Friday, July 13, 2007

Okay. So How Should We Dress for Mass?

I know that I'm running the risk of causing my readers to grow weary of the whole topic of clothing, modesty, appropriate dressing, fashion, vanity and the like. But before I turn from this back to other topics of interest, I wanted to revisit the whole question of how we dress for Mass.

Specifically, I wanted to discuss appropriate dress for Sunday Mass, since few but the highest sticklers would insist that we pull our Sunday Best out of our closets on a daily basis if we are fortunate enough to be able to attend Mass daily. But why not? If dressing for Sunday Mass is really about dressing appropriately to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, or even to visit Him, why is it not taken as a standard of piety that we should put our best clothing on anytime we happen to enter a Catholic Church, whether it is for Sunday Mass, daily Mass, adoration, Saturday confession, Wednesday choir practice, or any weekday to help out by doing a little light cleaning?

The truth of the matter is that God knows quite well what we look like, inside and out. Provided we're not dressing immodestly it is not really inappropriate to stop by and make a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament even if we're attired somewhat casually, in a pair of slacks perhaps, or a loose knit skirt and a sweater that has seen better days. Anything that is not inappropriate for us to wear in public really isn't inappropriate to wear inside a Catholic Church most of the time.

However, it has been a long and honorable custom to make a little more effort with one's appearance for Sunday Mass, and this attention to dress was (and in some cases, still is) true even among our Protestant brethren for their Sunday services. There was a sense among Catholics that even if one did attend Mass daily, one could wear a slightly higher order of garment on Sunday morning. This was not only to show that we understood that Sunday Mass was the chief among our liturgical practices, no matter how many times those practices took us into a church during the week, but also to show our unity with and respect for each other. In other words, dressing nicely for Sunday Mass was an act of love both for God and for our neighbor.

In the past, it was both neighborly and a sign of one's own good manners to dress appropriately for any and all occasions. No one faulted the housecoat-clad housewife who went about with curlers in her hair as she cleaned and cooked for her family; what a transformation when the curlers came out and the housecoat was exchanged for a stylish street suit, as she sallied forth to do the marketing! If she'd gone to the market in her housecoat, though, she would have incurred censure, and wearing one's curlers out of doors was frowned upon. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, would be the eyebrows raised by the man invited to play tennis who showed up for the game in a coat and tie--showing up too formally dressed was considered as big a lapse in manners and judgment as showing up too informally dressed was.

These rules about dressing have sadly faded in our more casual age. Gone are the clear distinctions between articles of clothing; gone are the subtle differences that made a woman's street suit completely different from the flowered print dress she wore on Sunday morning. Gone, too, for most of the men I know, are the closets full of business suits and sports jackets, with the clear and distinct definitions of which should be worn when; sadly, most men today work in business casual environments, which in at least some instances is an open admission on the part of their employers that they aren't being paid well enough to own a wardrobe of suits and ties. The clothing we are left with to choose from on Sunday mornings is, like most of our clothing, a strange hybrid between dressy and casual, between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, and no amount of wishful thinking will transport us back into the age when "Sunday Best" meant something clear and definitive.

That doesn't mean, however, that we should just throw in the towel and settle for casual attire at Mass. The duty we have to love God and our neighbor, and even, when possible, to let our Sunday clothes reflect that love, hasn't really changed. But in attempting to determine how to dress for Sunday Mass, we can't completely ignore the reality that our clothes are what they are; I can't see how it would please God for us to think that in order to please Him we have to go out and purchase an expensive new wardrobe of Sunday clothing.

So how do we select from among the clothing in our closets those items which can become our own interpretation of "Sunday Best?" I don't have all the answers, here, but I do have a few suggestions. (These are mainly for women, as men still have this sort of thing easier in general, don't they? But the goal of dressing less casually on Sunday is one that men can take to heart, too.)

1. Shorts are only your "best" clothes if you are a male under the age of five. I'm sorry, but there it is. Even these ladies, whose completely secular fashion advice I don't fully endorse, are adamant that shorts are only appropriate for a grown woman if she's wearing them at the beach. (They are also adamant that no woman over the age of 35 should ever wear skirts above her knees, and they're quite right.)

2. Pants that could be worn to work in the garden are probably not your "best" clothes, either. If you find it necessary to wear pants to Sunday Mass, try to wear some that look dressy; I'd suggest a nice pantsuit, breezy palazzo pants (if you're tall enough and have the figure for them), or a skirt-like pair of gaucho* pants.

3. Sleeveless tops may not always be immodest, but they definitely look casual. If you live in the sort of climate that makes it a good idea to wear one in the summer, think about an open crochet sweater or shrug, or perhaps a light breezy scarf, which may be removed after Mass.

4. Do not make the mistake of overdressing, either. Ball gowns, formal attire, and the sort of thing you might wear to the opera aren't really appropriate for Sunday Mass with the possible exception of Christmas Midnight Mass.

In the comment boxes below, please feel free to add your own rules of thumb for choosing your "Sunday Best!"

