Why some of us have a special set of clothes for church
While perusing my wardrobe recently – doing a Marie Kondo on it – I realized I still have a category I call church clothes. It reminded me of the three neat categories I had growing up in the 1960s – one set for school, another for play and another for church.
I’m not alone in having special church clothes. A friend lamented that lockdowns prevented church, which was the only place she dressed up for. Wondering if more people had the same wardrobe silos, I hit Google and opened the door on vigorous debates about what to wear to church. Thousands of people weighed in on dressing up versus dressing down, citing Scripture and research and anecdotes.
There were even websites selling church outfits.
This is not a recent phenomenon. Scripture has much to say about clothing, with 1 Timothy 2:9 suggesting "women should adorn themselves … with modesty … not with … gold or pearls or costly attire." In 1 Peter 3:4 we’re told to "Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart" (ESV).
Picking up from the earliest Christians, Clement of Alexandria advised women of the 2nd century to dress modestly and without "raiment."
After Christianity became an accepted and acceptable part of society – thanks to Constantine’s approval – church clothes followed fashion. What you wore depended on your social and economic status, particularly in medieval times. In fact, the poor of those days likely had only one change of clothing, while high-ranking, wealthy church members dressed as fancy and extravagantly as royalty.
Writing about the interaction between religion, culture and dress, Washington State University professor Linda Arthur says, "Dress can be a window into the social world, which is bound by a tacit set of rules, customs, conventions and rituals."
Clothing also reflected the religious mood of the day, she points out.
During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, early leaders used dress as a symbol of piety. Fashionable, colorful dress and adornment were equated with sensuality and pride, while somber dress showed the Christian’s focus on salvation. For fundamentalist Christians (who evolved out of the Reformation) such as the Anabaptist groups … who believe themselves to be uniquely separate from the larger society, dress is used to show that separation.
In the 18th century John Wesley spoke out against adornment, and in the early days of Methodism people who showed up to meetings in expensive clothing were turned away.
Western middle class values
But the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century saw an emerging middle class in Europe and America who could now afford more than one set of clothes. And these they showed off at church.
Preachers sometimes offered advice on ways to dress. In fact, Congregational minister Horace Bushnell wrote an essay in 1843 arguing that "sophistication and refinement" were attributes of God – therefore churchgoers should follow suit.
But the rebellious spirit of the time filtered down to the pew. She remembers "daring" to wear pants to church one Sunday.
Even Christian publications jumped on the dress-up bandwagon. For example Youth’s Friend, a magazine put out in the 1840s by the American Sunday School Union, offered advice on how to dress along with manners and moral instruction.
The vagaries of church fashion so intrigued retired Waterford, Ont., minister Debra Leedman, she mounted a fashion show in 2018 to celebrate her church’s 200th anniversary.
The Victorians, she notes, were obsessed with being "respectable, that is sedate and stern in their clothing."
But the late 1800s were also a time of revival meetings where more casual dress was encouraged, especially since meetings would be held under tents in summer. During the First and Second World Wars, people had other things on their minds than dressing for church, and it wasn’t uncommon to see military uniforms worn to church.
Although the 1960s ushered in an era of radical societal change in Western societies, families still dressed up for church. Leedman remembers sitting in the pew next to her grandmother, being tickled by the tails of her fox stole.
But the rebellious spirit of the time filtered down to the pew. She remembers “daring” to wear pants to church one Sunday. “It was 1971. I didn’t care. ‘It’s going to be this or nothing. Someone has to change this dress code thing.’ But Grandma sure didn’t like it – she ripped a strip off me for my outfit.”
Clothes as barriers
Leedman wonders about the ability of clothing to separate us as Christians rather than unite us. "In my circles poor people did not come to church because they did not have the clothes or the feeling that they belonged. When I was little there were only mainline churches like the Anglicans, United, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist. It seems to me now that poor people did not attend [except maybe at the Baptist Church]. Come to think of it, the unspoken dress code may have prompted the rise of more gospel-, Pentecostal- and community-type churches that were more informal in style. It’s an interesting observation and theory."
This resonates with Janet Surette, a writer in Barrie, Ont., who says many years ago at one church she attended, a woman assessed her daughter’s church attire. "She inferred that my daughter did not adequately revere God. What was sad was that this daughter was, and is, one of the most purehearted, Christlike young women I’ve ever encountered."
Clothes as outreach
Clothes can work as signposts, especially when the Church is actively engaged in reaching out to seekers and the unchurched. Virginia and Neil Lettinga have shared leadership at congregations across the Christian Reformed Church for decades. When they were in northern British Columbia 25 years ago, the deacon had a unique approach to wardrobing. "He’d switch from suit and tie, to khakis and polo shirt, to scruffy clothes on a monthly basis," Virginia recalls. "He was consciously working to make the church comfortable for whoever dropped in."
However, Lettinga does appreciate when a church advertises its dress code, especially when travelling. "One feels pretty weird showing up in a strange church if you are the only one in a dress or the only one in blue jeans!"
