Friday, 1 July 2016

Sunday Best

It's Polski Piątek, so I must think of some Polish theme. Meanwhile, Catholic World Report has this to say about dressing for church. It must be summer.

A combox warrior wants to know when women's arms became disrespectful or suggestive, so I lunged:

Women's shoulders and upper arms are considered highly suggestive in many cultures, and were so in our own until the 20th century. When high society Catholic women in Quebec were told that they had to wear the shoulder-baring dresses of the Edwardian period to meet the then Prince of Wales, Catholic Quebeckers were furious.
You'll have noticed that men are also bound by modesty conventions. Frankly, most centuries of Europeans and Americans would be astonished that their descendants, male and female, walk around in little more than what they would think of as underwear. But of course we are more comfortable and it's so much more convenient, comfort and convenience between the twin idols of our everyday life.

Blood Sugar Diet notwithstanding, I could get into my one suitable-for-funerals dress yesterday only with the aid of a foundation garment. I was not comfortable, but I offered it up as penance. I wanted to show my deep respect for the Deceased with my very appearance. As my one pair of dark dress heels have a colourful pattern, I waged an interior war over whether or not to keep on my black rubber boots or put on my shoes. In the end, I thought rubber boots were more inappropriate than the shoes in church, but more appropriate than the shoes for the graveside. What mattered, of course, was not the footwear in itself, but the desire not to give offense.

Outside of my family I occasionally heard people say, quite piously and in a superior tone, "God doesn't care what I wear to church." I don't know where they came up with this idea; it's certainly not in Scripture. Our Lord Himself tells a parable about a wedding guest who is chucked out of the banqueting hall for not honouring the dress code. Saint Paul famously gave the Corinthian women, at very least, a church fashion tip.

Although we were not a traditionalist family, my mother and her daughters all wore hats to church every Sunday for years and years, much to the amusement of another clan, who called us "The Hat Family." Their mirth seems a bit odd to me now;  covered female heads were the norm in Canadian Catholicism until V2 and the parents would have known that. However, the 1980s were a time of collective amnesia about the liturgical past. We were aware that our downtown Cathedral was built in the mid-19th century, but we didn't have the foggiest what Mass looked like then.

Years later, when I was in theology school, a woman asked me after our weekly Wednesday liturgy if there was some significance to my wearing hat during it. It wasn't what I would call a hat; it was just a beret. As I was in those days violating Paul's thoughts on women speaking during Mass, I wasn't wedded to his commandment regarding our heads, either. I just thought not having to take your beret off for Mass was a bonus for being female.  Nevertheless, I was nettled at this personal question.

"It's keeping my head warm," quoth I.

In Saint Peter's Basilica many years after that, an officious security guard who apparently spoke neither English nor Italian made me take off my straw hat before I was allowed to pray at St. John Paul II's tomb. I remonstrated-- "Ma io sono una donna!" -- but he insisted. ("He was stupid," said a Vatican insider to me later, with simultaneous violence and resignation, as if the stupidity of SPB security guards is so vast as to be criminal and so contagious that it extends to them all.)

Therefore, I have to say that I have never been criticized for wearing too little to Mass, only for wearing too much.

When it comes to daily mass or special evening masses, I struggled with this in my early teens--I thought just entering a church wearing jeans might be disrespectful--and I came up with a compromise. I wouldn't let what I was wearing prevent me from going into a church during the week to pray or attend a daily mass, but I would never wear jeans or equally casual clothing to Sunday Mass. Now this is not a problem at all, as I have voluntarily given up jeans, shorts and miniskirts as inappropriate to my age and traditional beliefs--except during a laundry crisis, in which I may shamefully don the Jeans of Modern Mediocrity. Thus, whenever I pass by an open church, I am almost always wearing something appropriate.

I often reflect, when the Sunday Best fight breaks out in summer, that the poorer of our ancestors sometimes had only two outfits--if they were merely poor and not absolutely destitute--their work clothes and their Sunday Best. They were very proud of their Sunday Best and took good care of it. This is a huge contrast to today when even a freelancing hippy like myself has a closet and chest of drawers bursting with clothes and yet few people can be bothered to wear a decent suit or frock to Sunday Mass. And there is no point anymore snarling about how people dress up for a classical concert or the theatre because today people (in Edinburgh at least) will dress down for that. (Polski Piątek Note: Poles in Krakow dress beautifully for the theatre.)

