Tuesday, February 9, 2010

New Threads (It's a Pun...)

Well, a rather tangential discussion about formal clothing and what is appropriate for Mass started in the comment thread of another post from a few days ago, and it didn't really fit there. But it was a very interesting conversation, so I'm turning the initial dialogue into today's post, and people can feel free to continue the discussion, if they want, in the comment thread on this post:

Jonathan said:
Why do we obsess so much over our outward appearance as do the gentiles (recall The Sermon on The Mount)? Why is there this thing called "Sunday Best" ? Frankly I have always found it strange how that seeped into Catholic circles. To me, that particular concept is a rather Protestant ideal. The idea that the garb of an individual somewhat makes them into a commodity of sorts. I mean if I dress really nicely and primp myself like a Peacock, of what value is that before the eyes of GOD ? Sure people will say, "Oh he has got it going on." "He is so well put together.", but what does that matter when I could have the foulest soul before GOD. Are people so afraid to present the state of their spiritual being ? Is that not part of modesty ?
Mark of the Vineyard said:
"Sunday best" is related to "birthday best" or "wedding best" or other dates of importance. The principle behind it is that persons get "dolled up" not out a desire to strut around like a peacock, as you so quaintly put it (though that may eventually turn out to be the case for some), but out of a sense of respect. But then, you being an American, I doubt you would be able to understand (je je je X-D).
Why dress up for Sunday Mass? Isn't there Mass on other days of the week? If so, and if the Mass is THE ultimate form of prayer, why not be consistent? Because Sunday is the Lord's Day par excelence. It is, in a sense, His birthday (back) into eternity. Perhaps this concept of getting dressed up for a person's birthday is foreign to the American mindset (I don't know as I left when I entered adolescency), but here it was pretty much the norm until some time ago. It wasn't about me showing off; it was a sign of respect towards the other person, a tacit acknowledgement of "this day is all about you; this day is special because of you". But like I said, this is falling into disuse, partly because of American influence and also because parents nowadays tend to not impart any values onto their kids. This latter can be seen at events such as weddings, baptisms, and other such religious-turned-secular cerimonies: you will see the younger generation, up to the late teens, show up in jeans, hoodies, etc, at such "events". My Confirmation last year springs to mind: most of the teens receiving Confirmation showed up in t-shirts, ripped jeans, etc. (I particularly recall one who sported a t-shirt saying "I'm a bad boy"...heroic!).
I then said:
I think you both have points.

There is a difference between dressing respectfully and this obsession some trads have with insisting all the men wear 3-piece suits and fedoras to Mass as if it were the 1950's.

Standards of "formal" are (and should be) evolving. I personally think the "suit" should be phased out in the workplace, the media, politics, AND at church. It is needlessly expensive, complicated, 1950's/Victorian, and conformist.

Still, that's not to say ripped jeans, flip-flops, and "bad boy" shirts are great either.

But (to give a concrete image in a way that isn't meant to be absolute or limiting criteria) as long as a guy is wearing, for example, some sort of khakis on Sunday and his shirt is collared (either long-sleeved or polo) and of a non-distracting color/pattern...I'd think that would be enough in both the workplace and Church these days.

The fact that some workplaces might still expect suits while the Church doesnt...is indeed perhaps another sign, perhaps, of us respecting money more than God. But I don't think the solution is mimicking the business-world's ridiculous livery, but rather trying to deconstruct the notion that somehow, all other things being equal, the suit or dress-shirt-and-tie is "objectively" more dignified, worthy, etc, just because it is more expensive and more uncomfortable. To evolve the standards of "formal" rather than simply ignoring or dismissing them.
Mark of the Vineyard replied:
I'm sure you are also aware that standards of formal and casual clothing vary (sometimes quite drastically) from place to place. Take Europe and the US, for example (though perhaps not the best since American culture is starting to have a large impact in the various European cultures). Much of what Europeans wear as casual clothing is considered by your run of the mill American to be formal. When last I was in the US, on a day off from work, I dressed as I would normally dress here and I was asked by several people if I was going to some formal event.
I answered:
What an odd place for this conversation to start, lol...

But, anyway, I think that's an important point about different standards in different places.

In America, for example, I think there is a widespread impression that Europeans dress everyday in clothes we would consider formal...simply because they are vain/effeminate/metrosexual "eurotrash" trying to be "stylish" and trendy according to the latest runway fashions. That those men are frivolous peacocks, primping and preening, who are (to quote The Simpsons) "adrift in a sea of decadent luxury and meaningless sex."

I obviously think that's vastly over-simplistic, and shows little ability to look at something outside ones own cultural paradigm but these sorts of misunderstanding can and do exist. People take their biases about external markers VERY seriously, and have a lot of emotion invested in them very absurdly.

And not just between nations, but within a nation too. There are so many different subcultures now, so many different "registers" of social class and identity...that I think people can get confused.

