Ministry

Dress Codes

Snowman’s new school requires students to wear a uniform of navy blue pants (or skirts, I would imagine, for young ladies) with a light blue oxford cloth or polo shirt on top. This is our first experience with a school uniform, and I want to get it right. They don’t have to order their clothes from a particular vendor, although I understand you may purchase "blues" from a store at the school.

I grew up with a lot of rules about what constituted acceptable clothing. When my brother started wearing an untucked oxford cloth shirt hanging beneath a sweater in college, he started a fashion trend at the College of Knowledge in Virginia. I, meanwhile, had a wardrobe of Peter Pan collared shirts, Fair Isle sweaters and kilts. I dressed my little boys in preppy clothes because to me they epitomized tidiness and acceptability.

And if we dressed a little more nicely for church, so what?

Last week I received a phone call from a woman who wanted to ask some questions about Main Street Church. She had visited a service while I was on vacation. She had some questions about the church and read that there would be copies available of the pastor’s series on Christian Formation. "I am the pastor," I answered. Perhaps I could be of help?

"Does that church have a dress code?"

I felt surprised, and then I did not. The members of Main Street Church, and particularly those who are present in the summer, are older people who dress nicely for worship. I would say the summer dress code is something like the retirees’ version of office casual. It’s unusual to see a man in a tie, but everyone is fresh and pressed.

"They do tend to dress nicely," I answered, "but there is no dress code."

"At my old church I wore a t-shirt and shorts," she told me.

"Well, I hope I will see you on Sunday," I answered. "It doesn’t matter what you are wearing."

I struggle with issues of appearance, my own and the church’s. We don’t want to focus only on the way things look, but perhaps there is a reason for making the choice to live or dress in a particular way. I sometimes envy my fellow pastors who wear clericals, because that uniform makes them recognizable and also alleviates the worry that they might choose the wrong thing to wear to an event. When the rules are clear, there are no questions. Snowman will wear the "blues" in classes and rehearsals, and regular clothes at other times. I, on the other hand, will probably always wonder what’s the right thing to wear on a hot July Sunday in a sanctuary with no air conditioning.

The Princess always makes a special effort on Sunday mornings, putting together outfits she would not wear to school, wondering if her skirt is long enough, as if there were a rule for church attire, though no one at home has ever told her to do a certain thing. You can see that by looking at her brothers. I’m just glad they come to church and will tuck in their shirts if they are reading or playing music.

I don’t know how an older church, both in years and in the ages of the members, can ever break down the perceived barriers that a formal entrance and brass candlesticks and chandeliers announce to anyone visiting for the first time.  Are some barriers inevitable? Do we throw out the church with the barriers and start over again?

My caller sat in the back row on Sunday, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, a
woman in her ’50’s with long, long hair. When I asked the adults to
participate in our Children’s Moment (since all our children seemed to be
on vacation), she raised her hand and shared something about her
practice of prayer, something very lovely about listening for God in the silence. After the discussion, we did just that.

Our visitor received a number of greetings, but I suppose I won’t know whether she felt truly met until and unless I see her again.

15 thoughts on “Dress Codes”

  1. Just as a tidy tidbit—girls at Land O Lakes may wear skirts (in the winter, but not summer) or pants (in the winter but not summer) but they are actually very likely to wear knickers….yes, navy blue cordoroy knickers. In the summer, that’s all they wear. It’s all they are allowed to wear. And yes, for 4 summers, I wore navy blue cordorouy knickers…..with knee socks….
    Dress codes and church are a funny thing. I find that the college kids do tend to dress up for church—which I never expected–on Sundays, but not any other day.

  2. Do you remember that we could only wear pants when it was less than 32 degrees in the morning? In our part of the world it was almost never that cold. Plus, my mom would only buy me one pants outfit that was suitable for school, so I hated it when there were two days in a row when the temperature fell below 32, because then I had to scrounge some pants that were not denim or corduroy. Arrgh!
    But my poor sister had it worse. She had to wear a uniform with a blue plaid kilt that looked like a hockey uniform.
    At least Snowman won’t have to decide what to wear every morning.

  3. I’ve found since moving back to Maine from Minneapolis that the dress code (unspoken and unenforced) in church is somewhat more formal. At my old church men would be found wearing anything from suit and tie to jeans and polo shirt, here a tie is more usual (maybe not so much in summer). I see a lot more women with a blazer jacket over a dress or blouse and skirt. I wonder too if it puts off people who don’t feel comfortable or able to dress that way.

  4. C’s mom, that is just the thing. It’s sort of like driving up to a church in your Escort or Prius to find a bunch of SUVs or BMWs in the parking lot. You have to wonder if you can possibly fit in.
    cf, I remember that skirt. Those poor kids.
    And ppb, knickers? Seriously? Heavens.

  5. I so remember the days of not being able to wear pants to school and having to have special outfits for church. I am personally very glad that dress codes are more relaxed these days. My congregation sounds like yours, and of course, some are more dressed and others less, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much.
    My only rule for the Kid is that he and his clothes be clean, and I’ve bitten my tongue when he’s worn raggy jeans–because he’s there, and that’s what is most important. Mostly he comes in neat clothes.
    I am glad I wear clericals, and vestments for services, but I still push the envelope a bit–I wear sandals in the summer, even on Sunday and I know for many people that’s a no-no (never have quite understood what was so shocking about toes, but anyway…) In seminary we had discussions about what should and shouldn’t be worn when celebrating the Eucharist, and for me the answer is that I’m going to be myself–that means my same silver hoop earings I wear every day and the same silver rings I wear everyday. I would not feel right wearing flashy jewelry but I am not a flashy person.
    I think uniforms for school must make life simpler, but knickers for girls? Really?

