Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More considerations regarding Sunday best

If you didn't see it, this post from yesterday about Sunday clothes has generated a lot of interesting and thoughtful comments. An anonymous commenter left this one, which I found very insightful:
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.
This is an interesting perspective, one that I think many of us should perhaps consider. I often hear about how women of this or that Christian denomination dress beautifully every Sunday, or how people from this or that faith would never dream of entering their places of worship without being in their most formal clothing--but one element that may be missing from those conversations is that people in many other faiths lack something particular that Catholics have. No, it's not just the Eucharist--people of Eastern Orthodox faith have that. Where we Catholics are truly unique is that we are bound under pain of grave sin to assist at Sunday Mass every single Sunday unless we have a serious reason to miss it.

What this means is that any Catholic who approaches his or her faith with even minimal seriousness will be at Mass on Sunday, period, end of sentence. The serious reasons that can cause us to miss Mass, such as illness, the care of children, significant distance, dangerous weather conditions, and the like are, ordinarily, rare events. Absent those rare events we will be there.

So what does that mean, in terms of our clothing?

In the first place, it means that when a Catholic can't really buy one or two expensive outfits of "special occasion clothing" and wear these to Mass--because "special occasion clothing" is not, generally speaking, made for repeated wearing and cleaning/washing. Whatever a Catholic wears to Sunday Mass is going to get used approximately 60 times a year in America (52 Sundays, six holy days of obligation minus Ascension Thursday Sunday plus Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday)--give or take. So our Sunday best, whatever it may be, can't in a practical sense be the same kind of thing we might only wear a few times a year--or we'd have to own an awful lot of clothing!

In the second place, it means, especially for a Catholic wife and mother, that our Sunday best may have to be a little flexible to account for the times and seasons of our lives as wives and mothers. I remember the only time I regularly (as opposed to occasionally) wore slacks to Sunday Mass was during my pregnancies, for example--it is often all but impossible to find a dress that will fit throughout a pregnancy (and for some strange reason designers seem to think that pregnant women want to wear above-knee length skirts and dresses, but that's a different sort of rant altogether). A mother who is caring for toddlers at Mass, or whose infant child is prone to explodey-diapers or frequent spitting-up may not be able to wear a fancy outfit. And many Catholic women weave in and out of the seasons of pregnancy, nursing, and the caring for young children at Mass; true, in the strictest sense Mom's need to care for the littlest ones may excuse her from the obligation to attend Mass, but I'd much rather see moms of littles at Mass, even wearing slacks or simple skirts, than have them be absent from the Sunday celebration for fear of being under-dressed.

In the third place, there may be matters of local climate and/or custom to deal with. When we had snow here in Texas at Christmastime, for instance, I had to wear slacks to Mass on at least one occasion--because all of my skirts are lightweight, and perfectly adequate for the weather here at least 90% of the time, but not warm enough for snow or for temperatures below freezing. Women who live in colder climates might say, "Wear tights! Wear long underwear!" but I own neither of those--and no wool or heavy skirts, either. On the other hand, a woman in a much colder climate might have a hard time finding appropriate tops to wear during an unusually warm summer--her 3/4 sleeve summer tops might feel uncomfortably hot should the temperature reach 90 degrees, especially if the church building she'll be going to is not air-conditioned, as is sometimes the case in cooler places.

There are other matters to consider as well; this isn't meant to be an exhaustive list of them, and I've focused more on the problems women might encounter because I'm more familiar with them. I know men have to make various considerations, too, especially those men who don't own suits, don't wear ties at work, etc. But the question remains: does this mean abandoning the whole notion of Sunday best? Does it mean giving in to our sloppy-casual culture and its distaste for "dressy" clothes?

I don't think so--but I do think it means exploring creative ways to incorporate the idea of "Sunday best" into our wardrobes without feeling the pressure to invest in expensive, impractical, short-lasting or difficult-to-clean garments in order to satisfy some outward notion of how we ought to look when we step inside our parish church each Sunday.

In the musical Hello, Dolly! there is a song about Sunday clothes; the refrain goes like this:
Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out
Strut down the street and have your picture took
Dressed like a dream your spirits seem to turn about
That Sunday shine is a certain sign
That you feel as fine as you look!
Beneath your parasol, the world is all a smile
That makes you feel brand new down to your toes
Get out your feathers
Your patent leathers
Your beads and buckles and bows
For there's no blue Monday in your Sunday clothes!
As a woman I notice one thing right away about these lyrics--they're focusing in quite a bit on accessories. The dress might simply have been the woman's newest dress; the time period of the musical would go along with that. Eventually, with wear, the dress would be demoted, first to an ordinary street dress, and then to a dress one would only wear at home--but it was new, so it was for Sunday. The rest, though? A parasol, feathers (in the hat, perhaps, or worn other ways), patent leather shoes or belts, and "beads and buckles and bows," were what made the outfit.