Even just within the US, what is "formal" for New England blue-bloods, might be different than what is formal for entrepreneurial New Money (jeans and a sports-coat, anyone?), which is different than what minorities might wear, or people in the "heartland," etc.

The problem then, more than anything, is people's strong opinions and emotional reactions about what OTHER people are wearing. They should take the log out of their own eye first...concern with authoritarian "dress codes" creeps me out.

All those trads who cite some bishop's letter outlining (over 100 years ago) exactly what is "modest" for a woman ("she may have a one-inch slit a hand's-width below her neck" )...are just nuts, as if an "objective" set of criteria could be drawn up like that. Modesty is an internal attitude, not some objective criteria.
An "anonymous" user wrote:
Suits are awesome.

Get out.

That's right. Get out of your own blog.


You Know Who
I replied:
"You Know Who" is Tony, I'm guessing from your blog?? I actually know several trad dandies, so forgive me if I'm wrong in my assumption.

You shouldn't be mad at me, lol. Exactly because I never said YOU couldn't or shouldn't wear a suit. I just said that the expectation of wearing them and this 1950's idea that they are what "officially" constitutes "nicely dressed" should be phased out, as such a notion of "objective" formality is too conformist, and not everyone can afford a complicated wardrobe. Turning into a sort of "livery" that indicates social status, like the business world seems to do, is especially ridiculous and harmful.

Feel free to find them awesome!! Feel free to wear one yourself!! However, don't be dogmatic about that. Wear what makes YOU feel good, and don't worry about trying to impose that as "objectively correct" on OTHERS. If you like to wear suits...that's great. As long as you like it as an expression of your individualism, as opposed to a conformist crutch to self-esteem. But if it's only out of some sort of fetishization of the male "uniform" dynamic...that's very different and unhealthy. I think that's the important point: what THEY're wearing doesn't effect what YOU can wear. Wear what you feel is respectful to God for you, and then don't worry about judging everyone else.

It's only when people seek to gain their validation through conformism to some external standard...that they start to care about what, exactly, those standards of conformity are and get so emotionally involved in making sure everyone else is still playing by the same rules. Because if the rules they've invested in conforming to suddenly change, then there goes the foundation of their self-worth and the group-recognition they've worked so hard to achieve through well-practiced conformity. It's why transgression of "normative" gender roles threaten so many people: because their own identity is based on conforming to the standards they internalized as "correct" and they have this huge social and emotional investment in being "normal," so they don't want what is considered normal to change, lest they no longer be considered normal after taking it for granted their whole lives.

Like with some trads...getting indignant because some girl at the mall is wearing a mini-skirt, however wrong a message she may be sending...still says more about them than about the girl. It's a cause for concern about society as a whole...but not specific outrage. Those things are usually SYMPTOMATIC of deeper attitudinal problems in society, and simply trying to legislate the external symptoms away...is like, to use an Obama-ism...trying to solve homelessness by passing a law requiring all homeless people get a house. Yet that is what many Right-Wingers seem to think the solution to society's ills are: mere Prohibition of the external manifestations. It's maintaining a facade when the inside is rotten.

A similar point to those who seem to think that making celibacy optional would somehow be a threat to celibacy in general. It's actually not, because priests who wanted to be celibate still COULD be; the fact that some others are married wouldn't affect those who wanted to voluntarily be celibate in the slightest.

Analogously, if you like suits and want to choose voluntarily to wear one, great! But that's very different than making them mandatory. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good! And don't perceive of an attack on a requirement as an attack on the thing required. Establishing a "lower" standard doesn't mean you can't shoot for "higher" than that minimum (though I don't necessarily assume that a suit is "higher" than khakis and a polo).

Catholics, I think, still have a hard time making that distinction between having an ideal on the one hand, and the attempt to "enforce" it into existence on the other.
The conversation seems, mainly, to revolve around menswear for now. Let's please please please not let this devolve into a "Women in Pants?" debate ;)


Tony said...

I was being playful. Dandy sounds too flamboyant though. Interested in mens things? Yep.

Of course you do bring up many valid points about the 50's standards, etc.

Short comment is due to mobile.


Jonathan said...

The fact of the matter is that we should not go to Church with the idea that we are going to the opera. But rather we should go with a BAPTISMAL mindset. Each time we assist at Mass/Liturgy, we should clean the ROBES of our Baptism through Confession and nourish ourselves through The Sacrament of Love (The Eucharist).

We need to spiritually garb ourselves in said garments and not worry so much about being aesthetically pleasing to our neighbour's eyes.

Dress respectfully for GOD in a manner that is unique to you and within your means. Whether it means wearing a sherwani, a dashiki suit(the formal form) a guayabera and some nice dress pants or a three piece suit, etc. , the point is dress in a manner in which you PERSONALLY glorify GOD.

The bit about the opera and robes is my adaptation of something mentioned by Michael Strassfeld in The Jewish Holidays.