Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The long and short of it

I enjoyed reading the comments to the post below this one about Sunday dress. If anything, the one thing that surprises me the most is that people over the age of five actually wear shorts to Mass. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that shorts at Mass, as well as other inappropriate clothing choices, reflects something about our culture, not just about Mass-goers and the clothing choices they make.

I live in a place where triple-digit temperatures are expected during the summer. It gets hot here, no doubt about it. But I own exactly two pairs of shorts, and I wear them around the house on the hottest days. I never wear them out in public at all.

Why? Is it because I'm short and a little on the round side, and have pale skin which freckles or burns but never tans, so that my legs in shorts are a less-than-edifying sight to behold? A little; I try never to ascribe to virtue what can be explained by vice, and vanity is a vice.

But there's another reason, one which became clear to me when I watched a fragment of a program about fashion once. I can't remember exactly what was said, but the take-away was this: shorts are beachwear. They are also okay for poolside wear, for lounging at home, for exercise (including bicycling), and for a handful of people who must wear them as part of a uniform (e.g., mail carriers, delivery truck drivers, bicycle police officers, etc.). And that's it.***

Wait! you cry. It's hot where I live, too--maybe hotter than where you are. My legs are fine (long, tan, in good shape). I can't possibly wear long slacks or skirts to the grocery store or to run errands! I have to wear shorts out in public or I'll roast. And what if I need to stop somewhere on the way home from the beach/pool/gym?

This is part of the problem with our culture. We've gotten so used to an "anything goes" standard of dress that we no longer think anything of stopping by the grocery store in shorts and a swimsuit top (perhaps lightly draped, giving us the false illusion that we look like we're merely wearing a stylish tank top and shrug, when everyone can see we've just come from the beach/pool). Heck, we're used to seeing people shop in pajama bottoms and flip-flops; what's wrong with shorts, when people obviously don't care?

The thing is, people do care. If you don't think so, imagine wearing shorts over a swimsuit at the grocery store, only to run into a) your mother's best friend, b) your pastor, c) the biggest gossip in your homeschool group, d) your husband's boss, or e) all of the above, in that order. Then imagine inviting that group of people into your home, and greeting them in that outfit. You wouldn't do it, right?

Some, here, would object that they never go out in just a swimsuit top with shorts, or that the shorts they own are nice and dressy, knee-length, etc. I have no doubt this is true for some, but the fact remains that shorts are an inherently casual item of clothing. The dressiest pair of shorts doesn't look as dressy as the plainest just-below-knee length skirt (provided, of course, that we're talking about a skirt that doesn't aspire to be a mini and isn't quarter-outline tight; sadly, those are all too prevalent in our culture, too).

Now, I know that most people, especially most moms, who run into the store clad in a decent pair of shorts and a tee aren't really pushing any social or cultural envelopes. They're dressing that way because everybody, or nearly everybody, else does. The lines between appropriate and inappropriate clothing vanished somewhere between the time when hats and gloves began to go out of style and when the day-glo mini-dress appeared.  But that's part of the problem: when we're too much in tune to dubious fashion trends of the age, we forget to take an objective step back, look at the trend, and evaluate it on its merits. Will it ever be seen as a good thing that people in the year 2009 were comfortable dressing like the children of previous eras: e.g., short pants, sleeveless tops, exercise clothes, spaghetti-strap sundresses and other child-like garments being worn in public by adults of both genders?

And another part of the problem is that when people accept dubious fashion trends as de rigueur, these trends are going to show up at Mass. As ugly as it can be to see shorts-clad adults in church on Sunday, I can only imagine what it was like to live through the "abbreviated mini-dress" age, when women who weren't comfortable showing off their legs two or three inches above the knee had almost no clothing to choose from, and despaired of finding anything decent to wear.

So how do those of us who agree with the idea that shorts should return to their previous category of beachwear or lounge-wear work to encourage that use?

First, we can absolutely refuse to wear them to Mass, no matter how hot it is, and not even for daily Mass. We should also get out of the habit of wearing them to a holy hour or Confession or anytime we have to enter the church building.