I think also of a Yahoo News snippet in which a woman complained that other women gave her a hard time for wearing what looks like black and orange tensor bandages to a wedding. Thus I can't even say "We all dress up for weddings to show respect." In fact, we decreasingly wear clothes as a mark of respect to anyone; it is all about looking cool or sexy, unless we are in court, in which we are, if we are the Prisoner, trying to look respectable.

All this is quite apart from the whole modesty fuss, on which I do not feel entirely qualified to speak. I am conscious, however, that when I wear a sleeveless dress to the TLM, I would be the only woman there with bare shoulders if I took off my jacket or cardigan. This might distract people behind me, not because I would be irresistibly sexy but because I would stand out. 

Meanwhile, the older I get, the more I am struck by the beauty of very athletic, highly muscled young men jogging past wearing a sleeveless T-shirt with the word "Army" or some such. If any men like that show up to the TLM, I am glad they disguise the fact with layers of cotton, wool and tweed. I have joked that there is nothing sexier than an expensive suit, but I'm too old and married to be thrilled by earning-potential.


  1. I wear a beret and gloves at Mass, but to be honest, it's only because it's winter here and I am permanently freezing cold. Seems to be a problem only I have. Plenty of women at Mass seem fine without wearing the two million layers I deem necessary for my very survival.

  2. Ha ha, nothing sexier than an expensive suit! It is winter here at the moment and quite a few of the guys turned up to Mass in their suits.
    (They all looked fantastic) when chatting afterwards we were commenting on how nice they all looked - we were truly impressed. One young husband said he felt very much under-dressed because he had a coat instead of a suit jacket.
    Yes, suits are very sexy.. ;)

  3. You're in Adelaide though, aren't you, Clare? I thought you guys are lucky enough to not get a winter!

    1. In Perth, but yes, cold here is anything under about 20!

  4. I think you hit on an important point. It is about showing respect. That changes within cultural context. Shoulders are considered suggestive in India, but a midriff baring sari is normal dress. Short sleeves in the height of summer is normal in the U.S. but several heads would turn if someone exposed their midriff!

    On another note, Julia and Clare, how cold is cold in an Australian winter? I'm going to Perth next month. Sweater weather?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Keep an eye on this page:

      That's warm clothing weather for me but I'm not sure what you're used to!

    3. It's cold mainly because we don't have central heating. Nights drop to around 0 and days can be from 16-20-ish?
      Warm clothes for morning/evening and inside old churches for sure. I have been wearing a skirt and jumper all week and it's been fairly sunny

  5. Sometimes clothing conventions change with startling speed. Not that long ago (in the late 1990s) it was still not acceptable in Washington DC offices for women to wear trousers at all, or to skip hose, even in hot weather. Yet within the next 5 years, that had changed. The rise of (usually male) technical staff who flatly refused to wear suits, ever, and demanded casual Fridays where they could be even more underdressed, made it easier for women to do the same as a matter of fairness.

    Ottawa was never, within my memory, as formal as DC, but an ambitious woman in the 1990s was well-advised not to wear trousers to the office. That's not true any more. I don't know about London or European capitals. I would guess that Asian financial centres like Hong Kong or Tokyo are still quite formal but don't know.

    All that, of course, doesn't have much to do with church-going clothes, but it does influence people's general attitude towards clothing.

    Alias Clio

  6. Because I can't resist: there were certainly many feisty Quebec women of the 17th century who had to be lecture and commanded by the bishop to stop showing off their shoulders in church, and to let down their skirts which they had bustled up over their knees in order to keep them clean when traversing the muddy countryside. Nothing's new under the sun.
    I've noticed that particularly in some TLM communities, they don't really dress any better than regular parishes. There are many who will wear jeans or more casual clothes to Sunday Mass. But I like your point about wearing clothes to honour someone - now it seems all about the need to 'express yourself' which is an argument often heard from petulant teenagers against uniforms.