What Should You Wear to Mass?

I’m on a silent retreat this week (this is being auto-posted), so it seemed like a good idea to post a nice, non-controversial post since I won’t be around to respond to the comments for a few days. Instead, I wrote this one on wearing proper attire to Mass.

Let’s start with Scripture, Matthew 22:1-14:

Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Marriage of the Duke of Nemours
to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha at Saint Cloud (1840)

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.


“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

So, just as you wouldn’t go to a wedding or formal event without preparing yourselves, you shouldn’t go to Mass without making the proper preparations. There are a couple major points to be made here:

1) The disposition of your soul matters most. 

Moritz Calisch, Young Italian Woman Praying (1850)

From the outset, the wedding garment is part of a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. The sort of preparations that Christ is talking about are spiritual. When you get to Mass, your soul should be ready to receive the graces that God wants to give you, and you shouldn’t be presenting yourself at Communion without preparing yourself properly.

You wouldn’t go to a wedding covered in filth, so don’t receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with a soul covered in filth. Wash yourself off first, by going to Confession. This is a requirement for those who have commit a mortal sin (canon 916). Nor is this rule something that the Church made up, or has the power to change. Receiving Christ irreverently is blasphemous, because it profanes Christ. “Profane” literally means “unholy, not consecrated.” To profane something is to treat a holy thing like it’s not holy. And profaning Christ is gravely sinful.

St. Paul lays out the stakes in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

Nor is this just about preparing yourself for Mass. The Eucharistic Banquet is the Table of the Lord here below, but we’re going to enjoy that Banquet in its fullest in eternity: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). That’s the Banquet we most need to be ready for. Someday, we know not when, you and I are going to stand before God at the Last Judgment. Every single day of our life should be spent preparing for that.

2) Your clothes still matter.
Obviously, the way that we prepare for Mass involves much more than putting on appropriate clothes, but what we wear matters. Why? Because one of the ways that we should show respect is by dressing respectfully. Hopefully, you wouldn’t dream of going to a job interview or your wedding wearing a t-shirt and shorts. If you did, it would seem either clueless or deliberately insulting, like you weren’t taking the occasion seriously. Why dress that way to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then?
Who Are We Dressing For?

Fashion plate of men’s golfing clothes, Sartorial Arts Journal (1901)

Unfortunately, much of the discussion only about how we dress for Mass focuses exclusively on whether young women are wearing clothing that’s revealing. Certainly, that’s one way to dress inappropriately for Mass. Young women shouldn’t be wearing clothing that’s immodest, or which shifts the focus from Our Lord to their bodies. We live in a culture saturated in sex, and especially for teenage boys and young men striving to live a holy life, this can involve a constant battle for purity, and a constant need for vigilance and custody of the eyes. We should be supporting them in this heroic struggle, rather than leading them into greater temptation.

But the problem is much bigger than that: often, the girls dressed like they’re going to a nightclub are sitting with a dad who looks like he’s going golfing, or a mom who looks like she’s going jogging, or a brother who looks like he’s next up at bat. You can have every inch of skin covered, and still be dressed inappropriately for Mass.
A major part of the underlying issue is this: are you dressed like Mass is the most important part of your day? Are you dressed like being pleasing to God is more important than impressing the people in the pews around you?  
I alluded to sports attire a moment ago, but I want to touch on that a bit more. Sometimes, people go to Mass on Sunday with their kids in jerseys, so that they can get them to the game right after Mass (even leaving right after receiving Communion). When they do this, they’re saying something about Who and what matters most. The message you’re sending to those around you and to your own kids is that Mass is just an obligation we check off the list before we get to the important stuff like the game. 
Think about it. If Mass were more important than the game, why wouldn’t you be dressed for it? After all, if your day’s to-do list consisted of an official state dinner to meet with the Queen of England, followed by a baseball game for your kid, you probably wouldn’t show up to the dinner dressed for the game to save time. At Mass, you encounter the King of Kings.
That’s why this is infinitely bigger than dressing to avoid scandalizing the distractible guy in the pew behind you. Even if you were literally the only person in the pews, you should still take the time to dress up, because you’re meeting with Someone very important: Jesus Christ.
Embodied Cognition
It’s easy to imagine that the clothes we wear are irrelevant, that they don’t impact how we view ourselves or how we carry ourselves. Scientists are now discovering that this isn’t true. There’s a field of social psychology that studies “embodied cognition,” which is “the idea that aspects of your thoughts are shaped by your body.” You’re both body and soul, and how you treat the one impacts the other. 
For example, Professor Adam D. Galinsky gave a test to three groups of students:

Some would wear a white coat, and were told it was a doctor’s coat. Others wore an identical coat, but were told it was a painter’s coat. And a third group merely looked at a white “doctor’s” coat. The subject then took an attention test where they were asked to point out differences between two images and speedily write them down. Those who wore the “doctor’s” coat performed significantly better than the other two groups.

