Monday, July 13, 2015

Camelot; or, what to wear to Mass

I honestly didn’t think I’d be blogging about that perennial favorite topic, “What’s wrong with how Catholics these days dress for Mass?  Is everybody a clueless slob?” again.

After all, I’ve written about it a lot.  Such as:


and here,

and here,

and here,

and here.

And that’s probably not all of them.  But I got tired of looking.

So why write about it again, when I’ve probably said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject?

Well, I wasn’t going to.  But first there was this rather unfortunate video which began to circulate on Facebook.  And then there was Msgr. Pope’s recent post which used the video as the jumping-off place, and which ended up being remarkably similar to this post of his from 2010.

So I found myself talking about this a bit on Facebook, and then I decided that it would be better to just get it over with and write a post.  In the process I’ve spent some time thinking about what it is, exactly, that bothers me about this sort of thing (apart from the fact that we seem to waste so much time and energy on minutiae like this and so much less on more weighty matters--and, no, that is not the same as saying, “Clothes don’t matter!  Ever!  For any reason!”).  Because, as I’ve written before, I actually do think there used to be an idea of “Sunday Best” for Sunday Mass, and I do encourage people, if they feel so called, to consider whether they can spruce up a bit (with what they already own, that is) when they’re going to Sunday Mass; but I also think there are way more important things to think about and if getting to church is, for you, (as a Facebook friend who is not a Catholic put it recently) like “...dragging a bag of mad cats...” then the last thing you need to worry about is whether or not your earrings are spiffy enough.

In the end, I’ve come up with a reason why the “What to Wear vs. What Not to Wear to Mass” themes and posts and videos bother me.  There may be other reasons, but this is what stands out:

There seems to be an assumption in many of these pieces that Our Lord is best pleased when men show up in suits or at least jackets/dress slacks and women come to Mass in nice, sleeved, tailored dresses that hit at least halfway between the knee and ankle. Oh, sure, it’s okay, in an “...if that’s the best you can do...” sort of way, if the man is wearing khakis and a dress shirt and the woman a nice, tailored blouse with a pretty skirt (and if she must wear pants, well, we’ll forgive her because we’re all about charity), but if they’re not making at least that much effort then it’s okay to make them feel sort of vaguely and generally guilty about what they’re wearing until or unless they take steps to improve the situation.

I’ve written multiple times about how the reality for many men in the Year of Our Lord two thousand fifteen is this: they don’t wear suits to work.  They don’t own “suits,” especially if by “suits” you mean the plural of “suit.”  They may have a suit which they can wear on certain occasions such as weddings or funerals, but even if they do, chances are it may need a bit of alteration when they take it out of the suit bag for such an event.  If they wear that suit 52 to 58 times a year (depending on whether they a] live in a diocese which still has the Ascension Feast on Thursday and b] ought to wear the suit on all Holy Days of Obligation as well as Sundays), it’s going to get worn out and need to be replaced.  Apart from the cheapest men’s suits (which may not last the whole 52 Sundays), an inexpensive suit will likely cost at least $250, with many retailers considering suits under $500 to be low-end.

And the reality for many women in the Year of Our Lord two thousand fifteen is this: we don’t own “nice, sleeved, tailored dresses.”  I myself have rather a lot of church dresses right now: I have five.  Four of them do not have sleeves.  Two of them--the one with (three-quarter) sleeves and one sleeveless heavy knit jumper-style dress, are only suitable in the winter (especially here in Texas; we were supposed to have our first 100-degree day where I live today, rather late in the year for us).  Two of the sleeveless ones I wear frequently to Mass, but I put some sort of “topper” over them, including some cute printed campshirt things I found on clearance last summer.  The final sleeveless one is my “good” dress, bought on purpose to wear to a work event at the company my husband works for (I bought a drapey jacket-sort of thing to go with it).  I have worn this dress on Christmas to Mass once as well, but it cost far more than I usually can spend on a single outfit (dress and topper together were about $80) and I can’t possibly justify wearing it weekly, as it would wear out and I wouldn’t have it the next time a big event comes up.