Second, we can try a little harder not to wear them out in public except to the beach or pool or gym. If necessary, we can bring a just-below-knee skirt in a wrinkle-free knit or some light capri pants tucked into our beach bag or gym bag so that if we must run errands on our way home, we can change into something other than shorts.

Third, we can encourage our older children to wear shorts less frequently when they are going to be out in public. Young children can wear shorts--they've always been appropriate on children under five, and I think five to ten is also fine, especially for boys, so long as the long pants begin to appear at Mass. But if you have older children, and they know ahead of time you'll be going out (say, for some prolonged shopping or dinner or some such thing) they should be encouraged to choose something other than shorts whenever this is feasible.

Fourth, we can--we must!--be charitable when we see adults wearing shorts at Mass. There are probably ten adults in America who actually look good in shorts, and I've certainly never seen any of the ten in church. When someone dresses in such a way that he or she looks terrible, we can only assume he or she has no idea of the fact, and no one to tell him or her that this is the case. Let's face it, though: shorts reveal more flaws than they conceal. On men they emphasize the waist, usually in a bad way; they cling a bit more than they should to the rear end, especially to any fatty tissue which has accumulated in the posterior; they reveal just how hirsute the gentleman in question may be; and if his legs are less than trim or less than muscular these deficiencies will be highlighted. On women, they are just as bad, revealing not only the waist but also the hips, and any disproportion between the two; they add at least ten pounds to the figure, especially if the woman has tucked her shirt in tightly so that its rolls look like extra weight; they are extremely good at revealing the undergarment lines, since women's shorts are often constructed of lighter-weight materials than men's shorts are; and unless the woman's legs are perfect, which they usually are not, they reveal everything from spider veins and varicose veins to fatty deposits and stretch marks.

In charity, then, we should assume that the shorts-wearer has not ever really seen himself or herself in a full-length mirror, especially from behind, or he or she would never, ever, EVER wear such an unflattering garment to Mass--and probably not in public at all. So trying to discuss the issue with him or her is likely to be unproductive, unless you are a close relative, in which case a little candor may go a long way, provided it is tactfully administered.

Fifth, we can encourage our pastors to do what only they can do: remind the congregation of the minimal standards of dress at Mass. This has to be done with sensitivity and kindness, but it should be done. Some churches have placed plaques or notices in the back of the church to remind people to dress appropriately; others have invited some parish participation in the discussion of the question; others have simply cranked the a/c down so low that shorts, halter tops, and spaghetti-strap dresses are supremely uncomfortable to wear, even on the hottest days.

I sometimes think that since the late 60s our nation has been going through a sort of long adolescence. Like adolescents, we've clung to childish things (such as dress) while insisting on adult behaviors without adult responsibility or adult consequences (see: sexual revolution). I hope that we'll be past that age soon, and that Catholics who wear shorts to Mass on Sunday may start looking in the mirror and thinking, "Why the heck am I dressed like a kindergartner?"

***Some would include backyard barbecues or neighborhood block parties. I think it depends on the backyard--or the neighbors.


LeeAnn said...

I am not sure I can express exactly why, but I think your rant against shorts goes too far.

Culturally: Western man maybe has not typically gone about bare-legged for 1,000 years, but plenty of Eastern cultures have done so more recently. What about those first thousand years of Christian civilization? Knee-length togas and tunics? And in some warmer Eastern and African cultures there are a variety of forms of dress, some of which would be called formal, which don't extend past the knees. And kilts, aren't they both formal and short?

I would agree that there are good shorts and bad shorts--the more material generally the more appropriate for most occasions.

Athletic wear should be reserved for athletic pursuits, certainly.

And generally I agree that adults dressing like children is demeaning and undignified, but I am not sure that I personally can see clearly when the lines are so blurred.

I have seen moms in "dressy" velour sweatsuits with their hair and nails all done that made me feel underdressed when I was wearing twill pants and a button down shirt but nothing fancy done to either my hair or face.

I can think of a half dozen other similar situations in modern fashion where clothes that used to be specifically for manual labor, exercise or sleeping have been modified and "upgraded" to become dressier clothes. Who was that actress at the Oscars that wore the silk ballgown skirt with the white Gap t-shirt?

