Viewpoint: In Favor of the Restoration of “Sunday Best”

by M. Francis Mannion

Among my heroines is Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, the nationally syndicated columnist and wonderfully wry and wise author of “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.”

When Miss Manners proposes a return to wearing “Sunday Best” when going to church, I leap to her support.

Until recently, Miss Manners observes, both rich and poor distinguished consciously between their everyday work clothes and what they wore to church on Sundays. Even today, people, to some degree, still dress up for weddings, funerals, going to the office, doing job interviews, going to dinner at nice restaurants, and attending uppity cocktail parties, but dress down for Sunday worship.

This problem is even more pronounced in Catholic churches. I (who think myself a good analyst of just about everything) don’t have the slightest clue why this is the case. Catholics dress these days for Mass as they would when raking leaves, cleaning out Grandma’s attic, going shopping, or sprawling on the couch with a six-pack watching a football game. People dress for Mass (the greatest action possible on earth) as they would for the most casual of occasions.

As a firm believer that Sunday Mass is the world’s most extraordinary occasion, I propose the restoration of the good old-fashioned custom of dressing up for church on Sundays.

Miss Manners and I can already hear your outraged objections: It doesn’t matter a whit what you wear in church. It’s not what you wear on the outside that matters, but what’s inside in your heart. And you will protest that Jesus hung around with ordinary, poor folks and despised the sanctimonious religious class with their tassels and phylacteries. Or the biggie of them all: But asking poor people to wear Sunday Best puts a undue burden on those who can’t afford nice clothes.

To all of which I (and Miss Manners, were she not so lady-like) would answer: “horse feathers!” (Besides, Sunday Best does not mean expensive or even good clothing. It means the nicest and best things you own).

I have never bought the outsides/insides argument (a product of the German Enlightenment). Loving God and neighbor is as much about outsides, good manners, and respectful self-presentation, as it is about insides.

And certainly Jesus did hang out with a fairly rough crowd. But he did tell a story (of which he seemingly approved) about a king throwing out on the street a man who came to a feast without the proper attire. (Admittedly, I am stretching scriptural interpretation a bit here).

As for Sunday Best imposing a burden on the poor: Ever been to a poor black neighborhood on a Sunday morning? There you will see a community ablaze in the most festive Sunday dress as they go to church.

So, I say let us bring back dressing up for Mass on Sundays. I am certain that it will help rather than hinder liturgical participation. Dressing up will help Christians recognize their baptismal dignity. It will say that the presence of God in our midst is worth our best, and tangibly underscore the truth that the edification and beautification of the People of God–both on the insides as well as the outsides–are primary aims of the Church’s liturgy.

So to the questions I know are already forming in your minds:  Am I about to make this an issue during the homily next Sunday? Am I going to mentally judge people’s dress as I greet them at the door after Mass? As an adherent of Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, I am above such actions. Besides, Miss Manners wouldn’t approve.

 

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. By permission of The Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City.

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26 comments

  1. Pope Francis’ recent proposal about ecumenism, that “we walk together in a reconciled diversity” (NCR Online 2014-01-31) seems to me to be a good guideline when it comes to clothing and church too.

    I think my church embraces those who are smart and those in working or everyday clothes without prejudice. I’m not sure the African example cited is easy to follow everywhere. I do not know where I can find smart clothes in my city, and dressing up for me means occasionally wearing precious older clothes and being fairly passive in them. It would stop me from walking (mud) or cycling (grease) to church, and would make it difficult to carry a load of hymn books and guitars (needs a rucksack or panniers). By avoiding going by car, I am making a minute contribution to maintaining the beauty of our planet (and perhaps my own).

    My most beautiful top is in fact a brightly coloured present from an African, though I think it might look a bit odd on an ordinary Sunday at Mass in the UK.

  2. ” I don’t have the slightest clue why this is the case.”

    Perhaps what some suburban Americans in untucked golf shirts express is their aristocracy of leisure. Perhaps the tie and suit coat is more representative of a culture of corporate enslavement. And why would men wear their chains to liturgy?

    The reason, perhaps, why poor people might dress up is that, obviously, their 9-to-5 oppression wears a different uniform.

    In my campus parish, I note the hardcore Catholic students do indeed dress up. If a man is wearing a tie, it is almost certainly an undergraduate. Do things like that change trying to wrangle a spouse and children to church? Time will tell. It’s probably worth looking at leisure, class, and the meaning of clothing.

