Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
When news reporters cover a royal event in England, they are required to respect the proper dress code for formal occasions in the presence of the Queen. Those casually dressed are not admitted. Even in the relaxed atmosphere of the United States, there is still observed a proper dress code on certain occasions. For example, visitors observing the workings of the Supreme Court are told that they are not to wear inappropriate clothing.
For all practical purposes, however, Americans have adopted a very informal dress code. Except for state dinners, the Academy Awards and some weddings and funerals, America has gone casual. Even corporate America has lessened its rules for business dress every day. Whether traveling by plane or shopping at the local supermarket, people dress for comfort first. The relaxed, even rumpled look greets us everywhere.
The way we gesture with our hands, how we stand or sit and most certainly our facial expressions are all forms of non-verbal communication to those around us. And, so are clothes. Clothes communicate just as much as our words. The way we dress speaks volumes to others.
Long before we greet others, they see us. They notice how we are dressed. Already, our clothes are sending a message. They let others know whether we wish to be identified as male or female. They indicate our social position in the community. By the quality of our clothes, others can quickly assess whether we are poor or rich. But, there is more.
Clothes also signal our attitudes and values. Clean and unwrinkled, they show pride in self. Bright and festive, they show joy. Dark and sombre, they signal sadness. And, if their fit is close and scanty, clothes inevitably exude sexuality.
Sometimes individuals dress to conceal their body. Others, quite the opposite. Hem lines rise and fall, often with the temperature. Necklines plunge or climb. Waistlines expand and contract. Styles of clothes change from season to season, from occasion to occasion. With styles so quickly changing, it becomes more and more imperative to ask whether or not there can ever be a standard to judge the proper attire for church.
For those who attend church today, the informal, relaxed style of dressing has become most common. Flip-flops, shorts, sweatpants, T shirts, strapless dresses and skirts far above the knees are not uncommon for Sunday Mass. Even for the formal, once-in-a-lifetime occasion of a baptism or confirmation, there has been a wholesale buy-in to styles that, for their brevity, seem better suited to the beach or the nightclub!
It is a mistake to think that clothes do not matter. They do. Clothes can create an attitude. Uniforms, such as a police officer’s or a nurse’s, generate respect and safety. Our choices influence others, sending them clear messages about ourselves.
When we come to church, we come together with others. What do totally casual clothes say about our belief in God, our respect for his house or our own understanding of what true worship is all about? Dressing modestly for church never draws attention to self but leaves others focused on God, the center of all our worship. At what point is clothing simply too relaxed, too provocative, too revealing or too body-oriented for church? Is it even possible today to expect that modesty sets the standard for church attire?