Dress Up

Deacon Greg picks up on the seemingly endless discussion on what to wear to church. I’ve never felt particularly insulted by plummeting dress codes in church–I see it all over. When I walk back from the ISU libbrary, I often pass through a hall of honor at the Memorial Union. A sign asks men to remove caps and hats. Men wearing hats inside, shirts not tucked in–those were habits I never seemed to pick up. I don’t understand them, but then again, I never cared much for hats, nor the feel of a belt buckle on my skin.

On the other hand, I never quite connected with the “give honor to God like you would a king or a president” argument. Who chums with royalty on a weekly basis?

I wonder about a number of factors at work here:

– Western culture is shifting from formality in just about every aspect of life. The way people dress at work, at school, in uniform–it’s all heading away from norms of the past decades and centuries. People can pontificate as to why this is happening, but it’s undeniable and not reversing itself anytime soon.

– Climate change. … Just kidding.

– I count my wife’s input on this one. I do notice other women, and I can’t deny the occasional distraction, even in church. But as a man, I take responsibility for my eyes, or for my occasional failure. My wife says I’m generally well-behaved, speaking for the eyes. I know there are times when I consciously focus on a woman’s face if I’m having a conversation. And if I have an opportunity to watch from afar, I figure there’s a lot more to look at. I think the culture promotes men watching women as part of enhancing the corporate profit motive. As far as what some would consider provocative women’s dress in church–it’s not a choice I would make, or approve of my daughter making. But it’s not a choice that’s going to be a bother to me, either.

– Is the loosened dress code for church part of a “low christology” familiarity with God? Isn’t it good people who come to church feel closer to God? They don’t see Mass as an old-fashioned high society function with celebrities.

– Dress codes at wealthy churches seemed to have changed more than they have in poor churches. But they’ve changed all over.

– Is the fuss about dress really about clothing? It’s sort of like the President Jenkins initiative to join the March for Life. If he were really a pro-lifer, he and ND would have been front row with a sign the past forty years. If he were really pro-life he would engineer a South Bend jailbreak for all the anti-Obama protesters. Would people really be happy with polo/golf shirts tucked in and demure tops, or would some be making the case for suit coats, ties, hats/doilies, and hem lines at the ankles? In other words, is it a complaint generated just to complain about something? And if it is, does it imply something more deeply dissatisfying about the Mass that what people wear?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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15 Responses to Dress Up

  1. Liam says:

    I will also add some other rambling thoughts:

    – Just to take the usual reference to secular habit by the throat – what today passes for formal wear at formal events (typically, weddings and fundraising events) is no longer what it used to be even if it looks the same. Formal wear *used* to be the best everyday dress within your class. (Brides in all but the upper classes used to wear their wedding dresses after their wedding, for example). *Now* formal wear has become a form of special occasion costume. Because everyone pretends to be middle class in substance and, on occasion, upper class in form. It’s an empty hash – as hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, so our current occasional costumed adoption of formality is the tribute our substantive informality pays to the ghost of actual formality.

    – Sunday Mass in the OF is longer that the typical preconciliar low Mass. Older churches that are not airconditioned (still numerous in certain parts of the US) and whose windows get sealed to preserve heating in the window are infernal in the summer. Moreover, many people now take medicine combinations that have the consequence of dramatically increasing the risk of perspiration and heat attacks; these were not as common in former generations. So I cut people much more slack for this. You can sometimes tell who they are.

  2. Liam says:

    heating in the “winter” not “window” (I had something rattling at the window next to me, and the fingertips heeded it) … sorry

  3. crystal says:

    I don’t think God cares what people wear and I usually wore jeans to church but I can remember hearing people in the pews dscussing/criticizing what others were wearing.

  4. Gavin says:

    To be honest, I dress up for the following reasons:

    – Because it’s socially expected that one dresses up for church
    – Because I enjoy wearing a suit and necktie or bow tie
    – Because I’ve been told I’m extremely attractive in a suit

    I admit, all shallow reasons. So I tend not to disdain too much those who dress casually for church. Although sloppy dress for weddings and funerals does annoy me from the lack of respect shown the deceased or married. I already plan to make my wedding a black-tie affair. Hopefully there won’t be a four-in-hand for miles!

  5. Randolph Nichols says:

    I’ll add my own random thoughts. While notions of dress may be a generational thing, the ultra casual attire seems to be – at least for some occasions – on the wane. I attended a niece’s wedding this past week and couldn’t help notice the high style of the younger set.

    Though we may never return to the hat and gloves era of our grandmothers, there is something to be said for the grace and dignity those accessories represent. And for those who assume stylishness is part and parcel to self-perceived social (read “economic”) superiority, please observe the attire of the Haitian and Ugandan communities at their liturgical celebrations.

    I’ll admit to bias. As a young music student I tried hard to model myself after teachers (mostly Jewish émigrés) who dressed(tie pins, cuff links, flower in the lapel, etc.) and spoke in that wonderfully distinguished Old World manner. I also confess to having a soft spot for la belle époque literature. However, I’ve never worked up the nerve to carry a walking stick.

  6. Mike says:

    Here’s a place to while away some time, dreaming of spending money on very nice things: http://www.tweed-jacket.com/

    In the interest of full disclosure, I hold that gentlemen’s fashion reached its apex in the 1930s in England.

  7. Sam Schmitt says:

    “I don’t think God cares what people wear.”

    How do you know?

    But seriously, I’m always puzzled by the “it doesn’t matter what you wear to Church since God (supposedly) doesn’t care.” Does this apply to weddings and funerals, too? If I saw a person wearing to my father’s funeral what I often see at Sunday mass, I would be offended.

