The What to Wear To Church Debate

The What to Wear to Church Debate

The What to Wear to Church Debate“Have you seen what some people wear to church these days?” a woman asked me recently. “I think God would consider it sloth.”

“Just be glad they show up,” said another. “Besides, God doesn’t care how you dress.”

“But don’t you think a house of worship warrants special attire?” I asked the second woman.

She looked at me like I had rocks in my head. “No.”

“Then what does?” I asked.

She thought about it for a moment. “Nothing. In fact, if you spend more than two minutes thinking about what to wear, there’s something seriously wrong with you.”

I laughed out loud. She’d told me only a moment before that her job, relationship, and life all “sucked.” Yet as an overweight, sloppily dressed, grooming-challenged 40-something, she had all the answers: there was something wrong with me. There was no point arguing with her.

So I agreed with the first woman instead. “Yes, the dress code has become very relaxed. I remember when we used to have to wear hats and gloves to church.”

It spawned a walk down memory lane.

Once upon a time, there was a category of clothes known as “Sunday Best.” These were the best clothes a person owned, the ones they wore for church, weddings, funerals, and other special occasions. They may wear the same work clothes the other six days of the week, but come Sunday, they dressed up and went to church to attend services and socialize. That required looking their best.

Sunday Best circa 1960s“Sunday Best” in the early 1960’s

The “Sunday Best” tradition continued until the late 1960’s.

Or in the Catholic church where I grew up, until Vatican II. Once the church became “modernized,” the dress code started changing – fast. We went from lady-like dresses, hats, and gloves, to a weekly showcase of the latest trends. I still remember the first time someone wore a mini skirt to mass, c. 1972. My mother – and just about every woman over the age of 35 – nearly had a heart attack.

It was a sign of things to come.

Within ten years, “Sunday Best” had given way to casual clothes. By the 1990’s, jeans and t-shirts were the norm. Today, “anything goes.”

Church leaders and fellow parishioners would have chastised such attire 40 years ago; today, nobody says a word. They’re just glad people still come to church, as the one woman pointed out.

Unfortunately, the decline in dress code is part of what led to the decline in attendance.  Once you let the dress code slide, it’s easy to let everything else go as well.

It’s all about standards.

Most people will only do what’s required of them and no more. If standards are high, they’ll strive to meet them; if they’re low, they’ll do the same.

When “Sunday Best” was the norm, most people dressed up for church. They socialized on Sunday afternoons and had Sunday dinner with mom. Shops were closed. So were liquor stores. Sunday was family time. It was sacred.

"Mad Men" Church Clothes

“Mad Men” Church clothes, c. 1963

These days, Sunday is pretty much like every other day. Banks, schools, and government buildings are all closed, but most stores are open. A lot of people work all weekend. The internet is 24/7. Sunday is no longer special, and Sunday traditions – like dressing up for church, or heck, even going to church – have fallen by the wayside. It’s just easier not to be bothered.

Sloth – being lazy, or in the spiritual context, being spiritually or emotionally apathetic or inactive – is considered one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity. Since the bible and history repeatedly show how the seven vices – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony – have led to the collapse of civilizations, perhaps it’s time revisit the “anything goes” approach to church attire and attendance.

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,” Winston Churchill said.

Fortunately, there are still a few diehards who refuse to give in to diminishing standards.

Chapel veilsYou’ll still see some ladies wearing their chapel veils (lace doilies) to church. You’ll still see little ones dressed up for Christmas and Easter. You’ll still see a few suits and hats sometimes.

Unless you visit a predominantly black church, in which case you’ll see them all the time.

Dressing for church in the black community is very different from white culture. The “Sunday Best” philosophy never died there, particularly in the South.

White philosophy: “God doesn’t care how you dress.”

Black philosophy: “If you can’t dress for God, who can you dress for?”

It’s because of their history. Once slavery was abolished in the 1860’s, most people of color could only find low paying jobs as farmers, servants, or maintenance staff. If they weren’t in the fields wearing grungy clothes, they were wearing a uniform that proclaimed their status. Sunday was the one day they could dress up. It’s a tradition that’s been handed down ever since.

And oh, how they dress up!

Women's Sunday Best

Women's Sunday Best Women's Sunday Best
WomenSuits.com

In some churches, it’s like Easter Sunday every week. The hats, the dresses, the colors – amazing! I worked with one woman who said she started shopping for her Sunday attire every Wednesday. That way, she could tell her hairdresser on Saturday how to fix her hair.

It’s an expensive way to go about it, and I told her so. But it’s what she’s used to, and how she operates. That was another argument I wasn’t going to win.

