Clothes don't make the Mass
Editors’ note: Sounding Board is one person’s take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.
The fashion police should check their badges at the church door.
It’s Sunday morning and once again I’m standing in front of my closet with wet hair and no make-up while my son runs in circles around my legs. Rows of skirts and dresses hang invitingly, but like most mothers of young children, I have to bend over too frequently to pick up errant Cheerios and Hot Wheels to wear something potentially revealing or uncomfortable. There are nice pants hanging next to the skirts and dresses, but the summer season is a long one where I live in Tennessee, and it’s much too hot to think about covering up.
I reach for my go-to pair of khaki shorts and a dark knit shirt that will hide any stray food or marker that may land on me during Mass. I’m clean anyway, and my son is wearing a collared shirt that is miraculously stain-free at 9 o’clock in the morning. My husband, a man who teaches in a suit coat and tie in 95-degree weather, walks into the bedroom in dark jeans and a nice black polo. I make a face at him.
“You’re wearing that?” I ask him. “I’m going to look like a slob next to you.”
“I’m wearing jeans,” he says. “You look fine.” And I do look fine, but this certainly isn’t my “Sunday best”—not the Sunday best I was raised with anyway. But really, does it matter how I dress for Mass? In a culture that is increasingly more casual, what does our “Sunday best” even mean?
I am not immune to the argument that clothes make the man. And I do firmly believe in Mass as an occasion. But God doesn’t care what I’m wearing. OK, he might care to a certain extent. But I should be able to wear whatever I want within reason. Casual does not have to mean immodest.
I am just as appalled as everyone else when young girls line up for communion in their low-cut tops and short shorts or when men wear their ripped up, chest-revealing T-shirts. In my oatmeal-spackled, strawberry-stained shirt, I am firmly in the camp of not judging.
And yet I find it difficult to remain silent when cleavage is involved. For the sake of this argument, let’s just get the question of immodesty out of the way. I think we’d all agree that those people need to cover themselves up—for Christ’s sake.
But beyond the question of modesty, why does what we wear to church matter? I’ll be honest and say that I struggle to get to Mass every Sunday, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Yes, God is central to my life. Yes, Mass is absolutely important and necessary and a priority. But that doesn’t mean I’m perfect. There are some Sundays when I really have to force myself out the door to get to Mass. And now you want me to dress up, too?
There was a time when I observed the occasion of Mass by dressing up. As a little girl, I would wear whatever pretty things my mom laid out for me. Across my bed, a long-sleeved and lace-hemmed dress awaited me, along with a pair of white stockings and a shiny pair of white or black shoes. They were lovely ensembles, and I very much enjoyed getting into those clothes. It was fun to be so decked out, but to be honest, I think I enjoyed getting out of those stuffy clothes even more.
After years of wearing my mom’s version of my Sunday best, I took a hard right and became one of those teenagers in black with piercings. My naturally pale face was further whitened with a generous dose of white powder, my eyes were rimmed in black liner, and my bright red lips punctuated the whole look—not that you could really see me behind the long, dark bangs hiding my face.
I knew this look was unappealing to many people, namely my mother, but that was sort of the point. I dressed that way because I liked it, and didn’t care who didn’t like it. This attitude may sound counter to the whole churchgoing experience, but it’s not now and it wasn’t then.
My clothes, piercings, and make-up did not change my relationship with God. In fact, through the tumultuous high school years, I relied on God tremendously. I always went to church. I always prayed. My fellow black-wearing goth friends and I talked about God and faith and vocation all the time. The way we looked was an expression of a difficult time in our lives when we were trying to figure out how we as intelligent, creative types were going to contribute to the world.
It was not, as my high school Spanish teacher ignorantly suggested, because we were “del diablo.” We were still children of God. Not only that, but we were children of God doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing—living in the world and not of it. Our outward appearance may not have been the cute, conventional clothes of my youth, but since when did God prefer cute and conventional?
In my college years, the gold standard for Sunday best was an elderly couple who went to my church. Their clothes were so lovely, I found myself distracted by them before Mass, anticipating their arrival and marveling at the woman’s elegant black dresses paired with heeled black boots and the man’s perfectly tailored suit coats over cashmere turtleneck sweaters. They were a lovely, fashionable parade of two. My casually dressed boyfriend and I in our jeans and T-shirts would point at and admire them and their commitment to formal dress at Mass, yet I could not ignore the fact that I found them distracting.