    For those prepared to campaign for a well-dressed parish, good luck with that. I’d love to see it.

  3. Pass out albs to every person at the door, problem solved. Of course that would never fly in our individualistic culture, but a liturgist can dream!

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #3:
      Great idea! A continuation of the baptismal garment. But you are correct, it won’t ever happen.

      On another note:

      I must chortle about the jacket and tie symbolizing “corporate enslavement and oppression”. Forgive me for not being an aristocrat, for I only grew up in a poor, dangerous minority neighborhood surrounded by dynamic pockets of bohemian culture. How one dressed spoke volumes.

      1. @Manuel Albino – comment #5:
        Oh, I agree with your chortle. Personally, I prefer a tie with shirt or a sport coat over a nice shirt, or a nice sweater in the winter. People indeed speak volumes in how they dress.

        But Western society has been turned upside down in the past two generations. Totally, And many times. There are reasons why leisure dress wins these days in churches–even “poor” churches. If a pastor doesn’t understand it (and I’m not saying I understand it either–far from it) he’s never going to be able to speak to it. Let alone have a prayer of changing it.

        I much prefer to see women in dresses or guys with dress shirts tucked in. But I confess these are personal preferences. My Sunday does not sink or swim based on what other people wear.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #7:
        Todd,

        You’re certainly entitled to your preferences,And I’m glad your Sunday doesn’t hinge on other people’s clothing, but have you ever worn a dress or skirt, and hose, with or without high heels? In winter, please, complete with slush and ice. And wind. Must not forget the wind. Lots of wind. Very gusty wind.

        There are some really good, practical reasons to avoid such garments, even before we consider fashion preferences. . .

      3. @Lynn Thomas – comment #24:
        Lynn:
        I normally wear skirts to Sunday Mass, but I do not wear them when there is snow on the ground . One can be respectful and sensible at the same time.

  4. Since I retired, I wear cargo pants with their many pockets everywhere. They are my everyday best. Not about to abandon them.

    I think we should all wear prayer shawls in church. Some of the people in our local parishes are doing them as gifts for the elderly. You can find many books with elegant designs. (We should of course avoid the properly made prayer shawls worn by Jewish men out of respect for their religion). I have a nice collection of prayer shawls for wearing during the winter to church.

    Another alternative are ponchos. I have a wonderful collection of very beautiful ones from this native arts website
    http://www.handicraft-bolivia.com/Men-Ponchos-c57
    There are ones for women that are very similar to the men’s.

    If any of the local pastors ever become so foolish to advocate Sunday best, I have my ponchos ready!!! BTW, if you buy any, the Alpaca and Llama wool smell the least, but if you buy the sheep wool, you will really smell like a sheep!

    Both prayer shawls and ponchos are great for out individualistic culture. I don’t like albs, cassocks or surplices. I like my cargo pants and their pockets to be readily available. Prayer shawls and ponchos can also be easily be folded, and carried over your arm or shoulder, and put on inside church and then taken off before leaving.

  5. Here in the northwest, yesterday’s Sunday outfits included many Seahawks jerseys. One presider’s chair was draped with the team logo, with team flags included in the recessional procession. But I think there is hope. It seems that people still have a sense of the sacred at weddings and funerals, and so folks will still dress accordingly. The pastoral challenge is to restore the sense of Sunday and its liturgy as sacred time.

  6. @Jack Rakosky: (Love the website)!

    I agree about the need to dress up for Sunday liturgy. Our parish prepares a spectacular liturgy, so it seems proper and respectful to dress up. But, I notice that I “dress down” for the weekday Mass that is held in the lower (basement) chapel…

  7. It’s bad enough at present – “Did you see what she had on this morning….”or “fancy wearing that to church”
    Advocate ‘Sunday best’ and it will be a recipe for one-upmanship . Mantillas next? No thanks.

  8. I prefer casual. It does not have anything to do with laziness, and neither is it a stance against the corporate world. I dress more formally for Christmas and Easter, as is custom around me and comfortable for me.

    Sunday best makes no sense for me. Mass is not special, “the greatest action possible on the earth”. That is a sales pitch which the good Lord does not need. I find Mass to be incredibly ordinary and normal. It is not unusual to worship Jesus, to break bread in community and in remembrance, to sing praise. Mass is very much like breathing when it is right for me. So why would I gussie up to see my Brother who knows me better than I know myself? Just whom am I trying to kid here? By the way, that’s the same reason I don’t drive a fancy sports car. There is only one person who would be fooled into believing that I am cool.