Latin culture also espouses dressing well for services, as does Jewish culture. Both the quinceañera and bar/bat mitzvah are “coming of age” ceremonies that begin with religious services and end with a party. They also double as fashion shows for those who like to look.

Then there are the religions that dictate attire, like Amish, Islam, and Orthodox Judaism. What they wear everyday is dictated by their faith.

So what should you wear to church?

Well, as you’ve just seen, it varies in different cultures. Some are very lax, some are very strict. But the bible offers some guidelines:

Old Testament

Deuteronomy 22:5

“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.”

New Testament

1 Timothy 2.9-10

“Women should adorn themselves in respectable attire, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair or gold and pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

1 Corinthians 11:4-7

“Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head–it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.”

So what does all this mean?

  • No cross-dressing
  • Dress modestly
  • Cover your head in church

But what if you don’t agree with it?

Or, what if you find yourself in a place of worship outside your own religion?

Or, what if you’re an atheist and don’t believe in God?

Can you just blow off “the rules” and wear whatever you want?

No.

Good manners dictate that you treat others with courtesy and respect. You may not agree with how they do things, or you may do things differently, but refusing to respect their ways is insulting.

Your goal is to be cosmopolitan – familiar and at ease with many different countries and cultures. That way, you will always be welcomed wherever you happen to roam.

So how can you show respect through dress at any house of worship?

“With modesty and self-control,” as the bible says.

Modest apparel is most appropriateThat means to cover up.

  • No exposed shoulders
  • No exposed back
  • No cleavage
  • No exposed midriffs
  • No short skirts
  • No short shorts

This applies to services, weddings, funerals, christenings – anything that takes you to a house of worship, whether it be yours or someone else’s.

Show class, not skin. It’s the respectful thing to do.

So what’s the bottom line?

Our dress code standards have become so lax in the last 40 years that most people don’t bother to dress for anything anymore, including work or church. Those that do stand out.

Want to turn heads and be regarded as a woman of style and good taste? Dress appropriately for church or temple. You’ll attract people of similar standards.

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Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Occasion Magic, an ebook that shows you what to wear when.  Ready to nail the dress code every time? Occasion Magic can help.

36 Comments

  • Shanna Hatfield

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Thank you for writing an article on a touchy subject.
    I was taught growing up to put on my “Sunday best” to attend church and still follow that today. It is the respectful thing to do, no matter what others may say.
    It’s sad that so many people think casual is an acceptable mode of dress for all occasions.
    There’s nothing quite like getting dressed up to put a little spring in your step and make you feel on top of the world.

  • Adele

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Diana,

    Amen! Thank you for the appropriately timed article! I have been giving serious thought to Church attire, considering the dressed down attitude of many on Easter. Now, I must say I am not one to wear my best dress, but for the most part, I always dress respectably: dress pants, cardigan and tank or button up. I have been dressing my son for Church in khaki’s, dress shoes, button down shirts. He wants to know why he can’t wear the same running pants all the kids around him do. I try to explain about presentation and perception being reality, but some of the concepts are hard for an 8 year old boy to grasp. I’ve always been critical of hats in church, thank you for the reminder it is rooted in scripture. I’ll keep trying, and keep reading. Adele

  • Beth

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Bravo! Well said!

    We have one young lady who likes to wear strapless dresses to church. To anyone sitting behind her in the pews, she appears to be completely naked–distracting, to say the least, especially for the young men.

  • Ana

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    I’m not a regular church goer but I would always try to look appropriate in any house of worship or anywhere else for that matter. On the other hand, I don’t believe you should slob around at home either because why does everyone else deserve to see you looking OK, when those at home don’t.

  • Hildegard Glover

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Thank you for expressing and validating my views on this subject.
    Lack of civility leads to chaos and lawlessness, are we not headed that way ?

  • Laury

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Very well stated! I attend a very casual church. I do believe the casualness of attire today has drawn as many to church as those who have left. Especially in these hard times. Many people do not have “nice” clothes or the $$ to buy them. When I see the “skimpy” attire, I do cringe – then remember “do not judge, least you shall be judged”. And the All Powerful Media plays a huge part in convincing people what to wear, these days.

    In the early 1900’s, I would say 80% of the population had 2 outfits. What you wore “clean” on Sunday, was worn until the following Saturday. It took Monday thru Saturday to wash, dry and iron everyone’s clothes. Sunday – For Church, you put on the clean ones. Even in the 50’s-60’s people only had a few outfits.

