supposed to have. I hope you will write some kind of article to put all your info in one place.

  4. maryslittleflower

    I agree with Fr Kunkel’s modesty standards, and what he was doing was done with approval from his Bishop and the Pope. I personally dress that way myself and this is what I was lead towards. I don’t think that dresses above the knee are “traditional” – 1978 is not “traditional”, fashions were already different back then. Also, the jumpers from parochial schools are for children, and children have typically worn a bit shorter dresses than grown women. They were always below the knee though… fashions were already changed in the 1970s. I read that this was actually done quite deliberately. St Padre Pio promoted modesty in the 1960s when women wore miniskirts.. I try to follow Our Lady in how I dress and I don’t think that we should follow these fashion changes, – like Our Lady told Blessed Jacinta.

  5. This might be the best comment on this nonsense I have ever seen! “But that’s totally okay, because the transcriber prayed over it. (Nothing like being so traditionalist you’re functionally a Protestant….)”

    Thank you for this article.

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