Women clerics of all liturgical hues are beating a path to an Oxford church outbuilding at the centre of a sartorial revolution. Charles Darwent visits a clerical outfitters run by and for women
The Reverend E King faced a novel problem come ordination day. Not last-minute doubts about mono-physitism or the validity of the Nicene Creed - common enough hitches, in all conscience - but an inability to find a suitable cassock to accommodate the soon-to-be-priestly physique. Some off-the-peg vestments proved too long in the leg, some too big in the shoulder, yet others too tight in the chest. So the aspirant United Reformed minister did what any priest worth his salt might have done in the circumstances: 'I designed my cassock myself,' says Elizabeth King, known to her congregation as Betsy. 'It was by far the nicest one there.' If you misassumed the Rev. Mrs King's gender, then you may begin to appreciate something of her sartorial frustration: a frustration whose implications were also more than merely vestment-deep. 'I had gone around all the big clerical suppliers and found that their catalogues all said the same thing,' relates the American-born but Oxford-based minister, in a fearsomely mordant drawl. 'There were "cassocks" and "cassocks for women"; "clerical shirts" and "clerical shirts for women". That does tend to suggest that female priests are kind of derivative, huh?' Indeed. By one of those happy coincidences the minister of the Cowley Road United Reformed Church had among the elders of her new flock an image consultant called Bridget Welland. Feeling 'pretty low about finances' as a result of the fashion-smiting recession in full swing in 1991, Welland went to her minister for a sympathetic ear. She found a cleric who was herself distinctly demoralised by the chauvinist ways of clerical outfitters. It was like the providential meeting of Messrs Royce and Rolls: 'As we sat down to a tin of smoked oysters,' says Welland, three years on, 'it suddenly came to both of us that we were just going to have to do something.' That something was to be called Oxenford, the world's first clerical outfitters run entirely by and for women. King is vociferous in pointing out that their brainwave considerably predated the decision of the General Synod of the Church of England even to consider so heinous (if potentially lucrative) a thing as female ordination. 'A lot of people have said, "You certainly saw a niche in the market",' fumes King. 'That really gets our back up. Our church has been ordaining women for 70 years.' Nonetheless, Oxenford's genesis was nothing if not timely. King explains something of the philosophy behind her company's subsequent product development strategy. 'Much of the criticism of women in the church up until now has been that we are pretending to be men,' notes the carmine-lipped minister, briskly. 'And part of that problem has been that we've been forced to dress like them.' Lest her words conjure up the curious image of tribes of lady clerics swathed in frou-frous of sprigged muslin, however, King is equally insistent that Oxenford's product ethos was 'most certainly not about the expression of femininity ... It's summed up by what the husband of one of our clients said when he saw his wife in one of our cassocks,' recalls Oxenford's co-founder. 'He said, "If she was wearing that, I'd listen to her". That's what it's all about. Women priests need to be heard. They need to express their personalities, but they also need to keep an eye on tradition. They want to be different, but not too different.' With this in mind, Welland and King - the latter in one previous incarnation a successful Washington DC designer - have set about creating a collection of sympathetic vestments and accessories for their potential clientele. The result is a range of six sober-hued but chicly tailored cassocks, each named after an Oxfordshire river.
'Each expresses a personality type,' suggests Welland, 'The "Holywell", for example, is designed for the more formidable woman.' As thus favoured by Mrs King? 'Certainly not,' rejoins the minister, astonished at the very idea. 'I wear the "Windrush" ' - a more unstructured, ivory-coloured number - 'made for people who need to be able to move around, to stride. I often dance up and down the aisles during services,' explains King helpfully.