I am far from alone in this.  Most women I know would love to have a closet full of cute, fun, attractive dresses that fit well and do not make us look like some sort of a cross between a courtesan and a mushroom.  We do not have these.  Some women may have the money to buy several dresses like these  (though even they may still be too short for Mass; it can be hard to tell without trying one on) and also have  the financial ability to have them dry cleaned any time Baby misses the burp cloth, but unless your parish is quite wealthy it’s doubtful that the majority of women you’re at Mass with can buy such things in any practical quantity.

Why spend so much time on this?  Because the impression I get, over and over again, from people who discuss this topic, is that they really think either that most Catholic men and women actually do own closets full of suits and dresses but choose instead to wear “inferior” clothing to Mass, or that most Catholic men and women could easily acquire a suitable wardrobe for Sunday Mass by ransacking thrift stores and bargain counters, and that the failure to do this in order to make an effort to wear those garments which best please our Lord is a kind of moral fault.

But where do we get this idea that suits on men and tailored dresses on women are what best please our Lord, anyway?  If a man in a business suit and a woman in one of those dresses I linked to used a time machine and showed up suddenly in the midst of Jesus and His Apostles, Jesus would be the only one not horrified, and that’s just because He’s God.  Cultural standards can and do and have and will change and keep changing.  There’s a reason no one is out there scolding the suited men and the well-dressed women for not wearing medieval clothing (to say nothing of bringing up the Sumptuary Laws).  No, this does not mean that every clothing trend is benign, but it does mean that when you live in a casual culture the clothing you have to choose from will mostly be casual (and you are not morally bound to avoid the casual, only the clearly immodest).

I think--and this is only my theory, mind--that some of this comes from the tendency to idolize everything from the immediate pre-Conciliar era, and especially the American immediate pre-Conciliar era, as this perfect snapshot in time when the Mass was the Mass, and people knew how to dress properly for it, and nobody ever came to Mass in anything less than a full suit (if male) or a tailored dress and possibly gloves and a lace veil (if female), and all was well and good with our nation and our people and our culture and our Church.  In a word, it was Camelot.  And then--and then the Council happened, and the guitars and felt banners emerged, and the Mass (in English, anyway) was a badly-translated mishmash, and a priest in ugly vestments faced the people in ugly clothing across a polyester-draped altar on which stood a chintzy glass Chalice and an earthenware Ciborium...

...and if only men and women--mostly women--would dress properly for Mass, all of that would magically change for some completely unexplored reason.  And, besides, there’s nothing wrong with insisting that the really best way to dress for Mass involves adopting a 55-year-old cultural standard which emphasizes clothing many Catholics do not even own anymore and could only get at great expense--at which point the clothing would probably be manufactured in Bangladeshi deathtraps, but let’s not think too closely about that sort of thing when we’re choosing our suits and ties and dresses and heels for Sunday, shall we?

For me, it comes down to this: it is one thing to decide not to look like a slob on Sunday and, among those garments you actually own, to pull out something that is neat and tidy and suitable and appropriate--provided that you aren’t impeded by your state in life, the age of your children, the economic condition of your family, and a myriad of other non-trivial concerns from doing any such thing.  It is quite another to place upon one’s Catholic brothers and sisters the notion that unless you dress according to an iconic standard of formality that (however much one may personally lament its passing) has indeed passed, and which they can’t (unless they are quite wealthy) afford to imitate, they are really not quite pleasing the Lord.

And that’s before we even get into tangential issues about materialism, the kind of immodesty of dress that involves not sexual morality but ostentatiousness (which St. Paul discusses), vanity in general, envy and covetousness of the clothing others may have, and the degree to which we may project an unwelcoming and even hostile attitude toward the poor and/or badly dressed, who are still our brothers and sisters--but this is long enough, so we’ll save those matters for another time.


DJL said...

