Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A culture of slobby couture

As he promised last week, Msgr. Charles Pope has a post up this week discussing proper attire at Sunday Mass. I found it to be a balanced and sane look at the question for the most part, with advice given both to men and to women on how to dress nicely for Mass.

One minor quibble I have is that Msgr. Pope generally just says, "...at Mass..." or "...in Church..." to talk about these concepts. As I wrote here, I think there's a difference between dressing for Sunday Mass and dressing for daily Mass or for times when one will be in the church building for other purposes (e.g., helping to clean the church). No one expects the standard of Sunday Best to govern those times when we might pop in to the church for a little visit, or when we are signed up to help remove live evergreens from the church after Christmas (and for which occasion a fancy dress or crisply-ironed suit would be highly inappropriate).

Beyond that minor quibble, I also disagreed slightly with Msgr.'s point number 11, which reads as follows: "Women should wear a nice blouse (if they are not wearing a full dress). The blouse or shirt they wear should not be too tight." As I explained in the comments, most "nice blouses" these days are cut one bust size smaller than the shirt size--because clothing designers want blouses to be tight and revealing. I know very few women who can wear a blouse and look nice in it, and most of them are, to put it delicately, not particularly well-endowed, so to speak.

And when it comes to dresses--well, where are they? Any woman who has had to find a dress for some occasion can agree that the dresses available today leave a lot to be desired. Like blouses, dresses are often cut to be tight and revealing, or made of clingy fabrics that leave little about the woman's figure to the imagination.

Sure, there are places that specialize in "modest dresses." However, a lot of these dresses seem to be knee-length or slightly above knee; I'm not going to debate whether that length is "modest" or not, but I will just point out that few women over the age of 35 display their knees to advantage, something that even many secular fashion advisers agree about.

Another problem with dresses, even the ones from shops specializing in "modest dresses," is the price. Dresses can easily cost between $80 and $120, and can go up considerably even from that point. This is especially true if you are petite, tall, or a "women's" size, as the price of dresses in these "specialty" sizes can be ridiculous. The availability decreases in these special sizes, too--it's much easier for me, as a short woman, to find skirts and tops to wear than it is for me ever to find a decent dress.

Add to cost, availability, and so forth the problem that so many dresses are dry-clean only (never a sensible choice for a mother of toddlers, for example) and you begin to understand why so few women wear dresses anymore, even to Mass.

In fact, most of the women I see at Mass are wearing either a skirt and top, or a pants outfit. And we can deplore the casual nature of this all we want to--until we go shopping, and try to find something that isn't either a skirt and top or a pants outfit. Our culture decided before many of us had even reached adulthood that dressy skirt suits, pretty Sunday dresses that were modest, washable, and affordable, and similar traditional articles of apparel were hopelessly outdated. I can remember adult women wearing those long hippie-looking sun-dresses to Mass when I was a child--so the "slobby casual" look has been around for a pretty long time, at this point. Compared to the mini-dress at Mass, even a pair of jeans is a better alternative; so often, when we talk about what people ought to wear to Sunday Mass, we're not being realistic about the clothing options available to us, but imagining that Catholic women are simply avoiding buying the reams of modest, decent, affordable, dressy "Sunday Best" clothes that are available in every store (complete with a helpful shopkeeper who knows his customers by name, and an on-site tailor to make those tiny little adjustments necessary for a perfect fit).

In other words, it's easy to think that we can somehow go shopping in the clothing stores of the past, when the culture still provided plenty of opportunities for both men and women to dress nicely, when a man of middle income could afford half a dozen suits (as my father had, when I was a little girl), and his wife, a closet full of nice dresses.

But we live in a culture of slobby couture, a place and time when people seldom dress up for even the most solemn occasions. Buying even a handful of decent skirts and pairing them with tops that are a step or two above a tee-shirt is a time-consuming, frustrating, expensive chore for most women, and even a traumatic scenario for some. That mythical, idyllic clothing store where a variety of tasteful, grown-up, well-fitting Sunday Best clothes with decent necklines, decent hem lines, ample room for bust and hips without showing off either, with both a wide variety of sizes and affordable price tags, does not exist any more.

That doesn't mean, I must emphasize, that we ought to give up on the idea of dressing nicely for Sunday Mass whenever possible. But it does mean that we may have to be more creative and more flexible about what our Sunday Best really is. If showing up for Mass bearing the marks of a slobby couture culture displeases God, I'd have to think that sighing over the clothes we don't have and probably couldn't afford even if they did exist isn't going to be pleasing to Him, either.


romishgraffiti said...