In a similar test between students in lab coats and students in street clothes, “those who wore the white lab coats made about half as many errors on incongruent trials as those who wore regular clothes.” Galinsky concluded that, “clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.” Simply dressing smart made them act smarter. We should take that lesson to heart. Dressing holy isn’t enough to become holy, but it’s definitely a good start.
Some Important Nuance
Having said all of this, let me close with a few caveats: 
  1. I’m speaking here about Sunday Mass, because our Sunday should revolve around Mass, including in our clothing choices. Daily Mass is a different story, both because nobody is required to go to it, and because it’s during the workweek. There’s a good chance you’re coming in before your shift or over your lunch hour or before or between classes, and it’s more than fine to dress accordingly. Same goes for retreats or other special occasions. (Ironically, this week, I’m dressed more casually than I would normally like, due to the retreat).
  2. Sometimes it’s just not possible to dress well for Mass. Maybe you’re on vacation and forgot to pack church clothes, or maybe you just haven’t had time to do laundry, or maybe you can’t afford a decent wardrobe right now. These things happen. Fear not. God knows your soul, and it’s better to show up at Mass dressed sloppily than not to show up.
  3. I’m writing this so that you can dress better, and so you can encourage your kids and friends to do the same. Don’t take this as permission to sit in Mass judging people for not dressing well. Remember the first part of this post: our spiritual preparations for Mass are what’s most important, so if you’re approaching (or spending) Mass judging others, you’ve got bigger problems to worry about.
Bearing this nuance in mind, let this be a call for all of us to be more mindful about how we are physically and (especially) spiritually readying ourselves for Mass.

10 Comments

  1. This has always struck me as a remarkably silly topic on which to expend energy. The idea that one’s dress signifies the importance that one attaches to an event falls apart under scrutiny. For example, I work in a white collar job for which “business casual” is the normal day-to-day attire. But a few times a year, I have to wear a suit when I interview candidates for positions, because the custom in the business world in the contemporary USA is for candidates themselves to wear suits to interviews and my employer doesn’t want candidates who are interviewing to feel uncomfortable. All well and good. But the few days a year that I interview candidates are not the most important working days of the year – in fact, far from it. I take the days that I am engaging in normal work to be FAR more important and more worthy of my “best self” than the days that I am interviewing candidates. And I view most of the non-work days of the year, when I might be wearing shorts and a t-shirt to my son’s soccer game, or wearing jeans and a sweatshirt reading a good book on my couch to be far more important and more worthy of my “best self” than the days that I am at work. I don’t dress like a slob for Mass, but I also don’t think that whether or not I fully embody the social mores of mid-20th century America has ANYTHING to do with whether or not I am coming to Mass with reverence and respect.

    Indeed, most people would consider a shirt with a button-down collar paired with a tweed jacket and Khaki twill trousers to be relatively “formal” dress (at least compared to most people at Mass in a typical parish). But the button-down collar was originally an innovation developed for athletic wear and tweed was originally intended as a functional, relatively rain-proof fabric for hunters. And Khaki twill trousers, originally developed for military field uniforms, were only adopted in wide use in the post-WWII era as GIs going to college wore them to class since they had so many leftover pairs from their days in the army. In other words, such a set of clothes is the modern equivalent of wearing a moisture-wicking running shirt, with a rainproof nylon camping jacket and a pair of camo pants from a military surplus store.

    And furthermore, I should point out that I once heard a story about a poor woman who stopped going to the Methodist church in my hometown because the “norm” there was to dress in formal attire for Sunday services and she could not afford such clothing and was ashamed.

    1. I guess if you want to include all possible dress situations you might include in the list something like St. Francis of Assisi might have worn back in 1223 AD. Who would really complain about him wearing his only clothes to Mass, which was an incredibly ugly patched habit resembling a sack of potatoes more than anything else?

