Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ramblings on the notion of Sunday best

Deacon Greg Kandra asks, on his blog, whether anyone dresses up for Sunday Mass anymore:
What do you think? Has the idea of "Sunday best" gone out of fashion? From what I see in the pews, I'm starting to think so (though I am still charmed by the number of ladies I see at Easter wearing hats, though nothing else covers their heads the rest of the year.)
He links to this post at Googling God which discusses the matter a little differently. Alas, in this post we see the usual defensiveness of what people wear, the "thank goodness they're here," mentality, and the admonition against becoming liturgical fashion police all jumbled up with a defense of someone wearing shorts and the notion that a tank top and flip flops (beach wear) isn't so bad if this is one's only opportunity for Mass during vacation, etc.

Now, I have some sympathies with both points of view, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to think out loud about this whole concept of Sunday best. Maybe you'd like to add some thoughts in the comments, too. These thoughts are in no particular order, but are what comes to mind when I consider the issue of dress and Sunday Mass:

There is a difference between "modest" and "appropriate" when we are talking about what to wear to Mass. Often, the debate focuses in on modesty, which is sometimes a good thing given that people have, in many cases, lost that natural sense of modesty which tells them ahead of time which garments are unacceptable; then, too, there is the problem that, for example, the v-neck blouse which is perfectly modest on Patricia Pancake is tight and revealing on Brenda Buxom. Once upon a time women in general had a better notion of such matters, but today we see, in addition to purposeful immodesty, the unfortunate situation of the would-be modest woman dressed in something which on her is too tight, too short, too clingy, or too revealing. One reason I dislike zeroing in too much on the modesty question is that, while I think the secular world is rife with examples of purposeful immodest dressing, I really do think that more of the immodesty at Mass arises from the two categories mentioned above, and that the person in question has either adopted cultural ideas of what is fashionable without considering modesty, or that he/she is honestly unaware that the clothes he/she is wearing are too revealing for his/her body type. None of this is to say that modest dressing is unimportant at Mass, of course. But I think that when we focus on modesty exclusively we forget the question of "appropriateness," which is a different matter entirely.

Discussion of the appropriateness of one's Sunday clothes always seems, to me, to get off on the wrong foot. Too many times, people say things like, "How would you dress if you were going to meet a king, the president, the pope? Shouldn't you dress at least as well, if not better, to be in God's presence?"

The problem with that question is that people point out, with perfect justice, that nobody (or almost nobody) habitually wears a three-piece suit or tuxedo or a chiffon gown to such things as daily Mass, Confession, a 3 a.m. holy hour, and other times when Jesus is really present in the Blessed Sacrament. Most people don't even wear tuxedos or gowns to Sunday Mass, even though we have an idea of "Sunday best" which specifically refers to our presence at that particular Mass, not just any time we are in Christ's Presence. So if we are supposed to dress up on Sunday, but not necessarily for daily Mass, Confession, or the 3 a.m. holy hour, it's not just the Real Presence for Whom we're dressing up.

Why should we dress up, then? What are the reasons? And what is "Sunday best" these days, anyway?

I think that dressing up on Sunday is more about the character of Sunday than our assistance at Mass itself. Sunday, after all, is supposed to be a day of rest, of leisure; it made sense in many ages for one's best outfit to be saved for Sunday, and worn on that one day of all days when those clothes wouldn't get stained, ripped, or otherwise damaged. And it made sense to wear that outfit to worship God, too; the Sunday Mass is the chief liturgical celebration of the Christian assembly, the time when we come together and, with one voice, praise God, thank Him, petition Him for our needs, and enter into the sacred mystery of His sacrifice of propitiation.

So dressing up for Sunday Mass seems to me to have three good motives: to prepare for worship, to enter with the community in celebration, and to be reminded of the special character of the Lord's Day, and its designation as a day of rest.

So far so good. But then we come to a different, and perplexing question: what is "Sunday best" in the year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nine, in the United States of America?

