Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why I Still Dress Up for Church

As a child, I had Sunday clothes. The distinction was massive in my elementary school years, when I was a tomboy who kept her hair as short as her parents would allow and who hated wearing dresses. So putting on a dress to go to church was a big deal. The difference was less dramatic once I grew my hair back out and started wearing something besides sweatpants and t-shirts. But I still dressed up.

I remember the first time I wore jeans to church. It was mildly traumatic. I can count on one hand the number of times I've worn jeans to church. I'm sure a lot of my aversion to doing so comes from my family's deep Southern and Christian roots--my grandparents are always dressed to the T, my mother has indefatigable fashion sense, and my dad's a pastor (and not the kind that wears jeans and graphic T's), so he kinda has to dress nicely. I can just see my mother's or grandmother's face (and hear my grandfather's remarks) if they ever saw me at church in jeans.

I don't have a problem with people in general dressing down for church. I emphatically believe that the church should welcome people as they are. I just went clothes shopping; I know how much it costs to maintain a "nice" wardrobe, and I know that in many churches I've attended, plenty of people can't afford that. And I know the dangers of dress code expectations--I've been in churches that felt like highfalutin social clubs, and I spent a lot of time in high school worrying that my Sunday clothes weren't stylish enough compared to the girls in my youth group.

But my dad told me something about a community in Bayonnais, Haiti, that struck me. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, according to the Human Development Index. Bayonnais is the poorest part of Haiti. But at the church to which my dad's church is connected through missions and outreach, all the men come to worship in suits. My dad, who had prepared for the heat of early summer on a visit last year, felt under-dressed in his shirt and tie. There was nothing self-important about these people's church attire; they dressed this way because church was important to them, and they wanted to offer their best to God.

I still dress up for church partly because I am often in leadership positions (and will be more regularly as time goes on), partly because that's how I was raised, and partly because there's something in me, old-fashioned though it may be, that wants to show a modicum of respect and attention to the church and to God. Maybe the people in Bayonnais would be better off buying food than buying a suit; but maybe they are like the widow with two coins:

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." -- Luke 21:1-4

I don't have to make decisions like the people of Bayonnais. Anything I give, I give out of my wealth. It's easy for me to decide what part of me to give to God and what part to keep for myself. I don't want to romanticize poverty (see this post), and I'm not one to impose a dress code on others (though I will dress my boyfriend, and if your teenager is wearing something inappropriate--to church or anywhere, really--I might say something).

I guess I'm wondering what other people think. Does anyone really think about what they wear to church anymore? If we do, what are our considerations--respect, comfort, stylishness, attractiveness, or something else?

6 comments:

Leif said...

Thank you so much for this post, Sarah!

This is something I have been thinking about for a long time as I, too, am someone who "still dresses up for church" which may come as a surprise as I'm usually dressed down in public. Over the past few years, even in my home church in rural North Dakota Lutheran church, I am often the only one in the congregation church wearing a tie.

I loved the reference to the Haitian people dressing up and I think this conversation intersects with larger discussions about fashion and society. Personally, I wish people still dressed up - not just for church but for other significant events as well so as to outwardly recognize that their life is not "flat." That is to say, dressing up recognizes that not all events in one's life have the same meaning.

To me, dressing up for church is a way of recognizing that the time/place of Church is a fundamentally different kind of time/place (one thinks instantly of course of Mircea Eliade "Sacred and Profane") than all other times during my week. Put another way, dressing up recognizes church as a "heterotopia/heterotempora," to borrow Foucault's phrasing.

Also, I am reminded just now of one of Paul Tillich's last books, "The irrelevance and relevance of the Christian message." Its super short and discusses how the church is always located within opposite poles of tension. On the one hand, church is apart from culture and must not let the larger culture dictate its style and activities (I'm paraphasing of course). On the other hand, the church is pulled in the direction of assimiliation with culture. One pole is separateness, the other is unity.

Now, the danger with the first pole is that the church becomes isolated, insular, and out of touch. The danger with the second pole is that the church effectively prostitutes itself to the larger culture, whoring itself out to remain "popular."

And I for one think we have to ask ourselves whether or not pastors sporting graphic Ts (and the like) are not just a bit too close to this second pole, at least in some cases, as it sure looks to me like such pastors are trying to make themselves look sufficiently "hip" so that younger folk will show up and church and finally swallow that damn Jesus pill.


To speak regarding my home church for a moment now: It is amazing to me that in a church, which is overwhelming composed of politically conservative people (a Lutheran church in rural ND), dressing down has now become a standard part of that political ensemble. Even though dressing down started as a liberal reaction to conservatives in the culture wars of the 60s.