    I’ll point out that the early church did not reverence the Sabbath. Instead, the fathers distinguished our laws and customs from Jewish laws by noting that all seven days are all the Lord’s. Our own seventh day reverence comes later.

    I certainly do not wish to denigrate those who feel comfortable in Sunday finery. Go and worship as you are led. Assuming we are in community, I’d hope you know my faith enough to see past the clothes, or just ask.

    PS My rule is no logos. No advertising for anyone else in the Lord’s house.

    1. @Matt Connolly – comment #11:
      A very wise comment.

      Mass is not special, “the greatest action possible on the earth”. That is a sales pitch which the good Lord does not need.

      reminded me of Psalm 50 (49)

      v.8 I find no fault with your sacrifices,
      your offerings are always before me.
      v. 9 I do not ask more bullocks from your farms,
      nor goats from among your herds.
      v. 12 Were I hungry, I would not tell you,
      for I own the world and all it holds.
      v. 13 Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls,
      or drink the blood of goats?

      Much of our concerns about the formal rubrics and the informal etiquette of the Mass is about our selves. We are only fooling ourselves not God. God may be very tolerant of that foolishness, but challenges us to look beyond it.

  9. I recall watching a movie from the 1930s (it matters not which one) that in one scene depicted some upper-crust New Yorkers going to church on Sunday. The men were wearing their best–which meant morning coats and top hats, not business suits (this was in a time when those sort of people understood the distinction between day wear and evening wear, between white tie and black tie, etc.). The point being that Sunday was not a work day–and they dressed accordingly.

    Fast-forward a few years to the Decade that Taste Forgot (1975?), and the average white-collar-salaryman who wears a suit to work every day might not want to treat Sunday as just another workday–and might dress accordingly, formal daywear having gone out of fashion. Ergo, jeans and t-shirts.

    Times do change. Today’s salaryman is more likely to be in a khakis-and-polo-shirt workplace Monday to Friday, and one might hope that he is more amenable to dressing up for Mass. But I don’t hold out much hope.

    This may also vary by locality. I occasionally attend Mass at a parish in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, and there the parishioners generally appear (to me) to be much better–and more formally–dressed than out in the ‘burbs. (and no, this particular parish is not a redoubt of fiddlebacks and mantillas)

  10. I know I’ve argued this before, but as far as I can tell by reading parish bulletins hither and yon, we spend far more time on the “what to wear to Mass” issue than on the “how to prepare to listen to the readings” or “where did that line in the proper come from.”

    Do we recommend that people look at the (now) unfamiliar (and sometimes difficult to parse) prayers before they come to Mass? What resources do we give them to prepare prayerful and fruitfully to fully and actively celebrate the Eucharist?

    I’d much rather encounter such as this in the bulletin than a dress code. Maybe if we signal in this way the richness of the feast set before us, people might dress up more.

  11. White American men used to wear suits, ties and hats as regular dress for appearing in public. We no longer do. One rule of thumb might be: dress for mass as you’d dress for a public appearance, whether that means going to visit a client, going to a restaurant, appearing for jury duty. If men are wearing polo shirts and khaki dockers, or jackets but no neckties for such things, then that’s what respectable looks like these days.

  12. Btw, I think there are really two separate “dressing-up” issues, one a men’s issue and the other a women’s issue. The men’s issue (and it’s mostly a young men’s issue) is: stop coming to church looking like a slob. The women’s issue (and it’s mostly a young women’s issue) is: stop coming to church looking like you’re on a date.

  13. When I saw Monsignor’s headline, I thought I knew what to expect and knew I’d be in opposition. But his post is charming, and it makes good points. But I still knew my rebuttal. Then I read the many thoughtful responses above.

    And talk about “inculturation”! Much of my ministry was spent in university-related parishes. The students showed up to Mass in their weekend wear. If they had had to dress up, not only, one feels sure, would fewer of them have made it, but they couldn’t have invited their fraternity brothers or whatever, to pause the ping-pong game or study hour to join them. So I thought I knew how I felt about dress.

    Then I worked in a Washington parish where I knew young people (in the CIA) who were outraged by worshipers showing up in shorts. I think the post above about people not wearing their slave uniforms to church might have applied there.