Sometimes I like to stir things up so I posted that Brandon Vogt video to our diocesan Facebook page - without endorsement- but with the question, "What do you think about this?"
The comments are already rolling in. People have a lot of thoughts on this. It's interesting. I do take your point about people's means being limited and I agree that people should do the best they can. I would say, though, that if you were wearing out your Sunday best on Sundays, it would be for the best possible reason!
I am also a firm believer in the adage, "The rising tide lifts all ships" and that when we dress up in our best for Mass, we set an example that might make someone else reconsider their flip-flops. We do live in a more casual culture, but is that always a good thing?
These are my thoughts so far on this. I do enjoy hearing everyone's opinions. If Facebook gets out of hand, maybe I'll point people to your blog. ;)
Have a great day!

Deirdre Mundy said...

I think local culture matters. We go to a parish where people pull out their 'dress jeans' on Sunday. And that's fine.

Heck... I have a choice-- I can either dress the kids to the point of non-nudity, or myself nicely. So as long as I'm clean and covered, I go. It's not worth making the family miss the Liturgy of the Word just so I can be 'dressy.'

I assume it gets better once you're no longer changing on the way out the door because you just had poop explode all over your outfit.

But for now? You can't ask an already-scattered mom to be open to life AND look like she walked out of a magazine. You have to decide-- do you want a church with babies, or a church with fashion sense?

scotch meg said...

I would not suggest that people go out and spend lots of money on Sunday clothes. I do remember buying my kids Easter "best" (which would be their Sunday best until the season changed and/or they outgrew the outfit) at thrift shops. It used to be easier than it is now to find Easter "best." There are better Sunday "bests" in thrift shops with more diverse populations, because (near me) minority communities dress better on Sundays.

I do have Sunday clothes. I do wear my Sunday clothes until they wear out. I have one jumper (summer Mass clothes) that I have been wearing for over ten years. I have replaced the top under it once. I bought it in a thrift store. The replacement top (which is very casual) cost more than the jumper did, but it looks nice, is comfortable, and travels well if I need it when away from home, so it was worth the investment.

My current (and last) teenage son is expected to wear slacks, a shirt with a collar (a polo shirt qualifies), and shoes rather than sneakers to Mass. Why? Because he is required to dress like this (or more formally) for concerts, whether with a school-based group (we are homeschoolers, but you can do that in our town) or for a more prestigious group. If he can dress up for concerts, he can dress up for Mass.

I agree that you should wear something that fits properly and is reasonably modest. Beyond that, who cares?

I suspect that some of the clothing outrage comes from seeing people who DO wear dress clothes to work and then wear other stuff to Mass. In my town, I see lawyers, doctors, and teachers, all of whom dress nicely for work, dressing like slobs at Mass. I see a carpenter with five kids, two of whom are in college, wearing slacks, a jacket and tie to Mass. He may wear the same clothes every week, he may have been wearing them for a decade, but he makes the effort. His wife, who works as a school nurse, always wears a dress. She may wear the same dress to work - I don't know and I don't care - but she makes the effort for Mass. Their children's dress varies (teens less formal, younger kids more formal).

What bugs me the most is seeing kids who wear shirts and ties for school (at a Catholic high school near here) wearing baggy shorts and t-shirts to Mass. I understand that it's the weekend, but it is also only an hour. And no, I'm not talking about the kids showing up in soccer or baseball uniforms - their parents are striving mightily to get them to church in the face of unsympathetic sports schedules.

This isn't nostalgia for the 50's, it's annoyance with the present day lack of respect, which shows in so many ways at Mass.

John InEastTX said...

Meh, we're out in the East Texas boonies and blue jeans are considered acceptable Sunday wear. My wife's not the only gal with blue jeans and a veil, also.

scotch meg said...

Then again, I guess it's also a good opportunity to take my Dad's best advice: if the shoe doesn't fit, don't put it on!

If you are doing your best for Mass attire, all of your circumstances brought into consideration, then the remarks of others are not applicable to YOU and should just be assumed to be directed at others.

Red Cardigan said...

All, I apologize for the delay in approving comments--I'm having a browser issue and my gmail (where the comments go) keeps freezing up on me. I'll try to keep a better eye on things!

Susan Foley said...

We're talking about other people here, right? How other people dress? Because it would be a very unusual parish where you yourself are forbidden to dress nicely and are required to slouch around in jeans.

So if you think dressing up for Mass is a good thing, why not just do it yourself, perhaps enforce it on your minor children, and go on to the next worry?