As a last note - and in regards to my thoughts above - the levelling off of all people/experiences as the same (something that I think refusing to dress up effectively communicates, at least symbolically) is what Nietzsche noted as the worst of democracy. That is to say, that everything and everyone gets reduced to being "the same," an equality that in the end is not liberating at all, but quite the reverse!

Which is to say that it reduces difference and makes gifts invisible in the quest to render everything equal to everything else. In the end, then, the problem is that all colors are made to turn to beige.

Of course, democracy is great in many ways but he was recognizing that it is an idea, like us as humans, that has the potential to become pathological (sinful) nonetheless.

Hope you're having a good day!

Onward!

Leif

Leif said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leif said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Airgood said...

I work with two other missionaries in Ukraine, and our unspoken practice is for two of us to be dressed up and one of us to be dressed down, so that everyone feels that their selection of clothing is appropriate for the service. I'm usually the one who is dressed down.

Robert Fischer said...

One of the Quaker witnesses is to "plain dress", which the Durham Friends Meeting seems to interpret as some combination of "modest", "clean", and "relatively drab". Personally, I live life in business casual, because I appreciate being able to be dropped into pretty much any non-sports context and feel like I'm not terribly out of place.

I have a friend who is an orthodox Jew, and I asked him about wearing his kippah (yarmulke) indoors and outside of prayer. I had other Jewish friends who wore their kippah for church services and when they were outside (often covered in other hats), so seeing him wear it indoors seemed odd. He explained: "I believe God can see through my roof." When it comes to clothing, I tend to think that I should wear church-style dress at all times, because I believe God can see beyond the walls of the sanctuary.

Now, that said, I also think there's something to special occasions and dress codes. People behave better when they are dressed nicer: this was something experienced very directly in my undergraduate fraternity, which instituted dress codes for fraternity business meetings and it really changed the tone of the meeting for the better.

Also, there's something about the connection between authority and dress which is built into the human psyche. If you're dressed casually, pretenses of authority just doesn't work. This is what I experienced in the freemasons, where the officers of the lodge were required to dress in tuxedos on most official occasions. It was striking how that played out psychologically and ritualistically.

So I don't know exactly what I believe. I'm certain that on this point, I've got all kinds of religious incongruences (as Chaves would put it). But those are some experiences and thoughts I've had around this topic: hope they're interesting.

Robert Fischer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why I Still Dress Up for Church

As a child, I had Sunday clothes. The distinction was massive in my elementary school years, when I was a tomboy who kept her hair as short as her parents would allow and who hated wearing dresses. So putting on a dress to go to church was a big deal. The difference was less dramatic once I grew my hair back out and started wearing something besides sweatpants and t-shirts. But I still dressed up.

I remember the first time I wore jeans to church. It was mildly traumatic. I can count on one hand the number of times I've worn jeans to church. I'm sure a lot of my aversion to doing so comes from my family's deep Southern and Christian roots--my grandparents are always dressed to the T, my mother has indefatigable fashion sense, and my dad's a pastor (and not the kind that wears jeans and graphic T's), so he kinda has to dress nicely. I can just see my mother's or grandmother's face (and hear my grandfather's remarks) if they ever saw me at church in jeans.

I don't have a problem with people in general dressing down for church. I emphatically believe that the church should welcome people as they are. I just went clothes shopping; I know how much it costs to maintain a "nice" wardrobe, and I know that in many churches I've attended, plenty of people can't afford that. And I know the dangers of dress code expectations--I've been in churches that felt like highfalutin social clubs, and I spent a lot of time in high school worrying that my Sunday clothes weren't stylish enough compared to the girls in my youth group.

But my dad told me something about a community in Bayonnais, Haiti, that struck me. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, according to the Human Development Index. Bayonnais is the poorest part of Haiti. But at the church to which my dad's church is connected through missions and outreach, all the men come to worship in suits. My dad, who had prepared for the heat of early summer on a visit last year, felt under-dressed in his shirt and tie. There was nothing self-important about these people's church attire; they dressed this way because church was important to them, and they wanted to offer their best to God.

I still dress up for church partly because I am often in leadership positions (and will be more regularly as time goes on), partly because that's how I was raised, and partly because there's something in me, old-fashioned though it may be, that wants to show a modicum of respect and attention to the church and to God. Maybe the people in Bayonnais would be better off buying food than buying a suit; but maybe they are like the widow with two coins:

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." -- Luke 21:1-4

I don't have to make decisions like the people of Bayonnais. Anything I give, I give out of my wealth. It's easy for me to decide what part of me to give to God and what part to keep for myself. I don't want to romanticize poverty (see this post), and I'm not one to impose a dress code on others (though I will dress my boyfriend, and if your teenager is wearing something inappropriate--to church or anywhere, really--I might say something).

