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Why are we so badly dressed at church?

Our society pays great attention to appearances. That’s why your Sunday best can be a subtle form of evangelisation, says Ryan Service

By on Thursday, 9 August 2012

Catholics in Spain go to elaborate lengths to look their best on Sundays. in the US and Britain, however, informality is often the order of the day (Photo: CNS)

Catholics in Spain go to elaborate lengths to look their best on Sundays. in the US and Britain, however, informality is often the order of the day (Photo: CNS)

From Trinny and Susannah to Ten Years Younger what we wear has become a subject that defines the “subject”: the person. Just as you are what you eat, apparently you are also what you wear. Fashions come and go and it is a strange fact that in our culture cast-off clothes to some are regarded as highly collectable to others.

Living in Valladolid, just north of Madrid, this last year has been an eye-opener for me with regard to fashion. One aspect that struck me most particularly was the way that locals dress more formally on a Sunday. There was a kind of Sunday revolution. That is, a change of habit and a change of dress, that made Sunday distinctive. Sunday simply had a different feel to the other days of the week and this was largely marked by the locals’ choice of dress. Sundays stood out there and the wearing of more formal clothing did not, like in other areas of society, relate to status or jobs, but rather carried a visible sense of dignity and respect for their religious practice. Sunday looked different and in dressing more formally these people were telling society that Sunday mattered. This was an attractive and appealing aspect of their culture.

In our own nations the concept of “Sunday best” is a part of cultural memory. Few practise it today. Seeing those streets on a Sunday afternoon in Valladolid seemed rather nostalgic. It was there that I recognised a particular loss in our culture. For a moment it was as though I was looking at a Sunday with the eyes of my grandparents. Today, if you are wearing smarter clothes on a Sunday people innocently assume that you are spending yet another day in the office rather than preparing to greet Our Lord in the Eucharist. So much for those well-polished Sunday shoes that fail to make an impact and could now be worn any day of the week. The days of the week are, therefore, largely indistinguishable and I think it is our mission to “win back Sundays”. While I am not advocating coattails at Sunday Mass there is a lot to be said for making Sunday our best, not “because you’re worth it” – in the famous words of the L’Oréal advertisement – but because Sunday is worth it.

I am a recent convert to the idea of Sunday dress. I vaguely remember making more effort in terms of dress and appearance on a Sunday while growing up in having to choose a newly ironed shirt and tie, especially at Christmas and Easter. There was never any pressure, but there was a sure sense that Sunday required physical as well as spiritual preparation. From ironing to polishing there was work to be done and we prepared as a family.

An incident at a local theatre company, however, marked a turning point in my understanding of Sunday wear. During a weekend rehearsal for a show I was involved in, some of the production team arrived in remarkably smart and dazzling suits. Walking through make-shift scenery and skirting around props lying on the stage floor their shimmering black-and-grey suits stood out of place in this theatrical setting. Someone asked where the couple had been dressed so smartly and I was shocked at their answer.

“We’ve been to Sunday service,” they said, “where we make an effort in what we wear unlike those Catholics who wear whatever they like.”

I was stunned. Although I had not experienced that kind of social prejudice before, there was something in their message that has remained with me.

There has never been a dress code or refusal of entry in my experience of the Church. Indeed, the idea of Sunday formal wear simply does not apply to many nations where the national dress is different, and this difference is carried into their attendance at church. In our culture, though, Sunday wear has been an integral part of our nation’s appearance and it is our link across the denominational divide. Sundays were an effort, and this extended to dress. In 2012, a year in which our country has been under the eye of many around the world, in a hyper-visual age, we should not underestimate the witness our approach to Sunday wear can provide.

We will perhaps never reclaim Sunday as it once was and wearing a suit will not necessarily draw more people to Christ. But our effort, our approach, our work and our dignity in preparing for Sunday will.

Ryan Service is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Birmingham

  • Rupert_pendragon

    My dear Adam,
                               Horse blankets sums it all up beautifully – and sadly truly.
    With you permission I would like to use this phrase in one of my “cozy” Catholic crime novels.
    Yet we must remember those of our brethren who have so much less than we do, and that includes people in inner London parishes.
    a Young Fogey

  • Rupert_pendragon

    what good would a letter to the bishop do?
    They are the very ones who, in the last 40 years, have encouraged all this uncivilised trash!