I can see why many people eventually just give up on creating standards of dress (I'm just about there, getting exasperated trying to work this out in my head)--because when it comes down to it, it's just pieces of fabric covering our bodies providing modesty and protection, is it not? Maybe the third leg of that stool is that clothing should provide beauty--perhaps that's what I'm lacking understanding of.

This is like a never-ending puzzle trying to figure this out. I would like to agree with what you have written, but I find I can't entirely. It's just too much.

LarryD said...

"There are probably ten adults in America who actually look good in shorts, and I've certainly never seen any of the ten in church."

Make it eleven, unless you've included me in the ten. :-)

I'm wondering if you're opening Pandora's closet with this post...

Red Cardigan said...

Well, you know, Larry, I've never been afraid to do that. :)

LeeAnn, I'm not trying to start a fashion war; I just think that we *have* to come up with some minimum standards of attire, especially for Mass--but that's so very difficult to do when we don't have minimum standards of attire for anything else.

I agree with you that clothes should mostly provide modesty and protection, but some artistry isn't amiss in the whole process. Most cultures have adopted standards based on their ideas of suitability and also beauty, so I think both go together.

Thing is, right now we have people saying "Shorts are perfectly modest clothes!" while others reply "Then why aren't they allowed at the Vatican?" Some would say shorts are always modest, and some would say they never are. Me? I say shorts are modest when worn appropriately--but so very often they're not being worn appropriately. When people wear their bathing suits in public that's not really appropriate either--and some bathing suits of the "tank and shorts" variety are probably more modest from a length and fit perspective than some of the other shorts people wear out and about.

And I'm sorry, but shorts simply are not appropriate at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, especially on Sunday when we gather as the whole Christian community to offer our highest worship to God. We don't live in a culture with strong ancient roots in favor of knee-length garments, and most people would agree that shorts are out of place for many if not all serious activities. If a person has nothing but shorts to wear, he need not worry about the appropriateness of his outfit, but few of us if any are in that position.

Perhaps some will argue that they wear shorts everywhere including Church, and if shorts are fine for restaurants, stores, movie theaters, museums, symphonies at major performance halls, etc., then they're also fine for Church. My argument is that shorts aren't really "fine" for all those other venues--we've just adopted a very low standard of dress, and have gotten used to dressing as casually as possible in most social settings. And though I'm guilty of that myself, I think it's hard to argue that it is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

As a former nurse aide, medical student, mother--there 'ain't nuthin' I han't seen, yet' and have no illusions about human bodies beneath clothing. As an artist, I appreciate someone with a fashion sense. As a very overweight (at the moment) person, I can appreciate efforts some of us have to overcome obstacles in wearing well-fitted items of attire in our attempts to look similarly attractive in all instances of meeting the public, whether running on an errand, answering the doorbell at 7:30 AM setting off for a jaunt, to work, or Mass.

As a relatively conservative person, I constructed some of my children's good clothing, and set about reinforcing seams on good-quality childrens' wear picked up at the Five & Dime or Goodwill, and attempt to occasionally slip my husband's well-worn items into the shop rag basket.

As an inherently private person, I can appreciate how others may wish to dress with decorum and good taste, to reflect when in a place of worship, a sense of respectability, and would not want to be seen in public with unwashed or unkempt hair, shoes falling apart, or holey, dirty and unmistakably quite frayed garments.

And, as a a product of the 60's when everything 'went' at one time, such as unattractive baby doll shirts, deliberately faded jean skirts, all sagged out peasant blouses, heavy-duty stretch polyester, and ripped blue jeans, I'll take a respectably long day-glo minidress over the decollete and ugly, but fashionable sausage casings now that we see on young women.

At one time I couldn't stand orange sherbet and hot pink, though those Srs. of Precious Blood are pretty awesome in their pink, but now the only prejudice I have is when clothes are worn provocatively to entice one to thoughts of sin. And, I do think it hokey that sober, decent frocks sold as school uniforms fetch a pretty penny, even in discount clothing catalogs. And, I do disagree that shortened trousers cannot be made attractive and respectable, however, one should probably realize that a planned audience (similar to attendance at Mass) doesn't vacant one of possibility afforded a change of clothing after recent Matterhorn summit i.e. one might not have a viable excuse for wearing hiking lederhosen 'that there was no time to change'.

