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.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.
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.
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 outAs 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.
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!
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!