But Oxenford's product inventiveness has also gone beyond the composition of gender-based variations on a theme. The pious among you will doubtless recall the unhappy phenomenon of Curate's Larynx, that painful condition caused by the chafing of a celluloid dog-collar against an inconveniently convex Adam's apple. 'It happens because regular dog-collars are made in straight strips, on the assumption that the human neck is a perfect cylinder,' points out King. 'It is not.' Accordingly, Oxenford's creative duo have performed the clerical equivalent of reinventing the wheel, producing a collar that forgivingly takes into account frailties of the human flesh. 'It's curved,' says King, 'so it follows the contours of the neck: but it also fits under existing "tunnel" shirts, so you don't need a whole new wardrobe to wear them.' The company has also recently produced a whole range of matching slip-on tabards and faintly outre clerical blouses.
Not surprisingly, given all of this, women clerics of all denominations and liturgical hues have been beating an increasingly well-worn path over the past three years to Oxenford's Cowley Road fitting-rooms, housed in an out-building next to Betsy King's church. 'We launched our first range at the Christian Resources Exhibition at Sandown Park in 1992,' recalls the minister. 'Whispers had already gone around, and the response was enormous. Women kept coming up and saying, "I can't believe it's finally happened". And they keep coming back for more.' And it is not just women clerics who have shown an interest in Oxenford's products, either. A number of male priests, doubtless cursed with inflamed Adam's apples, have apparently cast envious eyes at King and Welland's catalogue. Long forced to dress in skirts themselves, these clerics now have to look wistfully on as a sartorial revolution is engineered by a woman minister who did not see why she should be forced to dress in trousers. 'We have been approached by male priests who want to buy our collars,' admits King, 'but we simply don't have the time or resources yet to cope with the mass market.' That these unfortunate men should thus be condemned to remain sore-larynxed for the foreseeable future may strike some readers as deservedly ironic. Despite a turnover in the company's first full trading year of something like £75,000, Oxenford's directors have been hampered by a chronic inability to find financial backing. Betsy King is in no doubt as to why this is so. 'We can prove a track-recordable profit in under five years, which is what most people demand,' she says exasperatedly. 'I had about 16 careers before this one, and between us we can produce the best dam' five-year plan you've ever seen. But the problem is that we're women directors of a women's company. We hear the language that banks and finance institutions use to us. They say, "Do you know about this?" or "Have you thought of this?", as though they were talking to children.'
And there are other problems, too: 'Frankly,' says King, 'they don't like our business ethics.' 'Part of our business creed is that we won't take on debt,' explains Welland. 'We work to order, we don't keep stocks. That means that banks can't make interest out of us, which means they just aren't interested. The money we want isn't big enough.' 'Potential backers also want us to set up manufacturing facilities, which we absolutely refuse to do,' says King. (Their cassocks are produced by a co-operative of Christian women seamstresses.) 'We don't agree with piecework: spending your life just sewing sleeves is degrading. The people who make our cassocks make all of them.' Laudable though these ideals inarguably are, King and Welland are also no doubt right in attributing their funding difficulties to them. This is all the more frustrating because the pair are clearly formidable marketeers. Not only is there a huge potential domestic demand from sore-necked male priests to be considered, Oxenford is also well placed to tap into the as-yet-unchallenged US market. There is, says King, 'no equivalent company to ours in the entire US. An extremely well-known theologian in the States has offered to distribute our catalogue with a covering letter, and as soon as we get into the American market, we're away.' And back home, the makers of Gore-Tex, are, says Welland, 'extremely keen' on participating in a project to produce a waterproof surplice (useful for wet gravesides) under Oxenford's aegis. 'They keep coming back to us,' adds Welland, 'but there's nothing we can do. Without some sort of financial injection, we just can't afford the up-front cost for an entire garment run.' So Oxenford's commercial future is, depending on the sanguinity of your vision, either a rosy or dire one. The company's directors have contingency plans for Welland to take over day-to-day running should it prove to be the former - 'My duties are first and foremost to my church,' says King - but are also all too aware of what might happen if it does not: 'If we don't get some money,'she says, 'someone else is just going to get in first.' The Lord, she suggests, has always come up trumps so far. If some perceptive venture capitalist would like to offer Him a helping hand, however, no one in Cowley Road is going to say no.