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 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.