One Catholic church in Brampton, Ont., does just that. In their bulletin they note that crop tops, cutout dresses and other revealing summer clothes are not "appropriate" for church. Fodors, in its Europe travel guide, includes a small sidebar on what to wear in churches and cathedrals.
Those of us who fit comfortably in mainstream culture often pay little attention to how the culture of our congregation, and the broader cultures it’s part of, shape our sense of what’s appropriate. But a little travel or cross-cultural experience will quickly pop that bubble.
For example, wearing white as a symbol of purity and cleanliness is as old as the Church itself, and one which Hispanic culture still embraces. "Hispanic women of different levels of acculturation communicate their individual, social and cultural identities through clothing and appearance," according to Los Angeles-based market researcher Maria Gracia Inglessis in her 2008 PhD thesis Communicating Through Clothing (later published by VDM Verlag, 2009).
While religion didn’t influence some women in her study, they still knew "the importance of showing respect to the institution and to God by the way they dress when they go to church…. The relationship between clothes and religion seemed to be relevant mostly in the context of the Church as a sacred place. Communicating respect and veneration through clothing in this case was bound to the location and situation."
In many American Black churches, dressing up is as much about history and self-expression as faith. Their extravagant hats, especially, are loaded with meaning.
Jacquelyn Jenkins, a retired kindergarten teacher profiled in Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (Doubleday, 2000), puts it this way. "You have to remember that church was the only place slaves were allowed to congregate. And after slavery there were whites-only signs everywhere. So if you had something you wanted to show off, you’d wear it to church. Going to church is a religious affair, but it’s a social affair also."
The book’s author Craig Marberry adds that those church hats were worn proudly by the women who marched for their civil rights, including Coretta Scott King. The tradition has even older roots. "Some African societies believe that the soul resides in the head, not the heart. For that reason the head deserves honor."
Each of the women profiled – and photographed by Michael Cunningham – had different and "compelling" reasons for cherishing their hats. For college professor Shirley Manigault, it was about faith. "When you present yourself before God, who is excellent and holy, and the most high, there should be excellence in all things, including your appearance."
Receptionist Charlene Graves agrees, although she admitted hats can be distracting. "When in church you try to be in the spirit … but I look around and say to myself, I want one of those and one of those." She was also aware of the downfall of such distractions. "You have to be careful about getting so dressed up, the Lord can’t use you because he will knock that hat off your head and knock you out."
Church hats are so integral to Black history that museums collect them. In Virginia, the Harrison Museum of African American History and Culture had an exhibit this spring devoted to the 150 hats belonging to Erma Jean Smith after she died in 2016. An interview with her son Guy Smith, who donated the hats, explains that "Hats tell a story about the woman of God underneath. They are an expression of a Black woman’s belief about herself even when the messages from society told otherwise. Slave owners shaved Black women’s heads as a way to strip them of their individuality and to show dominance."
Dressing for each role
The debate about what to wear to church is as much individual as it is corporate. Dressing up means different things to different people, including how they feel about themselves, what they want to communicate to the world and how much they want to belong to this particular community. Dawnn Karen, a psychologist and the author of Dress Your Best Life: How to Use Fashion Psychology to Take Your Look – and Your Life – to the Next Level (Little, Brown, 2020), has found dress codes change according to denomination.
Depending on her mood she attends a couple of different churches in New York City. One is very much come as you are, but at the Abyssinian Baptist church, "People come dressed to the nines. And you follow suit because even though such dress codes are unwritten, there is an unconscious conformity that takes place."
There’s a psychological term for that – fashion situational code switching. "I think it’s healthy," Karen says. "We have or play different roles in life – sister, daughter, mother, employee – and each of those has a corresponding uniform."
But clothes also have the ability to alter our moods, she adds. "Dressing nicely, however you define that, can actually help you feel good about yourself." While this may sound like churchgoers are more interested in how they look than how they worship, Karen says that "For some people it’s almost blasphemous to come to church in a hoodie or sweatpants." Because for them it would indicate they "didn’t have enough reverence for God to pull yourself together."
The opinions on this range wildly. And much has to do with how someone regards worship and how they wish to come before God. Surette penned an article titled "Blue Jean Sundays" on www.TheGospelCoalition.org in which she argues, "We need to be careful not to elevate the manmade, externally focused, social convention of dressing up on Sundays to the status of biblical law."
Hats tell a story about the woman of God underneath. They are an expression of a Black woman’s belief about herself even when the messages from society told otherwise.
Because we have a complex relationship with our clothes, each person will bring a unique reason for their church attire, says Dawnn Karen. "We could endlessly wonder whether this ‘peacocking’ is a piece of armour. Or if it’s to lift myself out of despair. Or if it’s a display of Black excellence because I am proud that I am God’s daughter."
For evangelist Addie Webster there is no question about why. Profiled in Crowns in a black straw hat with sheer gossamer brim and gilt swirls, she says, "When I get dressed to go to church, I’m going to meet the King, so I must look my best."
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today. Illustrations: Nata Kremleva