Here we get back to the difference between the question of modesty and the question of appropriateness for Sunday Mass. Many clothes are completely modest: loose-fitting jeans or khakis and polo shirts on men, perhaps, or comfortable, casual skirts of denim or twill paired with embellished tees on women. Neither outfit is likely (at least, not of its own) to tempt anybody to sinful thoughts. But is either really the best choice, the most appropriate, fitting attire, to wear to Mass on Sunday?

The answer to that question is going to depend on many different things--so many, in fact, that only each individual person can answer it. Just to illustrate, here are a few of the things that people may have to consider:

1. What clothes do I actually own? If my closet is full of nice clothes and I dress somewhat sloppily at Mass on Sunday, am I doing my best? On the other hand, if I don't own dry-clean only dresses (or good suits) and high heels (or wingtips) because I never need to wear them, must I purchase them in order to be dressed appropriately for Mass, or would that be materialistic and vain?

2. What can I wear? If I've gained a bit of weight and am limited in my choices, I might need to work on my appetite, health, etc.--but whether the garments I fit into right now are someone's idea of "Sunday best" or not is probably the least of my worries. If I'm on call at the hospital, nursing scrubs ought to be fine; in fact, just about anyone in uniform should be able to wear that uniform to Mass without anyone objecting, provided the uniform doesn't involve shorts.

3. What clothes meet my present needs? If I am a woman who ordinarily never wears slacks to Mass, but am a) pregnant, b) wrestling toddlers in and out of the church during Mass, c) maneuvering on crutches while recovering from a broken leg, d) other--you get the picture--then my use of slacks is designed to meet my needs, not to ruffle the feathers of those who think that slacks ought never to be worn to Mass by women (or worn by women at all, for that matter).

4. What is my reality on Sunday? If I have signed up to help set up and clean up the coffee and donuts immediately following Mass (with no time to change beforehand), this might be a good day to leave the silk shantung suit and three-inch heels at home, and opt for one of those sensible twill skirts with equally sensible footwear.

5. How are my clothes helping or hindering my attempt to celebrate Sunday and view Sunday as a day of rest? If my outfit keeps me mindful that Sunday is the Lord's Day, well and good; if my outfit makes me vain and conceited about how nice I look compared to the slobs out there, not so good.

These are just a few of the things to consider. I'll end this post with one of my own frustrations in this area, which is this: it's so hard, especially for a woman, to find or own "Sunday best" clothes anymore.

I mean that literally; sure, I have some pretty skirts, which I pair, mainly, with knit tops (we'll save the rant concerning the women's tailoring industry, blouse construction, and the ubiquity of that dreadful stretch-cotton stuff for another time). I also have one or two "business casual" type outfits purchased to wear on the handful of occasions when I've needed them, as well as a dress or two which, sadly, are too warm for Texas much of the year. But "Sunday best?" What does that even mean, for women's clothing, anymore? I've pondered that question before, and I can't really come up with a good answer. If you visit a few women's clothing stores, in person or online, you see that they have categories for "casual" clothes, "business" clothes, and "special occasion" clothes; but there's no such department as "Sunday best;" one is, apparently, supposed to find one's Sunday outfits emanating from the penumbras of these other areas.

So if you look at women at Mass and see some clothes which seem too casual, and some that seem too businesslike, and a couple, perhaps, that are almost too dressy (anything involving glitter or sequins, for example), it could be because these are our choices today. I know that when I have complimented another woman on what really looks like a Sunday best outfit, I usually hear one of two things: "This? Oh, I've had this for years!" or "This? I made this. I sew all of my Sunday dresses..."


Anonymous said...

Yes, and yes, and yes to all above. Excellent ramble through the vagaries, and considerations that one might have on pondering what to wear. At one time, the notion of a good Sunday outfit seemed more well-defined, than the present 'find something decent to wear'.

It seems easier to choose a Sunday 'Go to Meeting' standard outfit when coming up with a plain outfit that meets a variety of specifications; no bangles or beads that little ones can latch on; something layered if the church is too cold or hot; something that won't expose too much while kneeling, and loose enough to avoid blood flow constriction, as well as comfortable on the feet in case standing is longer than usual.

