Who Are We Dressing Up For, Anyway?

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Photo by dullhunk, via Flickr

There’s a topic that people of faith spend a lot of time fretting over: what we wear to church. I did a search this morning and came up with a very revealing list of online articles. Clearly, a lot of Christians are incredibly concerned about what everyone else wears to church on Sundays.

But a post I read late last week raised a good question, namely: who are we really dressing up for?

I was taught that you wear your best to church on Sunday because God is the most important person in your life, and that’s how you show respect for Him. Over the years, I’ve gnashed my teeth as much as anyone else about the increasing trend toward casual dress at church. People dress up for funerals and weddings and going to work, but not for Sunday–what’s up with that? If you respect your job enough to dress in a suit, you sure ought to be dressing up that much for God! Hello!

But as time goes by, I’m moderating my thinking. Because let’s face it, it really isn’t any of my business what anyone else wears on Sundays. What we wear is only important because it might be indicative of a person’s internal state of mind. In other words, how much you bother to dress up might indicate how important you think the occasion is. Might.

But.

It’s not God who expects us to dress up. God made us naked, remember? The only reason we wear clothes at all is because after the Fall, we can’t look at the body with the appropriate mindset. The obsession with what is and isn’t proper church attire really has no Godly connection at all–it’s entirely a worldly one. We dress up for church because human beings place importance on clothes. Not because God does. More and more, I’m coming to believe that when I wag my finger about what others wear, it’s a sign that my mind is in the wrong place.

I will continue to dress up for church every week, because this is one way I can show respect for the God I’m coming to worship. I will teach my children to show respect for God by dressing up for church. But I’m no longer going to obsess about what other people wear to church on Sundays. Frankly, it’s just none of my business.

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21 thoughts on “Who Are We Dressing Up For, Anyway?

  1. Tamara

    Thank you, Kate. At my sangha it’s strictly ‘come as you are.’ I can’t speak for God – I can’t presume to project an opinion onto the Universal Consciousness as to what it thinks. But I do agree wholeheartedly that it’s nobody’s business but your own what you wear to church. I would prefer not to see plumbers cracks and slutty dress but that’s me, and has nothing to do with meditation or worship. Dressing up for church is a quaint custom for those who need a reason to dress up. It’s the sincerity of worship that counts.

  2. I have run the gamut on this for the past 12 years! As my husband and I experienced our reversion in the Catholic faith, I was adamant that my daughters would wear their pretty dresses and I would wear at least as nice of clothes as I wear to work. Over the years, we’ve become more lax, completely due to necessity if you can imagine. Take this fall for instance. We typically go to Mass on Saturday evening vigil because my husband works nights and getting hom eat 7:00 a.m. and going to Mass then is not necessarily the best way for him to get adequate rest before going back to work Sunday night. Well, our Saturdays this fall were crazy! Ballet lesson at 9:00. Swim practice at 10:30. Guitar lesson at noon. swim lessons at 11:00. And my oldest played volleyball on Saturdays any time between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. So sometimes, we literally were picking up after the volleyball game (I was coach) and going straight with the family to Mass and we were all in our casual clothes (me in my jeans and coach shirt/sweatshirt, my oldest in her vball clothes, you get the picture).

    I finally realized that I can’t worry what anyone else thinks about what I’m wearing to Mass, God knows the day I had and the reasons why we still had to make it to the Saturday vigil if we wanted to make it as a family, and I don’t owe anyone (including my scrupulous self!) an explanation. God is happy that I have brought my family and myself to worship Him.

    Anyway, we still dress up when we can and my kids know it’s important to do so when time and circumstances allow. But I’m glad i’ve gotten over myself a little bit in this regard.

  3. Hear, hear! I have long been bothered by the underlying assumptions of “you dress up for X, why not dress up for Church?” because it implies that the person asking the question believes that everyone lives in the same socioeconomic world with the same resources, not to mention tastes.