Protest all one might, but lacy teddies worn as blouse-wear, and sheer fabrics without proper underclothing are a set-up for flaunting.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting conversation, Erin. Might I add another perspective from a bona-fide clothes horse?

As long as I can remember I've loved beautiful clothes. I used to pour over fashion magazines as a child & teenager. I worked in department stores through college. My favorite time of the year is September when the new fashions come out. To this day, (43 yrs old), I plot and plan about what kind of shoes I'm going to buy and what upgrades to make to my wardrobe.

So you would all love the way I dress for Sunday Mass because I always look appropriate. The problem is, is that sometimes it borders on pride & vanity, and sometimes I get a weird feeling that everyone is staring at me because I look "too good" for Mass. So I dress it down. I don't like the compliments (You always look so good!), it bothers me.

Dressing well is a hobby of mine. It can border line on obsessive. Just yesterday I spent two hours in search of the best fitting pair of charcoal grey leggings that I could wear under a deep purple tunic. I still need to find the wide black patent belt to finish the look.


Lindsay said...

Good commentary against the shorts. My little boys do wear dressy linen shorts and Jon jons to mass, but so far, they are all 5 and under, so I'm safe. Phew!

Have you seen the episode of All Creatures Great and Small where James comes back from holiday and decides to wear his shorts on his rounds and the old man challenges him to a run? Very funny.

I don't really understand using "hot" as a reason to wear inappropriate things, for instance, women insisting on wearing tank tops because it is hot. Most people would agree that men would look completely inappropriate in a tank top in mass (and I think pretty silly in other places, too), but what if it is hot? Why is heat an excuse for women to relax standards of modest even when men aren't?

And, I must say, I think that men look better in shorts than women. Afterall, traditionally, the short togas and kilts and things were clothing of men. Now, these did not come out of Christian/Western tradition, but from a practical standpoint, I think the short toga and kilt were designed for war and maneuverability and would fall into the category of "uniform" you gave.

Among my friends who are conservative/traditional Catholics, men will come to a barbecue in shorts, but the wives wear a casual skirt or capris.

Idk, I haven't researched it or thought too much, but shorts on men seem less ridiculous, but it might just be my opinions about modesty/femininity in dress? Or perhaps it is that the cut of men's shorts and the shape of a man's body just make it easier for them to look flattering?

And yes, Susan, vanity is the temptation with attention to dress. It is also hard to buck such a trend when doing so will make you stand out and look different from others. As someone who gets compliments on dress and also performs in public, I've learned that oftentimes, the humble thing to do is to be gracious in thanking someone for their compliments and continue to pray that you are indeed edifying others rather than feeding your vanity.

freddy said...

I gave up wearing shorts when I realized that I'd never seen anyone over the age of 30 look good in them. :)

Our priest (brave man!) took time to catechize us on the importance of modesty at Mass, after which he published a little pamphlet available in the vestibule. His rules are brief, to the point, and sensible.

For women: Shirts should not be too tight, or too low-cut and must have sleeves. (A general rule is a few finger-lengths below the collar bone, for cut, but we were also told not to be scrupulous.) Skirts or dresses should cover the top of the knee when you are seated.
For men: Wear a shirt with a collar. (more of a respect issue than a modesty issue)
For men and women: No shorts.

Oh, and the rules only apply to those who intend to present themselves for communion.

Ragamuffin said...

I'm tracking with you on wearing shorts to church. I'd also say that they are out of bounds in the vast majority of work environments.

But I cannot fathom why shorts would be considered inappropriate to wear to the grocery store, running errands, eating in a casual restaurant or any number of other normal activities. You lost me on that completely. I don't find the argument for this compelling in the least.

Charlotte said...

Yeah Red,
I agree that this post is over the top. It's way too old-school for me; it sounds like a TRAD or SSPX point of view.

I would never be embarassed to run into my priest or anyone else I knew in shorts. And that's because we all have legs. As long as my shorts don't stop at my crotch, who cares?

I do wear shorts to church in the summer. Still working through that on a personal level. And even while I do wear them, I generally and officially agree that shorts should perhaps be off-limits for church. But to take it beyond church, you're treading on "sacred" ground. You're making generalizations about people and fashion that can't possibly be applicable in all situations.

