x57 (the modern culture of casual dress in church)

A few weeks ago, I was pondering the modern culture of casual dress in church. I try to dress in business casual attire when I attend church, and it’s one of the few times during the week I put on makeup. I’ll be the first to admit that part of the reason I do this is not solely to show respect during the service, but to get “gussied up” in a way I don’t normally get to during the week. Going to church is one of the few social outlets I have, and it’s important to me to make a good impression when I’m there. I was raised in a solidly middle class family in Massachusetts (which, since the cost of living here is so high, we’d be much better off if we had the same paying job but lived in a different state), and my mother, a conservative Catholic, was raised in a wealthy Midwestern family, which meant that putting on your Sunday best was of high importance. I recall having a conversation with the local priest about the way people dressed in church, and we noted that we both longed for the days when the way you dressed showed respect in a place of worship. I also recall mentioning this to a friend of mine who noted that, as a single mother working in retail, she couldn’t afford “Sunday best” clothes for her or her two (constantly growing) teenage sons, and she didn’t want that to be an obstacle in her church attendance. So I had to ask some of my religious friends from various backgrounds: is the modern culture of casual dress a good thing or should people follow a prescribed dress code when attending church?

The first person I asked, a young man I knew during my brief stint in college, simply noted that he found dress codes in general to be classist. This was a valid point that backed up what my friend with two teenage sons had told me, and indeed shed some light on the reasons I myself dress up for church: isn’t dressing up more about showing off than showing respect? A young woman I formerly attended church with noted that, for her, covering up was more important than dressing up – this was something that was especially important in, say, Italy, where she once vacationed. She said that a tank top and shorts is much less respectful, but that jeans and a respectable shirt is appropriate for most days; Christmas, Easter, baptisms, confirmations, and other “special occasions” within the church were exceptions to this rule wherein you’d want to step up your church wardrobe. An older woman I spoke with had similar concerns – she said she was glad that the church she attended mandated that confirmation candidates wear robes over their outfits, because so many teenage girls showed up in strapless or spaghetti strap dresses, or with short skirts. This woman also noted that, when you are the parent of teenagers, you have to pick and choose your battles. Actually getting your kids to attend church in the first place usually takes precedence over what they wear. In her opinion, as long as they’re there, you’ve done your job.

One young woman who graduated from my high school alma mater noted that the culture of casual dress can make church seem less intimidating and help people find the courage to actually attend services when they would normally feel ostracized. While she could certainly see the merits of dressing up for church – it separates that activity from what you do the rest of the week, shows reverence, and can help put you in a different mindset – she had this to say about Sunday best classism: dressing casually can help wealthier church members show humility, a quality Jesus Christ praised. It makes church more accessible, and in some ways is more practical. She shared an anecdote detailing her experience teaching a Sunday school class to a group of four year olds, and noted that when you’re dealing with a large group of messy kids right before or after a service, you don’t want to wear super nice clothes that are easily ruined. Like the other young woman who was a former fellow parishioner at my local church, she also noted that on holidays like Christmas, she did dress nicer than she would for an average Sunday service. One young woman who was more agnostic or atheistic in her leanings recalled her mother telling her about needing to wear a chapel veil in church while she was growing up, and noted that something simple like covering your hair might offer a good compromise between showing respect and not alienating people through altering your whole outfit.

The final person I asked, a devout middle-aged Catholic woman, had simply this to say:

“[D]ressing up is a beautiful way to respect God but [I] also look to Jesus who was poorest of the poor. God wants our hearts.”

Overall, dressing your Sunday best on a consistent basis seems to be on its way out as a tradition, and with good reason. Creating this survey has helped me challenge my own classist assumptions on church attire when I didn’t even know that I had classist assumptions on church attire to begin with. For my own purposes, dressing up still serves me well and as someone who keeps tznius, I tend to look a bit overdressed to begin with. But I’m working on no longer judging people who come to church dressed much more casually than I do, and while I do think that judgment has a time and a place, I don’t think that judgment on attire serves a purpose in church. That being said, I could go on and on about the types of judgment that do take place in church and that are sanctioned by the church – but that’s another blog for another day.

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