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Why are we so badly dressed at church?

Catholics in Spain go to elaborate lengths to look their best on Sundays. in the US and Britain, however, informality is often the order of the day (Photo: CNS)

From Trinny and Susannah to Ten Years Younger what we wear has become a subject that defines the “subject”: the person. Just as you are what you eat, apparently you are also what you wear. Fashions come and go and it is a strange fact that in our culture cast-off clothes to some are regarded as highly collectable to others.

Living in Valladolid, just north of Madrid, this last year has been an eye-opener for me with regard to fashion. One aspect that struck me most particularly was the way that locals dress more formally on a Sunday. There was a kind of Sunday revolution. That is, a change of habit and a change of dress, that made Sunday distinctive. Sunday simply had a different feel to the other days of the week and this was largely marked by the locals’ choice of dress. Sundays stood out there and the wearing of more formal clothing did not, like in other areas of society, relate to status or jobs, but rather carried a visible sense of dignity and respect for their religious practice. Sunday looked different and in dressing more formally these people were telling society that Sunday mattered. This was an attractive and appealing aspect of their culture.

In our own nations the concept of “Sunday best” is a part of cultural memory. Few practise it today. Seeing those streets on a Sunday afternoon in Valladolid seemed rather nostalgic. It was there that I recognised a particular loss in our culture. For a moment it was as though I was looking at a Sunday with the eyes of my grandparents. Today, if you are wearing smarter clothes on a Sunday people innocently assume that you are spending yet another day in the office rather than preparing to greet Our Lord in the Eucharist. So much for those well-polished Sunday shoes that fail to make an impact and could now be worn any day of the week. The days of the week are, therefore, largely indistinguishable and I think it is our mission to “win back Sundays”. While I am not advocating coattails at Sunday Mass there is a lot to be said for making Sunday our best, not “because you’re worth it” – in the famous words of the L’Oréal advertisement – but because Sunday is worth it.

I am a recent convert to the idea of Sunday dress. I vaguely remember making more effort in terms of dress and appearance on a Sunday while growing up in having to choose a newly ironed shirt and tie, especially at Christmas and Easter. There was never any pressure, but there was a sure sense that Sunday required physical as well as spiritual preparation. From ironing to polishing there was work to be done and we prepared as a family.

An incident at a local theatre company, however, marked a turning point in my understanding of Sunday wear. During a weekend rehearsal for a show I was involved in, some of the production team arrived in remarkably smart and dazzling suits. Walking through make-shift scenery and skirting around props lying on the stage floor their shimmering black-and-grey suits stood out of place in this theatrical setting. Someone asked where the couple had been dressed so smartly and I was shocked at their answer.

“We’ve been to Sunday service,” they said, “where we make an effort in what we wear unlike those Catholics who wear whatever they like.”

I was stunned. Although I had not experienced that kind of social prejudice before, there was something in their message that has remained with me.

There has never been a dress code or refusal of entry in my experience of the Church. Indeed, the idea of Sunday formal wear simply does not apply to many nations where the national dress is different, and this difference is carried into their attendance at church. In our culture, though, Sunday wear has been an integral part of our nation’s appearance and it is our link across the denominational divide. Sundays were an effort, and this extended to dress. In 2012, a year in which our country has been under the eye of many around the world, in a hyper-visual age, we should not underestimate the witness our approach to Sunday wear can provide.

We will perhaps never reclaim Sunday as it once was and wearing a suit will not necessarily draw more people to Christ. But our effort, our approach, our work and our dignity in preparing for Sunday will.

Ryan Service is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Birmingham