Times may have changed a lot, but women, and our tendency to accessorize, haven't changed all that much. (Again, I'm speaking more to women, here--men's clothing choices seem much more limited to me.) There are some simple ways a woman can turn a basic outfit--a nice skirt or dressy pair of slacks paired with a pretty top--into a "Sunday best" outfit. A lightweight dressy sweater or blazer, a selection of colorful scarves (which can be a very inexpensive accessory depending on where they are purchased), some jewelry, an attractive and well-coordinated hat, some pretty shoes--any of these articles can turn an everyday outfit into a "Sunday best" one, without necessarily costing a lot of money or relying on clothes which are impractical for other areas of a woman's life. And if, for some reason, the toddler is having a bad day or Mom has signed up to help dismantle the Easter decorations after Mass, etc., the accessories can be easily removed or left at home.

Now: does this mean that people are obligated to spend hours of time planning and purchasing Sunday best clothes or accessories? Heavens, no. But I've found myself taking a little more time and effort that I used to, and part of the reason I do this is because at our parish there are many women who clearly try to put forth a "Sunday best" look, not for vanity or to be a fashion plate, but with a sense that it's fitting to dress up a bit when coming to Sunday Mass, every Sunday, at (in our parish's case) 8:30 every Sunday morning. To tell the truth, I started feeling a little like I wasn't making enough effort, when I would show up in a "mom skirt" with a "mom top" and no real adornment or effort to dress up at all, and see my fellow parishioners looking quite nice despite the early hour.

But here's one final thought (and I know this is too terribly long already!): I think that there are, indeed, many more important matters than how we are dressing on Sunday morning. Certainly if we are noticing other people's clothing and judging them we are in the wrong spirit altogether (extremes of fashion/immodesty are an exception, as these things generally force themselves upon our notice). If, however, we are feeling called to make a bit more effort to look nice as we venture forth to Sunday Mass, we don't need to give up on that thought simply because our culture makes dressing nice for anything so difficult. A little creativity, a little forethought, a little care and attention--no different from what we might do if we were going out for a dinner alone with our husbands, perhaps--will suffice.

I'm eager to hear your thoughts!


JMB said...

Great post! I live in NJ, not far from an Orthodox Jewish community and a Syrian Jewish community. Every Saturday you will see families walking to synagogue, and very frequently, at the numerous shopping malls in our state, you will see entire young orthodox families shopping for clothes. Here's the rub: They do dress beautifully and they also are big time discount shoppers. If it's not on sale it's not bought.

Perhaps I'm spoiled because I live in the retail mecca of the country and we have no sales tax on clothing or shoes. Clothing is so cheap these days. I just purchased a beautiful cotton chambray shirt dress for $40 at Lord & Taylor. I bought a bunch of bathing suits for my daughters at Old Navy for $9 each. It doesn't cost an arm and a leg to look nice these days.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

Interesting thoughts about accessories. I admit that most of my accessories get left behind because I just don't think about them. I guess I have gotten caught up in thinking that managing a decent outfit is all I can muster. Accessories would be an easy way to dress up an outfit and still be completely removable should they prove distracting for a little one.

Jeannette said...

"... people from this or that faith would never dream of entering their places of worship without being in their most formal clothing" Good point! They'll miss services for lack of a good outfit. I think it depends on the person; how much money and time can you devote to "church clothing for this year's size"? How does everyone else dress? Are you a complete slob compared to the rest of the parish? Are you a complete Pharisee compared to others? I had trouble with the latter, a few years ago when I lost a bunch of weight and splurged on some nice dresses. I realized that dressing _very_ appropriately had become an occasion of pride. (God took care of that by giving me two more children and 40 more pounds-yay, humility, thanks God!) Our parish is kind of unique, probably; there are homeless, and there are people you see on Sunday morning national news shows so we have a wide range of outfits in addition to the usual "I'm a teenager and I'm here under protest" uniform, the "Baby threw up on every decent outfit" outfit, the "OMGoodness, you had a growth spurt since the last time you wore that skirt" skirt.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there might be some ethnic/cultural element to dress for religious services. Whenever I've passed a house of worship of a black community, such as an AME church, and seen its members outside, they have ALWAYS been dressed beautifully, hats and all. In fact, the one black woman I used to see at Mass was always the best dressed out of everyone there, always having perfectly matching accessories and a hat.

