Church Clothes Be Damned!

Change your clothes!” Mom said, loud up the back stairs to where my brothers and I were playing, in the maid’s room. “It’s time to GO!” (We didn’t have a maid. It’s where we kept the blocks and the electric trains and stuff. It was a big, old house. It was 1958.)

“We’re going to be late for church!”

Mom was convinced we'd all be this happy!

Mom was convinced we'd all be this happy!

She made us wear itchy flannel pants and stiffly starched shirts, irritating “wool-blend” blazers and skinny little tartan ties that choked us and scratched us under our chins while we sat there bored out of our minds, counting the little panes in the stained-glass windows, or watching flies land on the ladies’ hats in front of us.

Just like all my friends, I hated church. No wonder when we grew up we hated dressing up. Father Sullivan up there telling you if you went to confession twice a week and said two hundred Our Fathers and two thousand Hail Marys while kneeling at the rock-hard communion rail, that you might be able to reduce your sentence in Purgatory to only several hundred thousand years; and us there in the pews, itchily squirming, trying desperately to think of something holy. We were doomed. And flannel pants, tight, starched collars and heavy blazers were the clothing of the condemned. I’ll bet Geffen had to wear clothes like that to Synagogue, too. (The guy who made grunge the corporate dress code.)

These days it’s pull-on pants and polo shirts and user-friendly religion in general. I mean why punish yourself? Nowadays if they go to church at all kids can wear their sports uniforms with flip flops. I wonder if they’re more comfortable than my brothers and I were.

As for dads, church is a Level 2 affair mostly, except on holidays, or for a Christening. Or at least it should be. You still see the cut-offs and NY Yankees tees among the faithful, but those guys are the exception. At least the Take-Your-Hat-Off-For-Jesus rule still holds up.

Level 2 is what you’re supposed to wear. It means Weekend Neat, one step up from shorts and a t-shirt. It means khaki or chino trousers and a sport shirt, woven or knit, a polo collar or a mock-turtleneck. The range here is from Careless: shapeless Dockers, faded golf shirt and beat-up Topsiders to Thoughtful: clean, creased trousers and a neat-patterned button down or a fresh-looking knit, recently shined loafers and matching color belt.

            If someone had circulated a Memo Re: Dress Code for the occasion, both Mr. Careless and Mr. Thoughtful would be in compliance, but you’ve got to figure that Mr. Thoughtful would get more notice, more votes for “Most Likely To Succeed.”

            There are some congregations where it’s still expected that gentlemen will treat the occasion as a Level 3 (jacket and tie) or even Level 4 (suit) event. There appears to be greater reverence among these congregations, phony though it may be. More respect. (Whether a greater percentage of them are saved, we couldn’t say.)

This is, after all, what it is all about. Reverence. Respect. Not showing off, or flaunting anything, but acting in accordance with the importance of the event and with respect to the other people attending. Seen correctly, the effort it takes to dress well is an act of homage. We don’t dress well for ourselves, but for others. It says something bad about our society, something about our age of self-absorption, that a lot of us just don’t give a damn what we go around looking like, even to church.