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.