  • Rupert_pendragon

    but they were dressed decently and normally for that Passover Meal -  which indeed ended in the first Mass.
    The western world is now 90% scruffs every day - including me occasionally. But I do try NOT to!

  • Rupert_pendragon

    it sounds frightfully unhygenic – rather like a hair shirt. Sorry, but I don’t like cats. And the thought of their hair on my skin makes me sick.
    By the way: “it looks like a floor length skirt”.
    “It looks AS IF I have a floor length skirt.”
    Yes, I know……Grammar…..As important as dressing appropriately.

  • Rupert_pendragon

    Teigitur, clementissime Pater…….
    The London Oratory is situated in the most expensive part of London and indeed ministers, in part, to upper middle class and aristocratic Catholics. I spent my youth in that parish. That is not so much a Sunday dressing up as a civilised way of general living that is not within the grasp of everyone.
    But certainly some English youngsters (and overseas tourists) who attend High Mass at the Oratory on Sundays dressed in a casual way, are not frowned upon. It depends what “casual” means.
    Good, classic clothes are now very expensive. Many people cannot afford them,
    But, yes,the majority can afford a cheap suit.
    Hmmm. what actually IS pleasing to Jesus and Mary? A sincere and loving heart comes, surely, before haute couture.
    I remember attending Mass at the Oratory in slacks and a pullover one autumn morning – and having lunch with one of the Fathers afterwards!
    Oh, well, Teigitur, you mentioned the Oratory!

  • teigitur

    All very true Rupert. But I still think its nice to give a little thought to giving God your best, though indeed I sometimes fail on a Sunday.
     In “Orsini” no Doubt for lunch, one often sees the Fathers( well some of them) in there.

  • El_Tigre_Loco

    I always try to look nice at church. I often wear a tie. Many people come in shorts and some even wear ‘muscle shirts’ with their shorts. 
    I feel dressing nicely just shows respect.
    BTW, didn’t the Holy Mother tell one of the visionaries that she was dressed inappropriately for her apparition even though the visionary was ill?

  • Dorothy

    I like this article a lot.  I like the idea of dressing differently and nicely to go to Church. It is indeed a special event and it is sad to see that nowadays very few people make an effort to dress well for mass. This is why i like to go to Notre Dame de France sometimes where people with African background, especially ladies dress with colours and nice fabrics. It adds to the sense of feast and joy at getting together to celebrate mass. We usually dress well for something we believe is important: job interview, night out, clubbing, some jobs, but somehow Sunday mass seems not to be important enough… Thanks for the article, I will make an effort next time I go to Sunday mass!

  • IS

     If I’m paying attention to what the people around me are wearing, then I’m not paying attention to mass. How does anyone miss that this entire thread is about judging surface appearances and making assumptions about people’s devotion to G-d/their orthodoxy/their spiritual life/their holiness? Judge them by their actions – how they treat others.
    I grew up in a house with parents who could look beautiful and be charming on the outside, but were emotionally abusive and amoral. I don’t trust surface appearances, and the Bible agrees: “for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” This looking around, comparing Sunday dress, is vanity and pride, nothing more. We should be far more concerned about why more Catholics – priests and laity alike – aren’t clothed in holiness: morality, integrity, compassion, love, service towards others, a dedication to G-d. Dress modestly, yes – you’re not there to draw the eyes of others – but dressing modestly also includes not dressing like a peacock, b/c then you’re there to draw attention. How is it that no one on this thread is appalled by the contempt that ‘sharply dressed’ couple showed to their fellow Catholics in how they judged them? That’s not how people of G-d behave.

  • Toto

    Sentences begin with a capital letter. Punctuation. Just as important as grammar and attire!