I guess I'm wondering what other people think. Does anyone really think about what they wear to church anymore? If we do, what are our considerations--respect, comfort, stylishness, attractiveness, or something else?

6 comments:

Leif said...

Thank you so much for this post, Sarah!

This is something I have been thinking about for a long time as I, too, am someone who "still dresses up for church" which may come as a surprise as I'm usually dressed down in public. Over the past few years, even in my home church in rural North Dakota Lutheran church, I am often the only one in the congregation church wearing a tie.

I loved the reference to the Haitian people dressing up and I think this conversation intersects with larger discussions about fashion and society. Personally, I wish people still dressed up - not just for church but for other significant events as well so as to outwardly recognize that their life is not "flat." That is to say, dressing up recognizes that not all events in one's life have the same meaning.

To me, dressing up for church is a way of recognizing that the time/place of Church is a fundamentally different kind of time/place (one thinks instantly of course of Mircea Eliade "Sacred and Profane") than all other times during my week. Put another way, dressing up recognizes church as a "heterotopia/heterotempora," to borrow Foucault's phrasing.

Also, I am reminded just now of one of Paul Tillich's last books, "The irrelevance and relevance of the Christian message." Its super short and discusses how the church is always located within opposite poles of tension. On the one hand, church is apart from culture and must not let the larger culture dictate its style and activities (I'm paraphasing of course). On the other hand, the church is pulled in the direction of assimiliation with culture. One pole is separateness, the other is unity.

Now, the danger with the first pole is that the church becomes isolated, insular, and out of touch. The danger with the second pole is that the church effectively prostitutes itself to the larger culture, whoring itself out to remain "popular."

And I for one think we have to ask ourselves whether or not pastors sporting graphic Ts (and the like) are not just a bit too close to this second pole, at least in some cases, as it sure looks to me like such pastors are trying to make themselves look sufficiently "hip" so that younger folk will show up and church and finally swallow that damn Jesus pill.


To speak regarding my home church for a moment now: It is amazing to me that in a church, which is overwhelming composed of politically conservative people (a Lutheran church in rural ND), dressing down has now become a standard part of that political ensemble. Even though dressing down started as a liberal reaction to conservatives in the culture wars of the 60s.

As a last note - and in regards to my thoughts above - the levelling off of all people/experiences as the same (something that I think refusing to dress up effectively communicates, at least symbolically) is what Nietzsche noted as the worst of democracy. That is to say, that everything and everyone gets reduced to being "the same," an equality that in the end is not liberating at all, but quite the reverse!

Which is to say that it reduces difference and makes gifts invisible in the quest to render everything equal to everything else. In the end, then, the problem is that all colors are made to turn to beige.

Of course, democracy is great in many ways but he was recognizing that it is an idea, like us as humans, that has the potential to become pathological (sinful) nonetheless.

Hope you're having a good day!

Onward!

Leif

Leif said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leif said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Airgood said...

I work with two other missionaries in Ukraine, and our unspoken practice is for two of us to be dressed up and one of us to be dressed down, so that everyone feels that their selection of clothing is appropriate for the service. I'm usually the one who is dressed down.

Robert Fischer said...

One of the Quaker witnesses is to "plain dress", which the Durham Friends Meeting seems to interpret as some combination of "modest", "clean", and "relatively drab". Personally, I live life in business casual, because I appreciate being able to be dropped into pretty much any non-sports context and feel like I'm not terribly out of place.

I have a friend who is an orthodox Jew, and I asked him about wearing his kippah (yarmulke) indoors and outside of prayer. I had other Jewish friends who wore their kippah for church services and when they were outside (often covered in other hats), so seeing him wear it indoors seemed odd. He explained: "I believe God can see through my roof." When it comes to clothing, I tend to think that I should wear church-style dress at all times, because I believe God can see beyond the walls of the sanctuary.

Now, that said, I also think there's something to special occasions and dress codes. People behave better when they are dressed nicer: this was something experienced very directly in my undergraduate fraternity, which instituted dress codes for fraternity business meetings and it really changed the tone of the meeting for the better.

Also, there's something about the connection between authority and dress which is built into the human psyche. If you're dressed casually, pretenses of authority just doesn't work. This is what I experienced in the freemasons, where the officers of the lodge were required to dress in tuxedos on most official occasions. It was striking how that played out psychologically and ritualistically.

So I don't know exactly what I believe. I'm certain that on this point, I've got all kinds of religious incongruences (as Chaves would put it). But those are some experiences and thoughts I've had around this topic: hope they're interesting.

Robert Fischer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
 

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