  4. I agree, what we wear to Church isn’t necessarily fodder for conversation from other people. However, when we are broadcasting what we wear so other people can see (if it the purpose is to help other fashionably challenged women), we run the risk of calling attention to ourselves instead of Christ. In response to my own post, a friend of mine wrote this:

    “I see this whole trend (What I Wore Sunday) coming out of discontentment with living such a hidden life. We all so want others to recognize the good that we do…I think this is an attempt to show that we are hip and trendy even if we do stay home. It’s like saying..” I still got it” or “See I can have it all!” instead of being content to live the hidden life of Nazareth…”

    Hmmmm….

    Good work, Kathleen.

  5. Kathleen and Colleen, How is publicizing what we wear so different from broadcasting our ideas, our inspirations, our insights, our advice, pictures of our kids? Why blog at all? Why publish books or articles, if we should be content solely with living “the hidden life of Nazareth”? Or at least, why not publish anonymously or under a pen name?

    Perhaps you feel what God has placed in your heart to write is so needed that you have a calling to put yourself out in the public eye, a calling others don’t have?

    I think all blogging can be a temptation to fall into pride and vanity. I risk it because it’s a hobby (and my husband has been pestering me for a while to get a hobby!). I like to write so I write what’s on my mind–my kids, the food I make, the books I read and yes, the clothes I wear. It’s fun, and it’s mainly for sharing with my family and friends. But I make it public because perhaps what I write will be of some edification to others with similar interests, and maybe I can be edified by their blogs.

    Mainly, it’s a hobby–writing about what you enjoy. And if we ladies linking up on WIWS enjoy dressing up on Sunday, it’s innocent fun. A temptation to vanity, perhaps, but no more than other forms of blogging. Let’s not make it more than it is.

    • Thanks so much for weighing in. I actually didn’t reference the blog hop at all, because as I wrote, I realized it wasn’t the blog hop I was concerned about–I think it’s perfectly fine to share as you guys are doing on a weekly basis. My concern is when we judge other people for their clothing choices globally, for coming to church in shorts or jeans, for instance. That is something completely separate from the blog hop. My intent was not to fuss about WIWS (or those participating in it!), but to address the larger topic. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

      • Kathleen, I agree that we should completely avoid judging–and avoid focusing on–other people’s choices of clothing for mass. I read your and Colleen’s posts and all the comments thereto and conflated them all in my mind. I’m sorry.

        Also, I’m sorry for the second paragraph of my comment. It was/is uncharitable. I would delete it if I knew how. I have _never_ participated in a blog com box debate before, and as soon as I do, poof! out comes my inner snark monster. [ smacks palm to forehead ]

        Your response was charity itself. God bless.

      • I’m just glad you came back over to keep participating. 🙂 I went back and looked at my post and realized that the first paragraph or two didn’t point clearly enough to my main point, so your reaction was not inappropriate. Actually, an hour before you commented in the first place I was thinking, “Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me I’m off base? I love affirmation but I want ppl to feel free to disagree, too!” 😉

  6. kathleen462

    I have seen both extremes…from high fashion to immodest dress. I am glad to see more people dressing modestly so as not to draw attention from worship to themselves. As young ladies, we were instructed to dress modestly with Mary as our model so as not to be an occasion of sin to others. I know of some churches who have shirts and slacks they ask those immodestly dressed to wear before joining the congregation, or to simply return when they have a bit more clothing on.

