Monday, May 11, 2009

Dressing Up for Jesus?

Yesterday I wore blue jeans to church. I could feel 10 generations of my ancestors rolling over in their graves. But it was a Unitarian church and the (mostly White) congregation comes to church wearing everyday clothes, not "church clothes." I've seen people come to church in jeans, track suits, and (gasp) even shorts. And it always seems a little bit wrong. Wrong to come into God's house without fixing yourself up a little or at least putting a ribbon in your hair. That's the way I was raised. Actually to the extreme.

In the Baptist church I attended as a child, we dressed to go to church. Girls in pretty dresses, hair neat and pressed, boys in suits. Yes, suits! Women weren't allowed to wear pants, not even fancy, dress pants. And it wasn't unusual to see fine hats adorning the heads of all of the women above a certain age. I thought that's how everybody dressed for church. For a long time I thought that.

A White Quaker friend of mine recently took her children to a service at a Black, mega church here in Philadelphia. She had to send her kids back upstairs to change outfits because when they heard they were going to church, they just put on jeans and t-shirts, like they always do to attend Quaker meeting and the "hippie dippie" Catholic church they also attend sometimes (Hippie dippie is her adjective not mine.). "Why do we have to change?" they asked. And my friend answered, "Because Black people dress nicer for church than White people."

She said she felt horrible for explaining the situation that way, and yet, she felt confident that what she was saying was more fact than stereotype.

Her story stayed in my mind on Sunday, when I wore jeans to church. It felt so wrong, and yet it was a relief not to have to get dressed up to go to church. Needless to say, I still wore a fancy shirt, high-heel shoes and brand-new earrings to offset the jeans, but I felt more like myself.

And so I began to wonder is it true that Black people feel the need to dress for church and White people don't? Why is that? Is it really about race or is it more about particular congregations, denominations, and regions of the country?

Do southern White Baptists dress for church, but White Unitarians don't? My mother had a sister who converted to Catholicism and faster than you can say, Jesus wept, she started wearing her favorite clam diggers and t-shirts to church. And we should broaden the discussion to include Asians and Latinos and every other ethnic category because certainly every cultural group has their own take on the issue. So the phone lines are open people.

How does race impact what you put on on Sunday mornings? But more importantly, does God even care? Let's try to figure this out. Please share your Sunday morning experiences.



ieishah said...

'but more importantly, does god even care?'

LOL! thanks for that. good question, though. i can only say that i grew up in an AME church in jamaica, queens and i'd NEVER think to go there not dressed to the nines. but even in, say, thailand, roaming in and out of temples, i covered up with a wrap, where other tourists clicked pics and talked loudly and bared their arms (GASP!). i don't care whose god it is, i'm gonna respect it. having said that, i wrote 'god' without capitalizing the 'g'. do you think god cares??

Unknown said...

Black people aren't the only ones who dress up for church. I've met plenty of white folks who do too. But as you stated, they are usually southern. Dressing up isn't necessary, it's just a sign of respect. I also think that if people put in a little effort to go to work, to go to dinner, to go everywhere else, why not put in a little effort when you go to your house of worship? God might not care, but maybe He wants us to care enough to make the effort.

Allogenes said...

Interesting question. At my (northern, mostly white) Unitarian Universalist church there's a whole gamut. Personally I don't feel right wearing just a T-shirt and shorts to church, but I don't feel a need to go too far beyond that in summertime. We have lawyer and business types who naturally dress up for work, and some of them tend to do the same for church, but others don't. I think it's partly generational on top of the other factors mentioned like race and region; class and gender are part of the mix too. White northern metropolitan-area middle class college-educated males who came of age in the 60's tend to think of dressing up as something one is forced to do by the authority structure, and anything that makes church seem like that only makes church itself less palatable...

Unknown said...

I can totally relate to this dilemma. I was NOT raised in a black church, but WAS told to wear "church clothes" - dresses, not pants. And this was even in Mount Airy, of all places!

Yesterday, I wanted to wear my sons' Mother's Day present to me (a solid color t-shirt), but I wore a skirt, sandals and accessories to offset my "casual" appearance! And the woman in front of mea was wearing casual pants (almost jeans).

