Is a dress code for attending Mass necessary?
Catholics are debating that question these days as more people show up to worship wearing revealing fashion trends like tube tops, micro-mini skirts and hot pants, or casual ripped jeans.
Modesty in dress is part of Catholic teaching. Passages on that subject can be found in the Catechism and the Bible. But there is no formal dress code for churches in the Diocese of Charleston.
Pastors have discussed proper dress from the pulpit, and even placed appeals in church bulletins and parish websites. Some are serious, others lighthearted.
A national talk show mentioned one recently that said: This isn’t a Britney Spears concert, please dress with respect.
It can be a tough call as dress standards vary widely from region to region and sometimes even in the same community.
Parishes along the coast, for instance, draw tourists and retirees in more casual clothes and sometimes even beachwear. Older congregations might dress fancier than those that attract students from a college campus. In most cases, standards evolve over time and reflect the taste of pastors and parishioners.
Talking about proper dress often comes down to one-on-one discussions, or as a topic for religious education classes.
Either way, class leaders say there is a fine line between stressing modesty and turning people away with exclusionary policies. Reminding people of why they come to Mass is often the best tactic.
Anne Marie Zur, director of faith formation at Holy Spirit Church on Johns Island, has a list of wardrobe no-nos including mini-skirts, shorts, ripped jeans, spaghetti straps and tops that reveal cleavage. Also, no tank tops on men or clothing with inappropriate logos or sayings.
Zur knows some people who believe jeans should never be worn to church, but she thinks that is a little extreme. The main focus, she said, should be on clean, modest clothing that isn’t too revealing.
“I tell people you need to have self-respect for yourself, respect for your neighbor and respect for the Lord,” she said.
Jason Vaughan, director of adult education at Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island, brings up the need for reverent, modest dress with students in RCIA classes.
“I tell them if we had someone coming over to our house for supper or we were going to a nice dinner, we would dress well, so why not dress well for our Lord?” he said.
Visual aids can help. Joann Miller, director of religious education at St. Mary Church in Greenville, shows confirmation students photos of bad wardrobe choices so they have a concrete idea of what isn’t acceptable at confirmation or other church functions.
“It’s not about telling somebody what to wear, but rather making them mindful of what we are doing in church,” Miller said. “You’re going up to receive Jesus. Wouldn’t you want to look your best for Him?”
Dress codes aren’t a regular topic for most people involved in campus ministry because their focus is just getting students to come to Mass, said Melissa Parker, who works in campus ministry at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. She attends a student Mass on Sundays and said, for the most part, students dress appropriately.
“There are students who come in T-shirts and jeans, but the important thing is that they’re there and worshipping in the right frame of mind,” she said.
When one young woman wore a short, strapless dress to Mass, Parker spoke with her privately and phrased her objection in a gentle way: “I feel like you’re wearing that to Mass more to get the attention of others than giving attention to God.” The girl took it well and has dressed appropriately ever since, she said.
“The important thing with young people is to be polite, and get the point about dress across in a good way,” she said. “You can hurt students’ feelings very easily because they often don’t take constructive criticism well. You have to be delicate about how you say it. Never discuss the way they dress in front of someone else.”
Katie Jorsch, 20, a political science major at Winthrop, thinks getting young people to attend Mass and grow in their faith is more important than focusing on dress codes.
“As long as they’re going to church, it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing,” she said. “The college years are when many Catholics stop going to Mass, and if you start imposing standards and a dress code, that’s just going to turn more people away. I think the point of Mass is to be there as a community and celebrate God’s gift. I try not to go to Mass in jeans because for me it’s a respect thing. However, I’m not going to think someone is less Catholic because they’re wearing jeans.”