I usually attend Mass at a Newman Center, so the only thing I raise my eyes about are outfits worn for disrespect, which I don't ever remember.

Now, what is most unattractive during Mass is a parent that seems unnecessarily bent on correcting a child who appears to be doing nothing at all distracting. I cannot really pay attention when I hear the angry whispers, nor the plaintive replies, though it's not my place to mention anything, is it?

Lindsay said...

I think that your pointing out uniforms sort of brings me to my feelings about appropriate dress. How we dress affects how we behave and our attitudes about where we are. If you wear pajamas to class, then it is no wonder you fall asleep. I find that wearing clothes that express the sentiment of the occasion reinforce desired behaviours.

So, my children have definite ideas about what "church clothes" are and I think it helps their behaviour. In that vein, I must take issue with Anonymous's criticism of parents correcting their seemingly well-behaved children. We try to catch the swinging leg, the turning head, and other fidgets BEFORE they are a disruption. This reinforces the good habits. Usually this doesn't require words or whispers, but just because a child doesn't APPEAR to someone else to be misbehaving, that doesn't meant the parents hasn't been "on" the entire time running interference. If you allow the misbehavior that leads to disruption to reach that point before correcting it, it is much harder to address, ime.

NancyP said...

Thanks for pointing out that today's women have very few decent choices when it comes to flattering, modest, Sunday-best clothing. If I were to look at the options at my local department stores, I would be stuck with a lot of black pants and some tops with geometric prints, plunging necklines and/or unflatteringly-short sleeves. Ick.

I'm trying to raise my daughter with a sense of pride in her dressed-up Sunday appearance. We face the same clothing battle for her, though (5'3" and 11 years old) - she pretty much has to wear a tank top under any dress she chooses because the necklines are so low. Very frustrating. She looks at the pretty dresses the little girls can buy and just sighs.

G-MaMemaw said...

I usually don't comment much on blogs. I prefer just lurking, but this is a subject that I do feel strongly about.
It was almost 30 years from the time I stoped attending church to the time I began again in '02. At first I was scandalized at what I saw in others thought appropriate for chuch dress. Now I realize most of the problem is not intentionl but fall out from what the world projects on us as appropriate.

My greatest pet peve now, is delibrate immodesty, and the lack of mentioning what is modest from Priests.
What would be wrong with putting a notice in the bulletin on what is modest and what is not? For instance...no shorts, no strapless/backless tops or dresses. I have seen all of these were I attend Mass and it's distracting to me and I'm a woman!

I don't expect women to wear the "baggy dress with the gathered waist and tie in the back" but I do think we need to be reminded on what is modest and what is not.

Erin I agree with you sentiments on the flat and fluffy women who cannot wear the same blouse or v-neck cut. I know I have been guilty of wearing something that is too low cut and not really be aware of it until I get to Mass and have to bend over to get something out of my purse.

I'm no prude. I think that we all have to take charge of our eyes and our thoughts. I beleive true modesty comes from with-in.

c matt said...

Don't know what part of Texas you're in, but in the Gulf Coast area, 9 months out of the year it is 85+ degrees and 65+ humidity. Wearing a suit for men will mean sweating like crazy. You listed polo shirts and kakhis, do you see that as inappropriate?

Jeannette said...

With eight kids in a sixteen-year span, I have parts of a wardrobe in size 10, 12, 14, 16 and some in 18. I just can't afford to have a complete supply of Sunday best dresses in a not-completely-unfashionable state, in 4 sizes, not too snug for when I'm in a breastfeeding stage but still snug enough so that it's not too loose when I'm neither pregnant nor breastfeeding (especially when I'm holding a wriggly 2-year-old at Mass). My waist changes so much that skirts aren't very useful, so I have to raid the next size up or down sometimes, and sometimes it just doesn't work.