  • Joe

    There are many families now, if not the majority, in which both parents work.  That means they are often exhausted on Sunday morning.  Let’s allow them to dress casually, and come to Mass.  It might mean the difference of attending Mass, or just staying home.  Also, many Churches are now more than half empty at Mass, or even worse.  We, those fewer remaining faithful Catholics, have reached a stage where we need to support each other – and so, the reason for the conversations in the pews before Mass.  It really helps to know the name of your fellow parishioner, and it helps create a friendly and dynamic Parish society.  Newcomers also benefit from this – they are welcomed and introduced to the congregation, and made to feel comfortable.  For example, in our Church, last week we have had visiting Catholics from Indonesia, and there are often traveling Catholics from different areas, or from around the globe, who wish to attend daily Mass, and leave their stories about their own communities.  We have gained a real appreciation of the worldwide Catholic community from these visitors, and also, how important it is to invite non-Catholics to Church, and make them welcome.  Yes, the need for prayer is also great – perhaps you could stay after Mass, and say a Rosary. 

  • JohnnyNorfolk

    There is just so little respect for anything anymore. I think we should all make an effort to dress as well as we can at all times and try and set a standard.

  • Diane4422

    If you have nice clothes that are appropriate, by all means wear it but keep in mind, it’s very intimidating to poor people!  As long as you are clean, neat, tidy and are not showing too much skin, all should be welcome without feeling uncomfortable.  Just imagine how many poor people we would get into the church if everyone just dressed casually so they didn’t feel like an outcast at church because they don’t have something nice to wear!  All are welcome in our church and please don’t judge people if they don’t have a “Sunday best” suit or dress, etc.  

  • Inquisator

    I’m sure this was the main topic of conversation among the early community of belivers as they gathered to celebrate the Eucharist in the early days of the Church.

  • Lee Porter

     That is missing the point though. Expecting those who have nothing to dress smartly for mass is ludicrous. But for the rest of us to use that as an excuse to dress slopily is inexcusable.

  • Frandom

    I live in a rural town in the northeastern U.S.  I am a music minister and so have an opportunity to see what people are wearing, and it runs the gamut from a suit and tie to jeans and a t-shirt for men.  I tend to wear dresses every day in the summertime and also do for church, but in the winter, I invariably wear corduroy trousers with a nice shirt.  It is not just church that people are not dressing up for.  When our school has a concert, most parents come in whatever they were wearing, and the music personnel have a hard enough time just to get the kids to come in white tops and black bottoms.  I have seen guests at commencements, weddings, and even funerals, wearing their everyday clothes.  Our male altar servers tend to wear sneakers (trainers), and I seriously doubt if they own any other footwear.  
    Most of our people are dressed modestly enough; in fact, one can often tell at school which children go to church regularly because they are not dressed extravagantly immodestly.  People complain about the difficulty in finding modest (yet up-to-date) girls’ clothing that is priced at the level of the average working family.  There are surprised to learn about the “no bare shoulders” rule at various European churches, though.  I think that we don’t make quite enough of modesty in dress ALL THE TIME (not just in church).
    I am a bit confused about hostility toward flip–flops.  If they were leather thong sandals, would they be OK?

  • Benjamin Baxter

    … but did you wear tank tops and shorts ever again, even on an impromptu visit? 

  • New2u

    I recently converted from an evangelical faith and the lack of concern over dressing nicely in gods house still bothers me. But I’m not catholic for social reasons, so live and let live.

  • Beacons

    Very well stated, in a nutshell! Thank you

  • G Rose

    Great reply! A few years ago I stopped wearing jeans etc to Sunday Mass after visiting Spain and watching the parade after Mass in the village of families taking the air after Mass. Making a bit of an effort to prepare with my clothes actually helps me prepare spiritually for Mass too. The REAL question is, why aren’t more of us clothed with love and holiness? Are we just well dressed clashing cymbals?

  • G Rose


  • David

     I may have missed it, but I don’t recall Jesus encouraging anyone to crawl or kneel before him.

  • Cecelia

    Hmm very interesting article. Have you looked at attending any of the Tridentine Latin masses? Women would normally wear dresses/below knee skirts and some form of headcovering.

  • Cecelia

    Interesting article. I, myself prefer to attend the tridentine latin masses. Women normally wear dresses/skirts below knee length and of course some sort of headcovering.