  6. I remember when we moved from Texas to California in 1969. My mom was shocked – SHOCKED, I tell you! – that the women actually wore (gasp!) pants to church! She still has a hard time thinking that pants are okay for church. She does it, but I’m sure she also thinks she’s getting a black mark somewhere next to her name.

  7. Okay, about the knickers. Land-o-lakes was founded as (and still operates as) a summer camp. And the founders’ dearest hope was that the scholarship kids and full pay kids be indistinguishable. So, he came up with the uniforms. Seeing as how it was the 1920s, he couldn’t very well let girls wear pants, but girls who play the cello couldn’t really wear anything but floor length skirts, either. So, they picked knickers. In the summer, the girls still wear knickers (although I understand that they can now wear navy shorts when it’s over 80)with socks that show their age group–light blue for high school, red for middle, navy for little girls. And the boys wear belts that match. (Kids have different privileges based on age.) The other thing is that EVERYONE wears the uniform–camp director, janitor, 8 year old, star cellist, faculty…everyone. The only day that they wear their own clothes in the summer is Monday. Kids have classes on Tuesday-Saturday. Sundays are concerts. Monday is recreation day.
    For the boarding school, they do a variation on the summer camp thing, with the dark and light blue, but it’s not necc. cords, and girls can choose pants or skirts. The faculty at the boarding school don’t wear the uniforms, though–only in the summer. But I understand that a few of the teachers do choose to wear the uniform, on principal.
    I loved the uniform. I admit it. No decisions to make, no power struggles with 12 year olds about what they wear (or don’t).
    Snowman is going to love it there. It’s utterly beautiful, and there is music everywhere. He’ll miss his mom, but the time will fly.

  8. Half of our public schools now have uniforms in this smallish city. It’s cut down on absenteeism and theft.

  9. I went back to Arkansas a few years ago to hear my dad preach — I had to buy heels because I didn’t have any, and I knew my clogs would just not be right. Yet, I just can’t do shorts and a t-shirt for church, even out here in the west. Jeans, yes, but I’d better look clean and pressed…
    Also, I just wanted to add that I don’t think there IS a “right” thing to wear when it’s a hot July Sunday in a sanctuary with no air conditioning…

  10. oh and forgot to say – Finland is very casual – most women wear trousers all year round, and if the weather is hot in summer shorts are ok for women and men in church.
    We do frown on showing your mid-riff though, and very tight provocative clothing especially on the ministry team or worship team.

  11. I tend not to care what people wear to Church. We were brought up that you wear a dress or a skirt! But I am totally away from that.
    However, I have a friend that has a problem. I won’t really get into it but she has problems when the girls/women of the Church dress like tramps. And lawsy there are lots of them!

  12. I am probably in a huge minority with this, but I wish I could wear a uniform every day. My DH says that’s because I’ve never HAD to wear a uniform, and no I haven’t.
    But I don’t like clothes shopping, I hate thinking of what to wear, and I wish wish wish I could just have it all settled for me.
    I used to campaign to my boss that we should all wear scrubs and tennies. Easy! Lots of variety within sameness! Washable! Comfortable!
    He’d smile mildly at me and say, “You can certainly wear scrubs if you want to.”
    (I work at a university, and not in the health center, so it WAS a pretty wacky idea.)

  13. I have actually come to think that uniforms are a good idea – no need to worry about what to wear, or looking right, or having enough money for the latest fashion. My daughter only wore one for first grade then we moved and switched schools, and there was no going back. But I like them for all the reasons ppb says.
    I too remember days when I could only wear pants to school if it was below 32… BUT we had to remove them once we got to school. Meaning they could only be worn under our skirts and dresses to keep our legs warm on the way to and from school and at recess. This was in small town Wisconsin in 1968 or so…
    I hope snowman really likes his new school…(so hard to send him off, no?).

  14. *sigh* Church clothes — where my “raisins-up” conflicts seriously with my knowledge that it is more important that folks are there at all, not what they’re wearing when they get there.
    We have everything at our church from the oldest generation in dress clothes to anybody 55 or younger in jeans or shorts to the teens in the same thing they wear every day. But I was raised for a time in the South, and I was raised in small towns by a small-town woman who grew up in the 40s and 50s, and I was raised to dress up to show your respect for the Lord. And I still do it, even tho I don’t “have” to. Heck, I even wear a hat to church on Easter.
    I wear a dress or a skirt to church service except when it’s very, very cold (two to four weekends a year.) I wear hose to church except when it’s very hot (which it is most of the summer, I admit.) The most casual thing my husband will wear to church service is a golf shirt and chinos, and he was born and raised in that church. He puts on a shirt and tie most Sundays, and a suit when he ushers or for holidays. I make my boys wear shirts with a collar all year, with either chino shorts or chinos, and never flip-flops. My daughter wears a nice top and a skirt in the summer and a nice top and chinos in the winter. None of us ever wears jeans to a church service. I just can’t do it, even though my kids are rather over-dressed compared to their peers.
    But y’know what — it warmed the cockles of my little old-fashioned heart when a lady stopped me one Sunday after Daughter had been an acolyte and said, “It’s so nice to see girls in a dress and nice shoes for church.” Yes ma’am, it is.

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