Also, as a Midwesterner in the South, I get too warm. So men will just have to contain their many lustful thoughts at the sight of my upper arms 'cause I'm going sleeveless :)

Melanie B said...

Thank you so much for articulating this so clearly. I generally try to wear the nicest thing in my closet that is appropriate for the season. A decent skirt and a top that isn't too revealing. Like you say, it's generally a compromise outfit gleaned from the penumbras of casual, business and special occasion. All this is made even harder for me because I'm tall and I like skirts that come down past my knees. Skirts that are meant to be knee-length on shorter women are too short for me. And just try to find long skirts int he summer when the fashion industry has declared that minis are in. Add to the mix constantly changing waistline do to pregnancy and postpartem weight loss and now all the skirts I buy are ones with elastic waists so that I have a chance to wear them a little longer-- at least through more than one phase.

I've finally got a fairly decent selection of skirts some of whih might work as Sunday best if dressed up with a nice blouse (dresses are right out since I've been breastfeeding a baby almost constantly for the last three years and expect to be doing so for the foreseeable future.) But there are no nice blouses for busty breastfeeding mamas that are not way too low cut.

LeeAnn said...

I agree with all the above for myself but I have a hard time telling my husband he should wear pants when it's 80-90 degrees out and the tiny church we attend is sweltering (he's a convert, so he asks me what is appropriate--we're still working that out). I know, the priest is wearing a lot more than that and several layers, toughing it out.

I had to laugh about the silk shantung suit & heels image--where we live the fanciest I have EVER seen anyone dress is a woman's business suit. Well, maybe one godparent that flew in from the east coast for a baptism was dressed a little nicer than that.

Most of the people in our parish wear khakis and jeans with about 1/3 of the women wearing some kind of dress/skirt and about 1/4 to 1/3 of both sexes wearing shorts on hot days.

People generally don't dress up here in the PacNW and for whatever reason resent being told to do so.

I'm still not 100% sure what is apporopriate for my parish.

Anonymous said...

Great post on an important topic, Red! I sometimes struggle with finding good Sunday clothes, and always think it's easier for my husband, who has a plentiful stash of button-ups, polos, and pants.

However, one of the larger issues I've seen in my local parishes are the KIDS running around in completely inappropriate clothing.

I'm talking about one 5-year-old I saw last Sunday in jean shorts (yes, it's summer in CA, but still) and a sequined Hannah Montana top. Seriously, what are her PARENTS thinking letting her go to Mass like that? Plenty more kids were in crocs or flip-flops, and teenage boys seem to still be wearing baggy shorts and logo T-shirts...it's very disturbing.

Deirdre Mundy said...

For tops (and dresses) that work for breastfeeding moms, try motherwear.com--they specialize in nursing-friendly clothes--so you can find something that fits appropriately WITHOUT looking like a shapeless tent.

As for kids in crocs-- I have to admit--I've let my daughter wear her crocs a few times when we were in one of those 'can't find the shoes, have to leave now!' situations. Because, sometimes, it's better to be ontime with inappropriate footwear than half an hour late with church shoes....

And my son always wears tennis shoes to church--he's two, and they're the only shoes he owns!

Anonymous said...

In response to the second respondent, what I witness every Sunday in a pew behind this small family is pretty much out of line. (I am not questioning YOUR judgment as a parent to whisper loudly during Mass, nor the appropriateness of an ordinary corrective action by an ordinary parent.)

I am not going to comment on the interaction I notice between small children and their parents when they present Vyvanse and Ritalin and Catapres prescriptions at the pharmacy counter. Social commentary is not my intent, merely that clothing may be what it is, so long as its respectable, but ugliness as evidenced in interacting with small humans is apalling.

What I witness every Sunday that I sit in back of this family group is just not right. The child sits next to the male parent and she behaves; when sitting next to the female parent she is continually 'agitated' (as well as I am) by this loudly whispering female if the child so much as moves the slightest way one way or the other, she's toast, if she chews on her fingernail, or twists her hair. Aggressive body language seems clearly to state a message of loathing or 'hate for where she is', as she jabs into the air angrily, hissing and telling her to sit up, or do this or do that, then grabbing the girl by the shoulder and pushing her out past the other parishioners to presumably head to the bathroom or elsewhere in the foyer.