      Context is everything in the regards to proper dress. What was saintly and highly commendable clothing for a mendicant friar in the 13th century, would be dress worthy for a professional mental evaluation in the 21st. And the reason why is that it would be highly ‘singular’, or ‘odd’, and everyone who had common sense would realize it. Motives are important in this regard. If a person is attending Mass with a motive of being particularly noticed by others due to his clothes or appearance, then this same person is attending Mass with a profane attitude, trying to rob God of His properly due attention in His own House. What else does Jesus mean when He compares such distractions in a temple, or church, as a “Den of Thieves”…and “My Father’s House is a house of prayer”? Whatever distracts from true prayer, whether it be buying or selling, attracting a boyfriend or girlfriend, advertising a devotion to a favorite sports team, showing off physical strength or health, showing off the quantity of cool or sexy tattoos…anything not geared towards prayer…is robbing God of the attention that He deserves in His own house. The 3rd commandment reads: Remember to keep holy the sabbath. ‘Holy’ is the key word. Holy means “set apart”. So, a church should be a holy place, a place set apart, and as such the people entering there should be focused on God and not on the world. It should be very different from a swim or tailgate party, a gym workout, a rock concert and a high school prom dance. At Mass, modest dress that doesn’t distract, or attract much attention from others, is proper. True prayer, love and humble adoration of God at Mass should be the only focus, even as Jesus taught. Then, wear what you want that doesn’t rob, distract, or tempt yourself and others away from this same ‘holy’ focus.

    2. When this topic is raised, I simply suggest for people to give it a go and see what happens.

      I had always dressed very casually, but after just a few weeks of giving more thought to my Mass clothes, I was sold on the idea. Much like the pre-Communion fast, I found that I came to church better prepared for the Lamb’s Supper.

  2. I’d like to see what the saints said about this. I doubt you’d find that sharp distinction between Sunday and daily mass.

    Before all this, though, we in the barbarian West (especially the youth) need a natural, mundane education in dress. We are fools; we don’t distinguish any longer between the sacred and the profane.

    [Unsure if comment posted, attempt #2]

    1. “First, then, blessed sisters, take heed that you do not admit to your use flashy and sluttish garbs and clothing.”–Tertullian c. 198 AD

      “Let a woman wear a plain and becoming dress, but softer than what is suitable for a man. Yet, it should not be immodest or entirely steeped in luxury. And let the garments be suited to age, person, figure, nature, and pursuits.” –Clement of Alexandria c. 195 AD

  3. I want to also point out that all Baptized Catholics past the age of reason are required to go to Mass regardless of the state of their soul. It would be nice if we could all go to Confession prior to Mass, but for a myriad of reasons, it’s just not feasible. Just off the top of my head: not every parish has a priest dedicated to that one parish, many lay people have crazy work commitments, and some are dealing with some heavy duty spiritual issues. While I think it’s good that you are encouraging Confession, you should include that it’s required to attend regardless of the state of one’s soul (as not attending makes things all the worse) or what one is wearing. I certainly hope that people aspire to improve in both arenas, but as you said we shouldn’t be quick to judge only encourage others to continue to strive for holiness even if it’s the tiniest of baby steps.

    1. Deltaflute,

      That was about the need for Confession before receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. Regardless of the state of our soul, we have a duty to be at Mass, but we don’t have a duty to receive the Eucharist every Sunday. In fact, if you’re not in a state of grace, you have a duty not to receive.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Yes, I agree. But you said “When you get to Mass, your soul should should be ready to receive the graces God wishes to give to you…” Then later you say you shouldn’t come to a Wedding covered in filth. There is a distinction between attending Mass and reception of Communion. The wording you used seemed to equate the two so I wanted to clarify that Mass attendance and reception are two different things. The first you must do. The second as you point out is not something you must do except once a year. People, I’ve noted, seem to think you must be in a state of grace to even attend Mass. Or they find some other excuse for not attending Mass unless it’s to receive.

  4. The idea that one’s dress signifies the importance that one attaches to an event falls apart under scrutiny.

    M.J. wonders if men who think this away told their fiancees that a Tux for the wedding was a ridiculous idea;but, it does illustrate the spiritual danger existing with easy access to Mass; one becomes inured to the point of thinking it no big deal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *