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!