Certainly this was not their fault. The same mother who laid out my Sunday best for me also taught me custody of the eyes. But still, who were the dashing couple dressing for? Had they spent as much time preparing themselves spiritually as they had curling their hair and shining their shoes?
Twenty years out of high school, I no longer feel pulled toward the countercultural clothes of my youth, but that same challenging spirit has not left me. Thank God, because it is with that same spirit that I can admire those who come to Mass in their formal attire, yet recognize that they aren’t doing Mass better than me. In fact, I might even argue that their priorities are askew.
My neighbor Elizabeth, a woman who also has a young child, tells me she shies away from saying hello to someone from her church when she doesn’t “have her face on.” “Her face,” in this instance, refers to her make-up, the mascara and eyeliner she carefully applies to accentuate her already impossible prettiness.
Like my husband in his Sunday morning get-up, Elizabeth makes me feel underdressed, and maybe I should. Maybe my suit-coated husband and the fancily-dressed couple and Elizabeth are on to something. Maybe I should dress up for the occasion of Mass.
Or maybe they are preparing for Mass in the wrong way. After all, God probably doesn’t care if Elizabeth “has her face on.” He’s probably not terribly concerned with whether my husband should wear the brown shoes or the black shoes with his black shirt. And really, he probably does not care too much about piercings or mohawks or baggy pants. So who are we dressing up for? Who is Elizabeth’s audience? Is it the priest? Our fellow churchgoers? Are we dressing to impress God?
Rather than doing my hair, putting on my “face,” and spending precious time cursing the casual nature of my closet, I spend my Sunday mornings as quietly and peacefully as I can despite the constant motion and noise coming from my 2-year-old son.
Like my mother before me, I lay out his Sunday best. I prepare his diaper bag. I think about my week, the people I will see, the obligations I have to my family. I ask God to bless my week, to make my soul clean and bright and shiny so that I can be the light to the world he intends me to be.
In my adult life I have things figured out that the little girl in the frilly dresses or the teenager in the dark, grungy high school clothes could not even begin to understand. I now know that my Sunday best has more to do with my behavior than with what I am wearing. My Sunday best now means getting to Mass on time, growing in my understanding of the liturgy, and staying until I receive a blessing from the priest.
In this version of my Sunday best, there is only one judge, and he doesn’t care about make-up, however little or too much. He doesn’t care about curled hair, or holes in tights or in ears or in eyebrows. Sometimes I come up short with him. Sometimes I just can’t focus on the readings, or I leave early because my son is too rambunctious.
Certainly there are many things I could do to be a better Catholic, a better churchgoer. Wearing something other than my casual shorts and well-worn sandals just isn’t one of them.
"And the survey says..."
1. The most appropriate attire for Mass is:
39% - Business casual, along the lines of what you might wear to the office
33% - Semi-casual, not something you’d wear to work but still neat and presentable.
21% - Up to the individual. Within reason, everyone should wear what they are most comfortable in.
2% - Formal, as if you were going to a fancy restaurant or high-class event.
5% - Other
2. I make a conscious effort to dress up for Mass.
64% - Agree
19% - Disagree
17% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“I dress up if it is a special occasion or if I am serving at Mass. Otherwise, I dress casually.”
3. Dressing up a bit for Mass is a sign of respect for the extraordinary gift of Christ’s love.
70% - Agree
21% - Disagree
9% - Other
4. I have felt judged by other parishioners for what I’m wearing in church.
17% - Agree
78% - Disagree
5% - Other
5. I admit to sometimes being judgmental of what other people wear to Mass.
72% - Agree
22% - Disagree
6% - Other
6. If I see someone who I feel is dressed inappropriately at Mass, I would not hesitate to say something to them about it.
3% - Agree
90% - Disagree
7% - Other
7. I’ve been in churches that have enforced a dress code.
21% - Agree
75% - Disagree
4% - Other
8. If my parish instituted a dress code policy, I would:
32% - Gladly follow it and be happy that we finally had set standards for attire.
16% - Keep wearing whatever I like until someone personally confronted me about my attire.
14% - Follow it but feel insulted that I had to be told how to dress.
14% - Leave and find another parish.
6% - Ignore it and dare anyone to try to get me to adhere to the policy.
18% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“How I would react would depend on what that dress code was.”
This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 7, pages 23-27).
Image: Tim Foley