For example, men's and boy's shorts right now are way more attractive and "modest" compared to the 1970s and 1980s, when they hit on the high-thigh. Today all the "in" men's shorts hit at the knees or below.

And what of capri pants? Where do those fall? Who looks attractive in them and who doesn't? In other words, what looks attractive or juvenile on someone is totally subjective. As with everyone else who has commented here and on the previous post, there are plenty of people I see dressed at church who would be "objectively" considered dressed in appropriate and modest clothes and all I see is slutwear.

When you say shorts and spaghetti strap tops and dresses are clothes for children, are you, yourself, romanticizing the past and claiming authority over it?

c matt said...

Mass - defintiely no shorts for those over 10.

Restaurants - I guess it depends on the restaurant - I would say ok at fast food, but not anywhere that has waiters.

Errands, etc. - doesn't really bother me (then again, I've been an avid soccer player all my life so I don't really have issues with shorts).

Aaron said...

I stopped wearing shorts in public after reading an article several years ago that pointed out that men now dress the same as 12-year-old boys--shorts, t-shirts, and ball caps--and how new a thing this is. It also put forth the theory that most of these men are being dressed that way by their wives/girlfriends, in an unconscious attempt to keep them from looking manly and attractive to other women. Since I was single and looking at the time, I quickly realized I didn't want that.

Now it's just second nature. When I was on vacation at the lake and going to a bar for lunch with swimming planned later, I wore swim trunks under a pair of jeans. No big deal.

Red Cardigan said...

Ragamuffin, C Matt, how do you feel about women wearing sports bras and yoga pants to run errands?

Me, I think it's inappropriate. Those clothes are for exercise, and in the case of the sports bra I think they're for exercise in the privacy of one's home. But what I think doesn't really matter--it's what the culture thinks. And the culture, having decided that shorts (exercise wear/beach wear/lounge wear) are fine for public wear, is starting to decide that all exercise wear (including sports bras) are also fine for public wear, and even that other beach wear (e.g. bikini tops) are fine as well. I've seen all of these items on people at grocery stores and other public places.

If you think it's possible to set public standards that say, in effect, that shorts of any length may be worn in public but not bikini tops, sports bras, or other thing which minimally cover the upper body, how would we go about doing so? If one form of beachwear/exercise wear is fine in public, why not the others?

Red Cardigan said...

Aaron, I just saw your comment--interesting perspective, and the kind of thing I was talking about. I really do think there's an amount of infantilizing going on with American clothing standards.

Mitch said...

I think the real difference comes in the issue of is the setting a casual one or a formal one.

By formal I don't necessarily mean fancy, but rather a situation where people are following forms or rules of society. So otherwords public situations should be formal situations. We should dress presentably, meaning diffrently then we would at home for a backyard bbq.

An evening with friends in the backyard for a few drinks would be casual because you are with intament friends and so forms can be placed to the side.

I am guilty of wearing shorts in public, I feel like I should wear pants but most of my pants are jeans or thick winter slacks. I really need to purchase thinner pants, it used to be that one could regularly find thin cotten pants and suitcoats for summer wear, I never see those when I go looking for new clothes.

If we are in a situation where forms should be followed then we should dress to present ourselves not to be comfortable. What Aaron said I really do think is true.

Flip flops drive me way crazier then shorts. When people wear these to class or whatever they to me give off and attitude of I don't care.

c matt said...

Not sure what yoga pants are. And by shorts, I am referring to relatively modest length, not those short shorts. I don't know how you would reach a standard that allows shorts but not sports bras/bikini tops, other than that ...ahem...the upper half of a body is different from the lower half, and restrict accordingly.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

You're going to hate me for saying this but I am a runner and over the age of 30 and a woman and I think I look good in shorts. I wear shorts that offer good coverage so that I am decent. I know many other physically fit women who look great in shorts. My husband wears shorts to work in the summer. He and my son wear long shorts to church. A decent pair of shorts can be more modest than a skirt if you go to church with small children. I will wear shorts and show off my long tan legs as long as the weather allows.