I admit, since I have gained so much weight in the past few years and cannot fit into any of my nice clothes, I wear jeans or black jeans. (I will not buy any fat clothes in my current size!) But I always wear a decent shirt, no emphasis on the cleavage (such as it is) and decent sandals, no flip-flops, no sneakers. The rest of the congregants are a mix of clothing styles. While about half are decently dressed, I do see lots of flip-flops, cleavage-hugging shirts, shorts (!), short skirts (!), and, on children, the occasional soccer uniform (!) I'd like to think that the poorer dress is because this is California, but I know better.

Anonymous said...

From Scotch Meg:

There was a time when I would not allow my daughter to go to church in pants (nor would I wear anything but a dress or skirt). That time has passed, perhaps for good.

In a way, we are fortunate that there are decent, dressy slacks, and decent, dressy skirts, because there surely are not decent, dressy dresses - except for wedding-guest attire!

Living in New England, slacks are truly a blessing from November to March. I know that others wear skirts and dresses even in the winter, and I did once upon a time, but I don't miss them at all. I tend to wear skirt "suits" in the fall and spring, and a nice jumper in the midst of summer. I stretch the life of my church clothes by using my (four) seasonal outfits for at least several years.

Congratulations to you, Red Cardigan, for reaching the season in your life when you can actually wear church clothes without worrying about the littles wreaking havoc on them.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, Scotch Meg, I'm still praying that I might not be in that season for good--though the odds are against me.

But if there's one thing I absolutely abhor, it's hearing mothers judge other mothers for being dressed "sloppily." C'mon, ladies, we've all been there! It takes hard work and strenuous effort to get several small children dressed and ready for Mass (and, sometimes, re-dressed, and diaper changed, and dressed yet again...). We place enough pressure on moms who are bringing little ones to Mass; the last thing we need to do is be snidely critical of the mom who shows up in slacks or (gasp!) jeans.

Kim said...

"Women who live in colder climates might say, 'Wear tights! Wear long underwear!'"

Or they might say, "Just wear pants whenever you want!"

My experience as a Texan transplanted to Wisconsin is that there is an entirely different attitude towards clothing overall in the midwest, not just at Mass. As you point out, I think much of this must be climate-driven. What is the point of perfecting one's hairstyle, as the 20-something me in Houston used to faithfully do each morning, when it's a blizzard out? That stuff just doesn't happen up here so much. (One mushy, snowy afternoon in Chicago I completely ruined a pair of shoes--duh--next time wear boots in snow, Miss Houston!) Does this climate-influenced pragmatic informality translates into Mass-wear? Sure.

To me, the important thing is keeping in mind what it is that the Mass is all about, and Whom we're seeing. Mass is the source and summit of our Catholic faith, after all, when our glorious Creator stops time to allow us a real-live taste of real-live heaven. For real! It's really Him!

When I think about it that way, it's kind of hard to show up in flip flops and a tank top.

Anonymous said...

Apology from Scotch Meg

I am so sorry I congratulated you on being past babies. It was thoughtless of me, and I ought to know better, because I have had a few relatively long waits between babies myself, and would have been delighted if our family were bigger.

In the end, I have found it helps to enjoy the positives... like cleaner clothes and saner prayer times.

I tried to send this comment as an email, but couldn't get the "contact me" email address to work... feel free to remove if you like, as it was meant for you personally.

God bless you.

Red Cardigan said...

Scotch Meg, no worries--appreciate the comment. :)

julie b said...

Summertime, tourist type clothing predominates at our parish at this time of the year. There are lots of people who recreate in our area during the summer months. Perhaps they pack light! Personally, in the winter it can be twenty below or more some mornings, so a nice pair of slacks becomes my regular attire, but for the rest of the year I usually wear a dress or a skirt and try to look like I am attending an event that is special. (which it is, of coarse!)
It would be nice to see a bit more dress up for mass than is typical. Beautiful white dresses for first communion - why not beautiful for every communion! Little girls would love that! Prom dresses for a dance? Why not something half as stunning for mass. I believe it would help us to realize that something very special is going on when we worship. I did learn that when you bring little ones to mass it is best not to wear a skirt with an elastic waist. I came near to having mine pulled down a few times by tots trying to pull themselves up to me, and then opted for a good sturdy waistband!! :)