*Update: The consensus in the comment box is that I mean a culotte or split skirt here. I certainly didn't mean those silly tight knit pants that so many unfortunate teenage girls wear!


Susan said...

Red Cardigan,

I found your blog recently. I can't decide yet how much I agree with you, but I'm really enjoying your unique perspective in the Catholic mom blogosphere.

One point of irony: I live in Washington, DC, perhaps the only city in the country where suits for men and women are still the norm for most working professionals every day. We do go to daily Mass and the attendees are always very well dressed. It's so disappointing to go on Sunday and see all those same people in khakis and a polo (at best).

Also, I really have to disagree with the gaucho pants unless you can find me a picture of some that don't look absolutely ridiculous. Those pants seem, more than most, to accentuate the rear curves of a woman's body. Most women really don't need those curves highlighted and those with the figures for gauchos shouldn't be flaunting them at Mass.

My blog is younger than yours, but stop by if you have a minute. Once the dust settles, I hope to write on many of the same topics you have touched on recently.

God Bless!

Red Cardigan said...

Susan, welcome! And please feel free to disagree with me whenever you like. :) I welcome thoughtful disagreement; sometimes that's how I figure out what I really think (if that makes any sense at all).

What you said about D.C. is intriguing! Perhaps we've begun to associate our 'day of rest' too much with the idea of casual clothing.

Today's modern tweenage gauchos really are silly, I agree. But I've seen some that are much more fully cut, more like a true culotte or split skirt than actual gaucho pants. The problem is that what I used to think of as a culotte often gets called a pair of gauchos; on the other hand I've seen some pants labeled "gaucho" that really are just a slightly generously cut pair of capri pants, so who knows? What I'd have in mind as a possibility for Sunday Mass, though, might look like this:

The description says that it comes below the knee, and I think that this sort of garment could look rather skirt-like and yet provide the flexibility that would ensure, for example, that a mother with toddlers wouldn't inadvertently end up with her skirt embarrassingly elevated as she lifted her children up or bent down to assist or discipline them.

Your blog looks interesting; I'm looking forward to reading more!

Opal said...

Well, I think Mother Angelica and the people at EWTN and the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament have some things worked out. They offer sweat pants/jackets or cardigans and have their dress code tactifully displayed. I think having something similar especially dress code displayed would help.

Hélène said...

Red, I would say that what you linked to are culottes and not gauchos. I don't know if this is the only difference, but all the gauchos that I have seen are knit. Knit material seems to be more clingy and hence accentuate the bottom as Susan pointed out.

I know many men who have to wear a tie to work M-F and who want to "relax" on the weekends. They don't bother wearing ties to Sunday Mass because of this. It always makes me sad that many people dress nicer for work than they do for Mass on Sundays.

As for inappropriate clothes on Sundays, I would say that anything that shows cleavage is out. (Well, it ought to be out all the time, but the last thing a woman should be doing is going up to communion showing cleavage to someone who has taken a vow of chastity.) I am amazed at all the Catholics I know who think modesty is important, but wear low cut clothes to church.

4andcounting said...

I just try to dress more nicely than I would to go out to dinner with Husband. I'll admit to wearing jeans once in a while to our evening Mass, but that is very rare and usually related to hormonal issues (not an issue for the next 9 months I guess). I try to make an effort to show my children too that going to Sunday Mass is an event worthy of our best dress, as we are honoring God. I think one good rule of thumb is to consider if your clothing would be distracting to others b/c it was immodest or too casual or too dressy. We certainly don't want someone to be distracted all through Mass by our clothing. I'm in a hurry or would try to be more clear.

Red Cardigan said...

Good comments, all!

Thanks for participating!

I'm mulling over the dress code suggestion--good idea or bad idea?

newhousenewjob said...

If any person is put off attending Mass because of a dress code, then I would say it's a bad thing. God knows what's in each person's heart, and he knows if someone has made an effort according to their own standards. It's not for us to judge.

As a young man, my grandfather fought in a civil war (he was not from England). He and his comrades lived rough out in the hills, never even visiting their families in case they put them in danger. But on Sunday, they came down into the town to go to Mass. This put them in very real danger, but they did it for love of God, arriving slightly late having travelled a long distance on foot, and standing at the back. Because they were living rough, they looked a bit scruffy - and the priest denounced them from the pulpit, saying "If you can't even be bothered to wash and dress properly for Mass, don't come at all." My grandfather didn't attend Mass again for about 30 years. So who was in the wrong there - the 'holier than thou' priest, or the young men who had put their lives in danger to attend Mass but hadn't been able to put on their Sunday best?

opal said...

The priest was wrong and so was your grandfather for not forgiving and continuing to go to mass.

You are right that we are to be careful not to judge others by appearance but I do not think it is inappropriate to ask US to where clothes that are modest (this is my big gripe). That is why, in my opinion, EWTN is on to something because they have clothes to give you in case the skirt is too short, or it is 110 outside and you have on a sleeveless top. NOW, it can be abused and misused as anything can.

God Bless your grandfather for risking his life. The priest was definitely out of line.

newhousenewjob said...
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