I am not whining that I am forced to observe this every time they attend Mass. Perhaps, there is some positive suggestion someone with insight can make about it, but I'm not happy with about a suggestion to merely get up and go look for another place to sit and hope that I am not able to hear what's going on from where I sit.

What I see the female parent doing is what I see. I am not unusually sensitive to child abuse, nor kids acting up for whatsoever reason.

I was the oldest of 8, and while each family situation is as it is, I do have some experience with different types of small human beings. Personally, I don't know where to help in this matter, and and this is why I raise the issue.

It is most unattractive during Mass to observe a parent that seems unnecessarily bent on correcting a child who appears to be doing nothing at all distracting.

Red Cardigan said...

Appreciate all the comments!

C Matt, I'm not saying polo shirts and khakis are inappropriate choices--I'm saying that people have to consider, for themselves, if they are. In a cooler climate a man who wears a suit and tie to work every day is dressing down in a polo shirt and slacks; but in Texas most men's everyday "business casual" clothes are made up of those items, and they may not even own a suit (or if they own one, they last wore it a number of years ago to a fancy event and would have to get it altered to wear it again). That's why the question about what is actually in one's closet is important. A man whose closet is full of his UPS uniforms, for instance, is definitely dressing up in a polo shirt and slacks!

c matt said...

Thanks for the clarification. I do draw the line (at least for me) at jeans and shorts.

People generally don't dress up here in the PacNW and for whatever reason resent being told to do so.

Just curious, what is considered hot for the PacNW?

LeeAnn said...

C Matt,

"Warm" is anywhere in the 70s. "Hot" is 80 and up. This year we've had more than the usual number of hot days. We get about three to five 95+ degrees days per year.

We get so few chances to break out our summer clothing, I think people get a little giddy about finally getting to wear the shorts, sleeveless shirts and sandals. It's like a celebratory thing to dress up in your summer clothing.

People in the coastal NW are not much used to summer heat. What seems hot for us feels just barely like summer for most of the rest of the country, no doubt.

Lindsay said...

Anonymous, I'm sorry you have to witness unpleasant interactions at mass that are a distraction. From your first comment, I assumed you were making a more general observation rather than an issue with one particular family.

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

There are so many considerations when finding what to wear at mass and you correctly state that this is such an individualized decision. I try to dress nicely and look at myself in a full length mirror from all angles to make sure I look both appropriate and modest. I do this with my children as well. Once in a while we wind up wearing softball uniforms to church and I just make them quickly change their dirty cleats to clean sneakers in the car. I used to frown on this myself until I became a sport mom. Now I see uniforms and I am glad the families found the time to attend mass. People who want to judge what others are wearing should keep all this in mind. With shorts: I think Bermuda shorts with a nice shirt are perfectly modest and appropriate attire for a hot Sunday in church, especially when people are passing out because of the heat.

Edmund said...

The only people dressed up for Catholic mass nowadays are visiting Jews who are mindful of decorum and respect that seem wholly devoid of contemporary Catholic mores.

What I see at mass boggles my mind. It's often the occasion of greatest sinful thoughts of the preceding week.

Tracy said...

We find that sitting in the front or as close to the front works best for our family. We have always told our children, never judge someone on how they are dressed, and we also remind them, keep your eyes on the Altar and you won't have any worries, if someone is gazing at what another is wearing.. they need to learn to control that impulse and get their eyes and mind back to why they are at Mass in the first place. I can be sitting next to someone who has a baby cry throughout the entire Mass and it won't bother me at all, after Mass they will apologize over and over if they disrupted us during Mass, and honestly, I can say to them "was your baby crying?" It takes time and effort, but asking God to help me to stay on focus was very helpful and believe me, it can be done.