    Today — 2013 — God does not care what you wear, only that you “Abide in Him” and share His Word with others. Only people care..

  • Jane

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    What a wonderful article! I agree with you 100 percent! The “Sunday Best” picture could have been my two brothers and me. Thank you so much! I feel better now that I know I am not the only one who feels as you do about dresssing for church!

    Keep up the wonderful work that you do!

    Jane

  • Michelle Davis

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Wonderfully explained, and for my family, very timely. I have two daughters, ages 7 and 12, and am trying to teach them to dress better for church than they do for school, out of respect. Our church is fairly casual though, and most of the children wear jeans (even shorts in the summer, yikes!). For Easter, I made them wear their best dresses – handmade wonders from their grandmother, complete with hand smocking. They looked fabulous, and most of the older people thought so too. But they got me – they asked “Mom, why do we have to wear our best dresses, and you are just wearing your work clothes?” Now, I am a professional, and my work clothes are typically pressed slacks, dressy flats or low heels, with blouse and blazer, so I looked ok. But they are right, I could do better. I guess I have to go shopping for a “Sunday best” for me too. 🙂

  • Christine

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    George Santayana it said it first, not Churchill, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

  • Christine

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    It’s very common in Buddhism and Hinduism to shave or cut the hair of both genders for special observances. This is why Buddhist monks and nuns have shaved heads. It’s also expected of devout followers. American Christina standards don’t apply everywhere.

  • Cherie

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    You are right on the money here Diana. In this day and age there seems to be no respect given to any one in authority including God. I think the world would be a better place if children were taught to respect authority especially God. Sloth is a good word to describe the lazy, don’t care attitude of today. It takes effort and a bit of planning and work to look our best, but when we do, like you say so often, we not only feel better about ourselves, others show us respect and even admiration. If we show respect escpcially in church, we get respect.
    Well Done Dianna, just what we need to hear.
    Keep up the good work,
    Cherie

  • Cathie

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Diana, This is a lovely article and you are so right! People should show respect for themselves and others by being of good appearance, even if they don’t believe in God. I remember having a special pink and lace dress, hat and purse for Easter when I was 9. It was so much fun to dress up for something special.
    It’s very important to dress correctly for a culture when you travel. To create better communication between people of other countries, what this planet needs so much. Some people forget that when they travel abroad and create a bad impression of the US.

  • Kate

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Wow! You are brave to take on this subject. I totally agree with you and have tried to teach my children the same. You know those same people who don’t dress up for church would do it if they were meeting the President or someone they wanted to impress.
    My kids know that we dress up for God and for other events, even family parties! When they complain I just say it is “appropriate” and we are showing respect for the other people. I am happy to say that even though many of them are older they are continuing to do it on their own. Sometimes it doesn’t mean really fancy clothes, but just a NICE pair of shorts, not sweats.
    When they were small I kept a set of “good” clothes in MY closet for each of them so that we always had something “appropriate” to wear.

  • Jacquie

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Diana,

    I wish the Lord had more ambassadors like you. I also believe church is about glorifying God with the way we present ourselves before him. I even attended a church in Sydney Australia, where youths walked in wearing board shorts and saris, leaving their surfboards leaning against the outside. I remembered wondering if they were really coming to worship God or just fulfilling an obligation. Chuirch is special, and clothes for church should be special.

  • Jan

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Right on, Diana. Casual is one thing. Inappropriate is another. Nothing on that list of “don’ts” should inhibit anyone too much. Yet I have seen most of it, at one time or another. Sad.

  • MEL

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    I absolutely hated being forced to dress up for church when I was a kid. And now, as I work so many hours, I hate having to get all dolled up on Sunday. I prefer a somewhat casual church.
    Much of that dressing up in church was a fashion contest among the church ladies anyway.
    However, I do believe in dressing cleanly and modestly for church and would wear nothing more casual that I would wear to work. (My workplace is well behind the scenes and one can dress fairly casually there.) On special occasions such as holidays or weddings, I would dress better than on the average Sunday.
    Sometimes the emphasis on appearance and dress rankles me. Many people just can’t afford to dress as well as you and many others advocate and others like me have special challenges.
    I have health problems that have swollen my ankles so much that I look like I stash tennis balls in my socks. I used to have very attractive slender feet and ankles and now I have bear paws attached to shiny posts. I can not find attractive shoes that fit my feet anymore and I usually will not wear skirts or anything that require me to wear heels or show my ankles. Most of the shoes that fit me fine two years ago now do not fit.

