In 1960 Cardinal Siri urged women not to wear trousers. I think he may have had a point

A model wears Chanel trousers in 1964 (AP)

A friend has pointed me towards a blog by Fr Tim Finigan in which he mentions the late Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa and provides a link to a document written by the latter in 1960. Entitled “Notification Concerning Men’s Dress Worn by Women” it is a wonderful document and I am grateful to my friend (and indirectly to Fr Finigan) for bringing it to my attention.

In the Notification, which is addressed to his clergy, to teaching Sisters, to members of Catholic Action and to “Educators intending truly to follow Christian doctrine”, the cardinal noted that by 1960 many respectable women and mothers in Genoa had stopped wearing dresses and skirts and had taken to wearing “men’s dress (men’s trousers)”. He recognises that trousers might not be thought of as immodest “because they cover more of a woman’s body than do modern women’s skirts” – unless, of course, they are provocatively tight-fitting. His main point, however, is to do with the psychology of women wearing trousers: he believes “Male dress is the visible aid to bringing about a mental attitude of being ‘like a man’” ie it changes the psychology of women.

Cardinal Siri’s argument is that “male dress tends to vitiate relationships between men and women”; when women wear trousers, it flattens out the natural distinction between the sexes and thus helps “to pull down the vital defence-works of the sense of shame”. He believes, in short, that “the changing of feminine psychology does fundamental, and in the long run, irreparable damage to the family, to conjugal fidelity, to human affections and to human society.”

This is a large claim. Yet when I described the Notification as a “wonderful document” I was not poking fun at it. Of course the language used is quaint and old-fashioned and I feel sure the late cardinal would have been somewhat out of sympathy with “the spirit of Vatican II”; that Council was just two years in the future when he wrote down his thoughts. Indeed, he might seem – to modern eyes – as a reactionary old blimp. But he was writing in the days when bishops and cardinals took seriously their responsibility before God of their fatherhood of their diocesan flock. And was he entirely wrong in what he wrote?

Several years ago (long before I realised that Cardinal Siri and I were on a similar wave-length) a friend gave me a book about purity and women’s dress. It actually persuaded me to chuck out all my trousers and slacks for good. Friends and family were naturally aghast: had I gone mad? I could see all the reasonable arguments against me: modest Muslim women are allowed to wear baggy trousers; women’s slacks are not the same as men’s trousers and can be feminine; in very cold countries they are the only way to keep one’s legs warm; what do you wear when you are skiing or riding etc.

But I stuck to my guns – if this isn’t too unfeminine a metaphor. Why? Well, when I was a student at Cambridge in the 1960s I had worn mini-skirts – then the fashion – most of the time; this was sheer immodesty, though I wouldn’t have thanked Cardinal Siri for pointing this out to me then. When I wasn’t wearing mini-skirts I was trying to look like a character from a Hemingway novel: T-shirt, jeans and keeping a crumpled packet of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes in my hip pocket. I was, as Siri points out, deliberately dressing “like a man”. (There was a very brief interlude when I went into shiny black PVC from top to toe; goodness knows what the cardinal would have made of that.)

I decided there and then I ought to make reparation for my sartorial sins and those of others. “Reparation” is a very Catholic idea: making amends and sacrifices to atone for sin. I know it doesn’t fit into a Darwinian scheme of things but it makes a lot of sense to me. And as soon as I began to wear skirts – midi and maxi this time – I began to notice the ugliness of modern female dress: most women I saw, unless they were very elderly, were wearing tight jeans with a large expanse of flesh exposed at the midriff; unflattering and unfeminine at the same time.

Feminism, a huge subject, also comes into this debate. I suspect Cardinal Siri was right to suggest that the women’s movement was not doing women any favours. I am not talking here about the right to vote and equal pay for equal work; I am talking about the situation today when, if you try to say publicly that a “right” to abortion harms women or that staying at home when one’s children are young might be a good thing, the fearsome army of the feminist sisterhood simply shouts one down.

Back to the idea of reparation: when I mentioned joining the Pioneers (for a limited period, of course) in my last blog, some of the responses suggested I needed to lighten up, especially as I don’t have a drink problem. But female drunkenness, and the immodesty that goes with it, have a disastrous effect on society. What is wrong with making amends for this?

Mind you, I do worry where I might end up: first trousers, now drink. Will chocolates be next?