    And the person who sees a sense of the sacred emerging at weddings and funerals I (who have done music for around 1,500 of each) think is missing the point. They don’t dress up for the Lord or the Holy Mysteries, but for the betrothed (or the party) or the deceased and survivors. So I think that one falls, as regards liturgical norms.

    In many of our cultures during past centuries, Sunday was a valued day of leisure and feast. Laboring families finally got to dress in clothes inappropriate for manual lab, spent much of the day in special family dinners or visiting, and wore the clothes to church.

    My present parish church overlooks the Mediterranean, and the typical way to spend a Sunday with family and friends is on the unbelievably beautiful beaches below, enjoying sea and sky, or sitting in cafés facing all that. Retiring to church either before or after that with modified attire is not an act of irreverence, but one of including the liturgy in a day not completely non-analogous to that of the working-class people in their own weekly festivity.

    In the end, I reckon we all just need to live and let live. Diversity is not a foreign value…

    1. @Roger Evans – comment #19:
      I agree. I’m all for dressing in a way that respects the assembly and its various members, in whom Christ dwells. This is precisely why people still tend to wear something a bit more formal for funerals and weddings, confirmations, etc. Attention to vesture is an important ritual component of any important human exchange. The problem is that fashions change, and “more” formal” is often in the eye of the beholder. It’s ironic that people in the Sunday assembly might be fine with the person next to them in jeans and a team shirt, but would be quite uncomfortable with the presiding priest wearing his leaf-raking outfit.

  14. I have labored mightily at times to motivate those who minister at and around the altar to dress for the occasion. I used to think this meant that servers should not be wearing tennis shoes (sneakers) until I learned that lots of young people don’t own any other kind of shoes. I thought that dresses or pant suits for women and suits and ties for readers and communion ministers was perfectly reasonable until it became clear that this was inhibiting people from being willing to serve in these roles. The custom evolved into why not just “dress up” a bit and don’t wear bluejeans. I sometimes (only rarely) get complaints from parishioners objecting to young girls dressed too scantily for their standard of modesty. But to be honest, I really don’t notice a lot of that. On a few occasions I have stated that “dressing up” for Mass is a good idea and is consistent with the practice of wearing differing types of clothing depending on the event. People don’t wear swimwear to the mountains, nor skiware at the beach. They “dress up” for job interviews and for special dinners, so why not for Mass? But I avoid specifics and I always add that all are welcome including, as the scripture says, those who might be attired in rags. Overall, I think our folks do very well with this.
    All of this said and done, God does not “gather us in” for a fashion show. Rather he wishes to fashion us after his own heart and seems always willing to be with us however we may be clothed. He wants us to be clothed with compassion and heartfelt kindness, no? (As Pope Francis might put it).

  15. This has been a raging debate among the DREs of my diocese for a while, especially as it applies to Confirmation. Some think the kids can never be trusted to “dress right” and put them in robes. Others think that dressing them in what looks like a graduation robe and sending them down an aisle looks and feels a lot like graduation – even though we say it isn’t.

    But one DRE has taken considerable time and energy to use the discussion with the teens to talk about the many meanings of clothes. The kids talk about what “appropriate” may or may not be in terms of attire and the showing off or hiding of their bodies. They actually do have a “fashion show” before Confirmation for each other to ensure they are all comfortable in how they will be “vested” for their Sacrament.

    I’ll tell you – they look great! No parish pictures look better than the ones in which there is no dress code, but in which the participants themselves have wrestled with these questions of meaning and choice over a period of time. And it has long term consequences. Those kids look “appropriate” and even “dressed up” every week.

    Where each community lands on this may be a bit different. But printing dress codes is an imposition that many will resist. Inviting folks to the journey of conversion takes a lot more work – and has a much better ROI.

  16. Monsignor Mannion was my pastor at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.
    While volunteers were preparing bag lunches for the Good Samaritan program which provides help to those in need, a cathedral employee made a less than charitable comment to one of the volunteers. A few minutes later Msgr. Mannion came downstairs and apologized to the volunteers, assured them that it wouldn’t happen again and thanked them for their service.
    The Cathedral parish is a very diverse group of people. The well-to-do worship next to the homeless – and talk to them.
    I’m pretty sure that Msgr. Mannion simply means that we should do our best to show respect for the Lord by dressing appropriately.
    Why is it that people have to take everything to the extreme when they comment? He’s not suggesting that everyone where top hats and tails.

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