  • Stacey

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    I totally agree, Diana! Some of the things I’ve seen lately just astounds me! Short dresses with exposed back and all sorts of other inappropriate things. Look I’m in my mid 30s and grew up in a modernised more casual way of dressing, but I’ve always been aware of a certain standard that needs to be maintained when stepping into a church, it’s pretty basic to me. Thanks for putting it out there.

  • Patti Walls

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    I totally agree with the need for modesty and self-control at church. Beyond that, I think that worship services are one place where dress should not be emphasized. The main purpose of the church is to reach those who are lost and hurting and don’t know God. Many such people may lack the resources or the inclination to ‘dress up’ when going to worship. They may not know what level of dress is expected and would feel unwelcome if dress is emphasized. No one should be made to feel unwelcome at a worship experience. I was raised in the church too, and had Sunday clothes and Easter dresses, etc., but now I dress down at church so that the people to whom we are trying to minister will feel more comfortable.

  • sirby

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    I was taught that you wore your best to church, even if you didn’t have much. It was a sign of respect for God. When new people come they don’t always do that but if they come for a while they gradually pick it up. Nobody says anything unless it’s really revealing and doesn’t get better over time.

    I do think you are right on target about relaxing the standards. It leads to things we don’t expect.

  • Rebecca L

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Thank you for this article. It certainly resounded loud and clear with me!

    I attend a very casual church where even some of the church leader wear jeans and some attenders wear shorts and flip flops. I almost had a fit when I saw an elder’s daughter come to church in short shorts -ACK! It drives me mad, but with my family I have had to compromise. My some cannot wear shorts or jeans with holes, not flip flops. My daughters must wear modest clothing and not look sloppy. As I write this, I can’t believe it has come down to this, but one has to choose ones battles.

    Perhaps this casualness is the other reach of the pendulum, where the opposite was to care TOO MUCH what we wear so as to impress the Jones’? Neither is good, not pleases God, so I try to seek balance and lead by example. I still wear my best to church!

  • Charlene Notgrass

    Reply Reply April 11, 2013

    Excellent article. A woman I know always looks so well-dressed and well-groomed and very stylish. I complimented her about this recently. She told me that she dresses as if she could meet Jesus any day.She also said that she dresses in a way to honor her father and mother. I was very impressed, because, you see, this lady is in her late 70s. I assume her parents have been gone for many years. Thanks for you many interesting and helpful articles. You have helped me in many ways, Diana. I appreciate you so much.

  • Ann

    Reply Reply April 12, 2013

    Excellent Diana! Thank you!

    I am traditional Catholic and even there the priests are fighting a battle at certain parishes. Church is not the time or place to be sexy. The young girls are lacking guidance from mothers who don’t see the big deal. Women maintain civilization and cultures. If we don’t keep standards the average man won’t either. Sexy in church is distracting from those trying to keep their focus on God, not their neighbor.

    For people who think God doesn’t care, let me throw in another Scripture reference. The penitent woman in the Gospels washes the feet and anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. Jesus doesn’t object, Judas does. Jesus accepts her honoring Him.

  • Jennifer

    Reply Reply April 12, 2013

    Diana, what a great article! I have to agree. I, too, grew up wearing Sunday best and new Easter clothes, etc. and I miss it. As I look around our church, there is a mix between really casual (sweats, tank tops with bra straps showing, gym shorts) and dressed nicely in pants or skirts. Business casual helped us get where we are today. So many people haven’t any idea of what is best for occasions. I’ve found myself noticing more as I utilize your programs and articles which has led to a much better wardrobe for me with more options plus more complements and questions as to where to I find that.

    It’s interesting that southern African American churches never moved away from this. Thank you for being brave to share with us. I also appreciate Kate Middleton wearing hosiery which looks better and warms the legs in cold weather. Thank you so much!

  • Cherre

    Reply Reply April 15, 2013

    Hi Diana – hmm a very touchy subject and you have a lot of people cheering for you… and as educating us to dress appropriately is your business (and passion) – it is good that you have opened it up for discussion.

    As a teenager, my spiritual mother told me that God was happy for me to be in church with the right heart and attitude, even if I was in jeans… and for a number of years that was my dress.

    Maturity, both in our age and spiritually in our (Christian) walk, changes and so does our dress sense. I am a casual dresser, neat but casual.

    God checks out our heart – remember the parable of the pharisee praying… “Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other; for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14 CEV)

    As I am pondering on my comment, two things come to mind: the song ‘Walk a mile in my shoes… before you criticise and accuse…’; and the reasonably recent movie with Sandra Bullock ‘Blind Side’.