  7. Diana

    I have addressed with issue with my family as well. I agree that how you dress is usually a reflection of how you feel, or want to feel, as well as a product of circumstances. I agree that if you have clean, nice, modest clothes for Mass, it IS a statement to the WORLD of your inner intentions. I do not like shorts at Mass at all, but a ball team in uniform who have paused to worship together is a beautiful thing too. A short skirt can be even more distracting and immodest than a pair of shorts. It’s not necessarily about “judging” either, it’s about noticing and reacting. We are very focused on clothing in our society, regardless of our fashion sense or budgets. When I feel my best, I want to look my best, and when I feel that I look my best, I feel my best. For myself, I find that if I wear bracelets, I fidget with them, so I don’t wear them. That doesn’t mean that I think wearing bracelets to church is a bad thing for others, I just know what distracts me. If someone has on short shorts, tight jeans, or a low-cut blouse, or a stunning hat, it is distracting and does often detract from other people’s focus. It DOES matter what we wear and our intentions and focus because Mass is not just about GOD, it is about His church community. We are here to support and love one another as we worship. If we are focused on appearances that are distracting, we lose our focus of mutual worship of the Lord. I see a vast difference in some people’s dress from daily Mass to Weekend Mass. That does not mean the hearts of those who attend daily mass in their workout clothes or jeans or shorts are LESS devoted than those who dress up and go to weekend Mass only. I don’t judge people for what they wear, but I do recognize that it matters because it can effect others. I think sometimes casual dress means a casual attitude, but that is not necessarily true. It can also be about comfort. When you are comfortable, you can relax and give the Mass full attention. The problem arises when one person’s “comfort level” makes someone else UNcomfortable! I just teach my family that how they dress for each occasion should be about respect and appropriateness for the occasion and even at different Masses, this is not always the same attire. I expect different dress at a Teen Mass than an Easter Vigil, yet the Mass is still Mass. I used to never wear jeans to Mass, or allow my family to. Once, we took someone to Mass who was not Catholic and only had jeans packed with them. We all wore jeans so she would not feel more out of place. I felt a connection with her just by this simple act. The jeans did not condemn me! But I still don’t like to wear them to Mass as a rule! Intentions matter, but we can not know other people’s reasons for what they choose if we are too worried about their appearance and not the people themselves! Clothes are just another layer we must see past to the soul! The more we understand each other, the better we work together. That’s why I appreciate your blog and other people’s comments. This is a way to find out WHY people dress as they do without nudging the person next to you at Mass and saying “Why are you wearing THAT to church?” 🙂

    • You make so many good points, Diana. I was skimming through some of the posts in the “casual church” search I referenced, and someone talked about seeing shorts so short, you could see butt cheeks. My argument doesn’t really cover that. I’ve been turning that over in my mind, trying to decide how that fits in to the puzzle.

      But OTOH, “modesty” is a moving target. When I was a kid, my parents taught me you don’t show your shoulders in church. In other words, no sleeveless dresses, no spaghetti straps except with a bolero, and DEFINITELY no strapless dresses. But for the last dozen years, for instance, you almost couldn’t find a wedding dress that WASN’T strapless. It’s so much a part of the fabric of fashion now that the new generations don’t see it as immodest. So if they’re wearing strapless dresses, it is offensive to many of the older generation, but it’s not an indicator of the young generation’s attitude toward church. I just have to throw my hands up in the air and return to this nugget: I’m only in charge of myself and my reactions. Like you said about the bracelets–I have to police myself, and leave it at that. But that also includes my reactions to other people. I’m really, really prone to judgment, and I have to keep a firm control on that tendency in my own mind. Like I’m always telling Nicholas: “You take care of YOU.”

  8. Dress is a form of behavior, and behavior should always be appropriate to circumstances.

    Let’s also remember, the King invited everyone to the wedding feast, that is, rich and poor: “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

    But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’

    • Christian, that has always been a perplexing parable to me. I can’t figure out why the king would expect anyone coming in off the highways and byways to HAVE a dressy garment, so the whole thing seems unjust. A recent homily clarified the context a bit for me–people would have been given a garment upon arrival (a la, “here’s a jacket, sir, we require jackets at this establishment.”). In which case I can’t figure out why the guy wouldn’t be wearing it. All of which makes me think this is not a parable about clothes, but about preparing the heart, and the clothing is just a symbol of the important point. Which goes back to the point in my post. But maybe I’m missing something important?

  9. Colleen

    Interesting conversation. Years ago, we actually had someone at our church who suggested a dress code with people standing at the door to police this. Praise God clearer heads prevailed.
    I like what you tell Nicholas – You take care of YOU!
    My opinion? I think Jesus is just happy we show up. And I think he is really more interested in the condition of our inner selves.

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