    Why not a similar sensitivity for mass? In the gospel Christ was clearly hurt by the lack of hospitality shown by the Pharisee who invited him to dinner. You might think that Christ would be “above all of that” but he is a human being after all. And I seem to remember that a parable about a man who was kicked out of the wedding banquet for not being dressed properly . . .

  8. crystal says:

    I guess I don’t equate dressing up with having respect or showing respect for God. My prayer life is probably a better indication of how I feel about God. If I was attending a funeral or a wedding I would dress up in respect for the other people. I think the dressing up thing is about people, – maybe what people wear to Church says more about how they want to be viewed in their community than about how they feel about God?

  9. Liam says:


    You better have an evening wedding, or the black tie will be inappropriate….

    Anyway, be prepared to be disappointed; you will be happy to see those four-in-hands rather than nothing. And be prepared to see women in black.

    Frankly, I think black tie is for slackers; I think people look far better in full evening dress (aka white tie). Gloves, please. Decorations, too. If you’re going to bother with a costume party (which is what formal wear is for anyone who does not own their own formal attire), go all the way rather than half-way.

  10. Liam says:

    And I would mark the part of the 20th Century before World War I as the apex of fashion for upper class women and men. Once wartime austerity hit the upper classes, it’s been a faint echo.

    For Americans, I think the period covered by Mad Men thus far was the peak of middle-class and upper-class fashion. Maybe because it’s the fashions I first saw. I remember having to sew the buttons on the gloves of my mother, grandmother and sisters (a job for the littlest able fingers – by the time my younger brother was old enough to do it, gloves had gone the way of the dodo bird).

  11. Neil says:

    I think that those who worry about “plummeting dress codes in church” do make two points:

    1) There is a problem if our dress communicates that participating in the liturgy is just one activity among others. Our participation in the liturgy is meant to integrate our activities by offering them to God.

    2) It is true that people can become distractions to others at Mass. (It is also true that this point can be made very, very badly. For more on this, see my post here.)

    But it must also be said:

    1) Strongly encouraging that people dress up for church can potentially divide those who can afford obvious formality from those who simply cannot.

    2) Relatedly, one doesn’t want to suggest that wealth or fashionability (or any kind of display) necessarily go together with holiness.

    What can be done? I would suggest that, instead of counselling that participants in the liturgy “dress up,” we suggest that they dress with simplicity. This would mean that they dress in ways that, as much as is reasonable, allow them to point away from themselves. (This “pointing away” might involve avoiding “normal” clothes.) They also would not become a distraction to others.

    But we also avoid seeming like we privilege wealth or “high society” or some nostalgic vision of the past.


  12. Jim McK says:

    Another problem is that a dress code can become another set of rules like the Law. Since scrupulosity, pharisaism, judging, and other faults accompany a divinely given law, I imagine they can develop with a lesser code.

    So if there is even an informal dress code, it has to be matched with vigilance against the many problems a law can create. Reverence for God and for God’s people have to outweigh vanity and shame to allow all to approach the altar.

  13. Sam Schmitt says:

    It’s not so much about “dressing up” for church as it is avoiding the bare minimum. True, God doesn’t “care” what we wear – I suppose we could pray just as well in the shower – but if a person comes to church without even bothering to change out of his pajamas, won’t this have an effect on *he* prays? (besides the other people at church). If I come to my own wedding in my swim trunks, it’s not just about offending my bride-to-be – it says something about how *I* feel about the marriage, too (which, in fact, is the reason the bride would be offended).

    One’s prayer life isn’t simply interior. We are bodily creatures, so our posture, outward attention and yes, even what we wear can affect how we pray. The fact that the interior is more important doesn’t mean that the exterior doesn’t matter at all.
    Standing, kneeling, and sitting at different parts of the mass isn’t just about how we appear to others but is meant to help *us* pray.

  14. Neil says:

    Dear Sam,

    I agree with you that how we dress at church should be a subject that we discuss. But I think that you need to draw two distinctions:

    1. We should distinguish between dressing at a “bare minimum” and dressing (or at least seeming to dress) provocatively (e.g., in swim trunks). The problem with dressing for a wedding in swim trunks is that everyone present would be forced to ask questions like: “What is he trying to say here?”

    I think that this distinction is important because the “bare minimum” might not be making any statement at all – it might be construction workers walking from a work site to daily Mass, or a sleep-deprived new mother who is very, very grateful that she didn’t need to spend time dressing up.

    (By the way, strange clothing at church often means mental illness, not a lack of commitment to prayer.)

    2. You need to distinguish between a wedding and the liturgy. The bride and groom at a wedding are meant to be looked at, because we generally assume that weddings are meant (in part) to express who the bride and groom are. Save for the presider, nobody goes to church (or, better put, nobody should go to church) to be looked at. Thus, costume has an importance at a wedding that it shouldn’t have at liturgy.

    That said, I wonder how you would respond to two questions:

    1. First, can we counsel simplicity? See my comment above.

    2. How would you respond to Jim’s very interesting comment? Let me rephrase what I think that he is saying: Might an emphasis on dressing up be us desperately attempting to create a false image of ourselves – that we are, in our so obvious dedication and concern for appearances, somehow “worthy” of the Eucharist?

    I think that we would agree about the importance of the “exterior” – especially, I should say, in discussions about active participation.



  15. Liam says:

    I would say the most expressive minimal garment I have seen on adults in a church was (on an Easter Sunday morning about 15 years ago) a hospital johnnie on a man who had unplugged himself from his various hospital machines and walked out of the hospital across the street into our church, laid down on the carpet in the rear of the church, and opened out his arms. He was ministered to immediately and eventually returned to the hospital. Most of the packed congregation did not witness this, but we in the choir saw it.

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