    As a person who struggles with putting clothes together, I enjoy your articles, and while I can understand where you are coming from and it is good intentioned… our reason for going to Church is to gather as brothers and sisters in Christ (who died on the cross for the each and everyone of us), not to be assessing others based on dress. (Galations 2:14-17 CEV) My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!

    Maybe this discussion gives an opportunity for providing guidance to those in our church communities who could use some help, in love – (Galations 5:13-15 CEV) “My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love. All that the Law says can be summed up in the command to love others as much as you love yourself. But if you keep attacking each other like wild animals, you had better watch out or you will destroy yourselves”.

    here is an opportunity to take a sister under your wing… in prayer ask the Holy Spirit to give you the wisdom to lovingly educate her…she will benefit not just for church but also in her life generally. I was blessed with 2 spiritual mothers who taught me the ways of Jesus… maybe a third to help with dress sense would have also been handy…I had to wait quite a number of years to discover you and Jane at Style Makeover HQ!

    have a great day – cheers

  • teresa

    Reply Reply April 15, 2013

    I agree in dressing appropriately for church. We should present ourselves properly to God in church.

  • Anonymous

    Reply Reply April 16, 2013

    In Africa, most women do wear their Sunday best to church; though some degree of laxity is creeping in now. I thank you for this topic because it is still good to know that modesty in dressing is appropriate and classy.

  • Daye

    Reply Reply April 16, 2013

    Diana, your article was intelligently and diplomatically written and I agree with you totally. However, I disagree with others about immodest clothing and the cost of clothing. Women who dress immodestly can afford modest clothing; it just takes a bit of searching. Layering clothes and using scarves as modesty panels is within their reach as well. Churches need to provide guidance in the form or fashion shows or seminars for these women. And for men and women who are dressing as though they were going to a beach party.
    The idea that people can’t afford clothing and therefore can’t afford to dress less informally is not true. I have seen single moms getting on city buses with their children and dressed as well if not trendier than I am. Catalogs and retail storefronts can have some amazing sales. Second hand stores these days often have new clothes — although almost as costly as those at retail sale price. Or fashionable yet barely worn clothes as well. Other options are ebay, Craigslist, rummage sales, clothing swaps and for those who qualify — free clothes given away by churches and non-profits. There are even some non-profits who specialize in quality business wear.

  • Doris

    Reply Reply April 19, 2013

    A person should be respectful in the way he/she dresses for church/place of worship. It is offensive to others as well as disrespectful when dressed as if you just fell out of bed. I am sure it is understandable if someone is on the road traveling all over the place and just isn’t able to dress up for church or maybe someone is homeless. We can’t snub those who cannot help their situations, but in general – dress up for church.

  • Gail

    Reply Reply April 19, 2013

    Love it!
    Respect and caring begins with self . Pay it forward … you don’t have to look at yourself…
    others do. Good grooming is always in style!! and it is fun to have a special day with your clothes too 🙂 Dare to have faith and make a difference.

  • Rivka

    Reply Reply April 19, 2013

    Thank you for this article. I believe God own everything we have. When we go to the house of God we should wear our best and look our best. tight jeans and strap dress does not suit the occasion. In Night club and most work place dress code is in effect, Why not in the house of God.

  • Karen

    Reply Reply August 30, 2014

    Thank you for the article. I am so tired of seeing cleavage, butt cleavage, droopy pants, tight, revealing clothes and on and on. I think people should dress appropriately for every occasion–work, church, school, etc.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 2, 2014

      Hi Karen – glad you enjoyed it! Yes, it’s scandalous what you see most places these days, but especially at church. Thanks for your input.

  • ?????? 2014

    Reply Reply September 12, 2014

    My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your post’s to be exactly what I’m looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content available for you? I wouldn’t mind producing a post or elaborating on most of the subjects you write about here. Again, awesome weblog!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 12, 2014

      I’m glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks for your note! Right now, I do not have guest blogging. But thanks for asking.

  • LeeAnne

    Reply Reply March 18, 2015

    Thank you for writing on this subject.

    I too, feel strongly about dressing well for Church, and modestly, too. I’m trying to bring up my son that way, as well.
    A similar post I wrote here about modesty in Church: http://stylenseason.blogspot.com/2011/05/please-ladies-no-showing-off-that-body.html

    Visit me:
    LeeAnne, Style N Season
    http://stylenseason.blogspot.com

  • Anonymous

    Reply Reply July 23, 2019

    Diana, your article has given me an upper hand in my upcoming debate.. It was so timely and I perfectly agree with you. Modernisation is taking over us and we can’t appear decent right in church

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