John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
“Is the tie going the way of the hat as gentleman’s apparel?” asks Eric Felten in the Jan. 22 Washington Examiner. Just take a look at movies from the 1950s or 1960s (or peruse your family album): most men, irrespective of social status, generally wore a hat when dressing up, be it the office worker on the job or even the blue collar worker going out somewhere special (which usually included Sunday worship). My father was a factory worker, but his hat (and suit and tie) came out on Sundays.
A number of social commentators have recently picked up on the question of contemporary dress. Over at First Things, R.R. Reno discusses sartorial style in the wider context of “civility.” We should not forget, he argues, that the codes of etiquette and “civility” also provide social cover for the competition among power-holders, a kind of boxing glove to soften the blows of war of all against all. One place this plays out is in fashion: “When it comes to manners such as decency and civility, we are undoubtedly in another phase of change in the United States. ... Billionaires wear T-shirts and running shoes. People board airplanes in their pajamas. There has been a decades-long process of casualization and crudification, not just in society as a whole, but also in elite manners, which strongly suggests that we won’t see a return of [any] gentlemanly atmosphere ...”
Which doesn’t mean fashion doesn’t matter. “Business casual” is hardly so much “casual” as a de rigeur variant. If you think you are “free to be you and me,” try showing up in Silicon Valley in a three-piece suit.
So, how should we respond?
First, let’s be honest: there is a dress code. It may not be stated, but it’s there and it’s different (and, in my view, sloppier).
Second, Eric Felten’s suggested recourse is a kind of reverse the trend: “Business may be increasingly casual, but that’s no reason not to dress better for ourselves and for our friends than we do for work. That may mean embracing the sturdy tie or using other clothes to elevate our leisure time. ... [Dressing] … can be about expressing, even just to yourself, what your style and standards. ... They may just prove a way to declare that our private lives are worthy of fashion we wouldn’t waste on the dull, old workplace.”
There’s often a lament about how people dress for Sunday Mass, and I guess some pastors are happy enough that the people are there not to push further. There’s something to be said for that, as there is for recognizing that our culture has changed the context of weekend. In our frenetic and inhumane 24/7/365 culture, Sunday has still managed to carve out a certain je ne sais quoi uniqueness: Sunday mornings are palpably different in most places from the rest of the week. And, with our relentless culture, Sunday rest becomes in many ways Sunday exhaustion (two very different things), and so people are grateful to be “at home with the Lord” in a more casual way. Some may agree or disagree with that view, but it’s out there.
At the same time, we’ve allowed a certain collapse of the difference between God and us, and we should recover it: God is God, and we’re not. God deserves and is entitled to more from us. We should not forget, amid the contemporary prattle about “justice,” that St. Thomas Aquinas included the virtue of religion under the cardinal virtue of justice because the first Being to whom we have a due is God. Justice starts with God.
So, perhaps Felten is on to something. Perhaps the casual and the mundane belongs in the mondial, the world, the office, the business. Especially since the mondial professes at least a feigned sense of “casual” and “democratic levelling.” (I suggest you not try the latter the next time your boss is making a point.)
Perhaps we ought to reserve the special, the unique, the better, for the personal relations that count. For family, loved ones, and our time together. For Sunday best. For God.
Winter is descending into spring, and soon we’ll be in summer, a season especially prone to the “casualization” of Church wear. In most places, there is no need: the typical modern church is climate controlled, and many of the old cathedral-like churches (like my childhood parishes) that depended on a few, strategically placed fans have been “renewed” into oblivion. So, the casualization of our Mass clothing is either the result of “I don’t care” (and would we really want to admit that, even to ourselves?) or “I just get to Church from wherever I happened to be: beach, mall, grocery store….” On the latter, maybe we then need to ask whether our lack of what little kids used to call “dress up” points to a deeper issue: whether we really prepare for Mass as the “summit of our Christian week” (as we claim it is), or whether it’s another “to do” box to check. Think about it.
Meantime, men: how about picking out that tie?
All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.