I think that times have changed to a more casual look - and churches accepting people for who they are on the inside...I hope! I don't think god cares about the outside - but the inside - worshipping with a respectful heart...

Nif said...

The Congregational church I grew up in couldn't possible be whiter (especially now that I'm not there), but the idea of NOT dressing up for church is pretty unthinkable to me. One of our favorite church friends was the 7th and 8th grade Sunday school teacher who sat near us. She was about 20 years older than my mother and always wore fetching little hats. I liked the one with the polka-dot veil.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I went to church in the 'burbs. It was not a black church. The older members always dressed up and some kids would wear jeans.

However, I couldn't. I could barely get away with wearing nice slacks. When I go to my parents church in the Caribbean everyone is dressed. It's doesn't matter that is 100 degrees, you do not roll up in church wearing shorts like you're going to the beach.

That said, I'm amazed how indignant tourists get when they are turned away from St. Peters for wearing shorts or having their shoulders exposed. I get that they might not be Catholic but it's a church not a museum. Please show some respect for other peoples customs.

Professor Tharps said...

Thanks for the comments everybody.

I like the sentiment that if you take the time to dress for other important occasions, why not put some effort in what you wear to church. Of course, some people spend their lives under-dressed and don't even own "fancy" attire. Anybody ever watch What Not to Wear?

I do wonder about the race thing though. Is there something cultural about Black people dressing for church? I know historically, in antebellum America, Sunday, aka church day, was the only day slaves were given time to themselves, to dedicate to bathing, hairdressing and beauty rituals. People got dressed well for church because it was the only time alloted for it. Surely that plays into this discussion.

Genevieve said...

Your post made me smile.

Growing up going to perhaps that same hippy-dippy Catholic church, my sister and I were always the best dressed kids there, hair braided (always with ribbons), freshly ironed dresses, and patent leather shoes.

When we went to Mass in Mexico with family, we never wore pants, and there was a flat-out rule that we had to wear tights --no bare legs allowed. We were also not allowed to cross our legs in church, it was too disrespectful.

I still have a hard time wearing more casual clothes to church, and sure enough, my children get dressed to the nines.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late on this one, I see, but i do agree; black people and southerners definitely dress up more than others. Even at the black baptist church that I grew up in in New England, while women might wear nice slacks, they would NEVER wear jeans or shorts.

I'm agreeing with Ms. Wooden Shoes. You're going to church to worship, to show religious devotion/adoration/admiration for one's god:
"If it's special, then with it why aren't we as careful
As making sure we dress in style?" --Stevie Wonder said that, not I, but i think it's a nice sentiment.

lovelyn said...

I think it might have to do with denomination too. I'm a Mormon. Most Mormons in the States are white and they dress up for church. The black side of my family are Baptists and they all dress up for church--hats and all. The white side of my family is Episcopalian and they dress up for church too.

This whole not dressing up for church thing is very strange to me. My father is a musician and sometimes plays at a Unitarian church in town. The first time I went there with him I was shocked and appalled to see people in jeans and shorts.

Professor Tharps said...

LOL. Gracias.

mabmd, I hear you.

lovelyn, I know what you mean. Jeans and shorts can really seem shocking in God's house.

Carleen Brice said...

Last time I went to my grandmother's church I was surprised at how casual black folks have gotten for church! I saw some women in jeans and slacks and couldn't believe it!

Color Online said...

I grew up in Church of Christ. You dressed for church. I am now a Quaker, a black Quaker and I don't dress up.

It is a relief and comfort not to worry about what to wear. I don't think negatively about anyone's choice to dress up because of respect and tradition nor do I think not dressing up is cooler.

Anisah said...

I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, and everybody always dressed up for church. Dresses and hose for the women, 3 piece suits for the guys.

Now I go to a Unitarian church, and it's usually shorts, jeans, or maybe other pants for everybody. Some women like to dress up. Why do you need to dress up for church? It's like going anywhere. Sometimes you feel like getting dressed up, sometimes not. Some people just are more casual than others. It did feel wierd at first to dress so casual.

Anonymous said...

lets die from some fleshy things that is the way of christ