Sure, there are places that specialize in "modest dresses." However, a lot of these dresses seem to be knee-length or slightly above knee; I'm not going to debate whether that length is "modest" or not, but I will just point out that few women over the age of 35 display their knees to advantage, something that even many secular fashion advisers agree about.

Yep. And then there are ones that specialize in modest dresses which frankly I think Dunkards would find conservative and too bland. Modest does not have to mean completely devoid of fashion sense. Hint: If it looks like something you would see coming out of a compound on CNN, find something else. :)

Red Cardigan said...

Sage advice, romishgraffiti. Slobby couture has many downfalls, but CNN-compound-couture is a series of warning flags all its own! :)

Rebecca in CA said...

Do you think it's okay to wear long hippie print skirts and loose tunic-type tops and sandals? Sometimes I dress a little more dressily, with tights and all, but the sandals and long skirts are so much more comfortable. Sometimes I look at the other ladies who look like they've walked out of a Talbot's catalogue, even with their six kids and all, and I feel like maybe I'm not dressed appropriately. Modest but maybe too casual for Sundays. I guess I feel the most myself and best able to function in the long skirts and sandals so I keep going back to it.

Red Cardigan said...

Rebecca, I think that sounds fine--especially if that's what you have for "dressed up" right now!

We women, especially, have "seasons" in our lives, times when we're chasing toddlers and putting shoes on little ones etc., and times when we have the ability to focus on our own appearance on a Sunday morning. Again, if we're shirking the responsibility of our vocation in order to look like a fashion plate on Sunday morning, I think we're missing the point.

I may end up posting more on this topic, but I think the key is to develop a way to make an outfit "Sunday Best" without expecting that every woman can afford Talbot's or some other classic look. For me, that often involves jewelry or a scarf or some other nice "touch" I wouldn't wear, say, to the grocery store, even if I'm wearing the kind of skirt that can be either dressy or casual depending on the occasion.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Ha, ha, ha. I got a real chuckle out of this post, especially on reminiscing about what was Sunday Best only 50 years ago and the old black and white photos my sister sent from my father's collection.

Without benefit of reading the advice from the monsignor, I was picturing the modest 'uniform' a woman parishioner might don only for Sundays, because it wouldn't be something worn any other day. The days of the Jackie Kennedy polyester dress suits have long gone, I think, with the practicality of a decent, affordable, modest, wearable, washable outfit.

On the other hand, when I am so distracted from the service by the apparel (or lack thereof) of the young person in front of me, it's time to use self-discipline!

There's a difference between slobby casual and seemingly, but deliberately oh-so-innocent sexually alluring. 'Hippie' long skirts are attractive and utilitarian, and sandals (NOT flipflops!) sometimes are a better option for those of us with chronic athlete's foot, but peasant blouses for those of us 'more endowed' sometimes immodest.

The other day when I found myself with an opportunity to go to Mass with a youngster dressed as he was (jeans and t-shirt) or possibly not going, I quickly told him not to bother changing.

I think slobby couture is a sign of the times when matronly women find tops only too available where necklines are cut low and feature flimsy fabrics in brazenly unbecoming color/pattern combinations. I end up wearing double blouses, or inauspiciously placed brooches, or overdressed appearance of a carefully placed scarf. And, this is the mid-east. I cannot imagine having to come up with clothing for Texas heat that is light, yet unrevealing.


Red Cardigan said...

Zircon, for possibly the first time ever, I find myself nodding in total agreement--with your last paragraph, anyway! "Light yet un-revealing" is indeed a challenge for us "matronly" women here in Texas. It takes some thought and effort.


Deirdre Mundy said...

If you don't need to be up to the minute, you might be able to find something at one of the vintage clothing stores-- after all, in the 50s clothes had to look good on women who'd been pregnant multiple times! (i.e. matronly figures.)

A friend recently bought me a dress from daddios... some of their dresses are a bit too 'pin-up, but others are sunday best, and they're made of good material. (And their prices are equivelant to Penney's, but with pretty clothes!)

For shirts, cotton/stretch blends are the way to go. And a nice camisole or slip can go a long way.

But it IS frustrating! If I didn't have a fashionista friend who helps me find clothes on line, I'd be in sweats all the time!

Rebecca in CA said...

hmmm...well, thinking on it, I'm trying to imagine what I would do if I could afford to dress out of Talbot's, and I sort of think I would look and feel really silly. There's a certain dressed-up look I really admire from about the 1930's, and I think I'd look nice in, but apart from that, I just don't like even the fashions that one can buy for money now. So I dress like a hippie. I usually pretty much wear the same thing to daily Mass that I wear to Sunday Mass. Do you think it's important to be more dressy on Sundays? I mean, I totally see not wearing jeans and T-shirts to Mass, but I guess I'm pretty much wearing the same type of thing all the time, I don't have a Sunday Best...though my little girls do, because I find super-cute dressy dresses for their size...Maybe I'm thinking too much...

Rebecca in CA said...

I guess my question is, are we more looking at an just an objective standard of "here's the decency level for Sunday Mass", or should we also be looking at what we, personally usually wear during the week, and try to improve on it for Sundays...does that help out with something like an internal disposition to remember that Sundays are something special?

Sarah Oldham said...

You can find some nice button down print shirts at LL Bean and LandsEnd; and, nice dress slacks w/out making you feel less of a woman. That's what I wear since I live in HI and have difficulty finding dresses and skirts (I am just barely a petite at sixty inches "tall"). I just don't want to see the other gels boobs. Keep them under wraps, gels! Skirts/dresses need to be touching the top of the knees for a start, too. And, honestly, I do not have nice looking legs, so if I do find a skirt/dress, the length is to the ankles and that makes me look shorter.

kkollwitz said...

"Happy are those who are called to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb."

I'm reminded of the parable of the Wedding Feast. The only person to be thrown out wasn't dressed properly:

"there [was] a man which had not on a wedding garment:

And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.

Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

kkollwitz said...

Your phrase, 'slobby couture' reminds me of an old article about Wales, of all places.

Vanishing Decencies

"Empty plastic bottles, cans, and fast-food wrappings litter the hedgerows and ditches. No one, it seems, can go farther than a few yards without refreshment."


Barbara C. said...

For some families, wearing jeans is considered being "dressed up". I don't allow sweatpants or shorts, but jeans are "fancy for us". I can't afford lots of dressy clothes and the matching shoes for my kids or me. As my body, changes with each pregnancy and in between I have time finding/affording every day clothes that are modest and comfortable much less dressy ones.

Yeah, I don't particularly like seeing people in pajama bottoms and flip-flops at Mass, but at least they are THERE. I would much rather see them dressed like a slob at Church than never see them at all.

bearing said...

This seems strange to me. How hard or expensive is it to find (say) a black skirt or pants and a couple of tailored-looking cotton tops or a twin set or something? Or is there a cultural difference between here (MN) and TX that I'm missing, such that the kind of clothes they sell in (say) the Lands End catalog for office wear is seen as too casual for church? And why wouldn't dressy sandals be ok in hot weather?

kkollwitz said...

My two 18-year-old daughters turn themselves out very nicely by shopping at Goodwill. They're always showing off ensembles they put together for 5 bucks.

And I look very respectable in ties, shoes, jackets and shirts I get from ebay.

eulogos said...

Ah for the days when my mother was still alive and sewing. I distinctly remember ordering up a "modest blouse" for church, and she obliged. She didn't go to church, alas, but if she had, she had sewed herself many many classy skirt and jacket outfits in Trevira, a really high class polyester that imitated well fabrics more difficult to care for. She loved it and went to the outlet every year. She usually made her outfits with both pants and a skirt to go with the jacket.
She made me a few too, but alas, that was many pounds ago.

I always wear even a dress or a skirt to Sunday liturgy. I have dresses from Land's End which are quite modest. I got some of them from our local thrift store; a few others I bought when Land's End has sales. I also wear the hippie skirts, usually with a pullover top rather than a blouse, and a jacket or blazer. It is too hot for this only a very small part of the year. I like the long skirt look. Sometimes I wear mid calf skirts....whatever length the skirt is that I otherwise like. And of course there is my embroidered denim dress, also a rather hippie look I suppose.

However I looked around my little Byzantine parish last Sunday and there were only two other women in dresses. The rest were wearing pants outfits. No one dresses immodestly there...there are only 3 people who ever attend who have the faintest possiblity of wearing something which would be considered immodest... a dress problem would be more likely to indicate a decline in mental status! (I am saying, it is an old parish. ) You don't see jeans there either...except once in a while my husband wears them, although I try to get him to wear one of his few pairs of dress pants if he is coming with me. In the larger Byzantine parish the only time I have seen anything like immodesty is Easter or Christmas when family is in from out of town and people who aren't really Byzantine attend.

If people can afford it, I suggest Land's End and LL Bean and similar catalogue stores. Even before I could ever afford it I worked up quite a wardrobe of clothes from these places all purchased at thrift stores.

Susan Peterson

Anonymous said...

I happened upon this blog and this particular post thru a friend's e-mail. Let me add a different POV that might offer a different perspective.

I'm Jewish, raised in a moderately religious household in a predominantly Jewish community. Our religion has very complex and often conflicting attitudes about synagogue attendance: aside from the most observant, it's often seen as a chore you undertake as little as possible and historically, attendance is low vs other religions. Services are long (easily 2-3 hours for daily services, often 4-5 hours for holidays). And attire is strict: there's a fair amount of dress-up expected with pants usually prohibited.

I got to college and found myself with a Catholic roommate. She was the first Catholic friend I'd ever had and vice versa; we became very close and remain so many years later. Jean attended Mass religiously, pun intended, every Sunday without fail. That ritual for her became part of our lives, playing a role in what time we headed to brunch or a movie. Two things about her commitment fascinated me: her service was short, perhaps an hour, so she didn't see it as the chore that synagogue was to me. And she was allowed to wear pants and more casual clothes than I. She was never sloppy and always beautifully accessorized as only a 20-year-old likes to do, but she didn't have to worry about having the right dress or that coordinated suit jacket and skirt that I had to consider.

The memory of Jean practicing her religion with such familiarity and ease was something vivid that's stuck with me for years. I still attend synagogue, probably not as often as I should, and it's still a production of dressing up and setting aside an evening or half-day. As an adult, I know those factors still affect my commitment. I envy Jean's dedication to Mass and that of you all posting here. I hope that your religious and lay leadership appreciate the fact that you all see your churches as much more user-friendly destinations that those of us in other religions do. And in turn, it provides them value in your regular attendance and support. The debate about modesty vs immodesty doesn't mean much if people aren't in the pews.

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous at 5:43, thank you for an insightful and interesting comment. I may move it up into a new post.

Everyone--lots of good thoughts and ideas here. I'm pondering this issue from many sides, now, and I hope you'll join me in a new comment thread to keep discussing it.

Tony said...

Yeah, I don't particularly like seeing people in pajama bottoms and flip-flops at Mass, but at least they are THERE. I would much rather see them dressed like a slob at Church than never see them at all.

I think if I hear that statement one more time, I'm going to scream!

Scratch that, I'm going to scream now:


(There, that felt better.)

I remember the one time at Mass, I was sitting behind a teenaged boy with shoulder length, greasy hair and a Black Sabbath T-Shirt sporting a pentacle with other assorted Satanic symbols.

Was I glad he was there? No. Do I wish he and his bored-ticked off attitude and Satanic attire stayed home? You bet.

Reminds me of a story my cousin told me about my precocious godson when he was about five years old.

His family was sitting behind this family with a teenaged girl around 15 or so. With a skin tight dress cut down to "there" skin tight and cut up to "there" with ample cleavage and other assorted (whoops, no pun intended) immodest body parts exposed.

When the time came for the sign of peace, my nephew went down the line shaking everyone's hand with a "peace be with you", but when he got to the girl, he made a motion like he was licking his hand and slicking down his hair and said: "Woah, BABY!".

The girl's dad was not amused. That's too bad for him. He fell down on the job letting her out of the house like that.

And out of the mouths of babes, came the statement that was probably going through the mind of every man between the age of puberty and social security (maybe beyond). It's an immediate, viceral reaction, hard coded into our genes by almighty God to assist in that "fruitful and multiply" commandment. We fight against it valiantly day after day, we see it on billboards, in our workplaces, on TV in the movies. One place where we hope to avoid that particular near occasion of sin, and get some respite from the war of the custody of our eyes is in Church.

Please help us. Please, when you see a girl dressed like Mary Magdalene before her conversion, stop her and give her some gentle advice. We can't do it. We just look like pervs.

And if this ticks some of the ladies off here, that's too bad. I'm sorry. (That you're ticked off, not that I said it.)