Church Clothes

With the anniversary of Pants coming up next month, I’ve been thinking, not so much about the hoopla surrounding it and the death threats and all that excitement, but about people pontificating about the importance of wearing your Sunday best for Jesus.

I should perhaps first note that for all its flaws, I supported the Pants event, that I found it surprisingly touching, even. And yet something about the discourse coming from both sides was painful, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate at the time.

But I have been thinking about it, and this is my reservation about the way things so often got framed. Why was it okay to wear pants? Again and again the advocates of pants-wearing made the case that it was okay because a nice pantsuit looked so classy—arguably classier than many skirts or dresses. Again and again there was an implicit critique of those who wore anything less than classy, be it pants or skirts. The premise that you should be dressing nicely—at least, according to a particular set of standards—seemed to be accepted by both sides.

The issue of whether this was possible for everyone did come up. People occasionally made the observation that there were those who couldn’t afford the sort of “nice” clothing that Jesus apparently wanted to see, and there would be a quick disclaimer that of course cases where people couldn’t afford anything better were exceptions, that Jesus would overlook their substandard appearance—and then everyone would go back to arguing.

But it can be pretty painful to be one of those exceptions. Both from my family situation growing up, and from other times in my life, I know all too well what it’s like to be in a situation where you can’t afford those kind of “nice” church clothes, where you might have to wear the same thing every week, and to feel desperately self-conscious about it. I still cringe at casual comments about people who aren’t making enough of an effort, who don’t care enough to dress properly. One of the most stinging posts I’ve ever read on the bloggernacle (which I’m not going to link because my intention isn’t to embarrass the author) included a free association about how other people in that person’s ward simply had no fashion sense.

This isn’t easy for me to talk about. I’ve posted on personal feminist angst, on bipolar disorder and hospitalizations, and I would actually rather discuss those issues than this. But here’s the thing. I didn’t wear pants on Pants Sunday simply because I don’t have any, and deciding to spend the money to buy some would be a difficult call.

I’m still fond of Pants. But I wonder how we could talk about it differently.


  1. Oh, and my least favorite thing about the first Pants day was that it could be seen as sorting the feminists and the non-feminists, ironically resulting in more focus on clothes that day. I don’t know what the solution would have been, but just wanted to say that I thought it was unfortunate.

  2. Weird…it isn’t showing my first comment. Good thing I copied it just in case! Here it is:


    Yes! I totally agree – the “wear your nicest clothes” thing never made sense to me either. I still have my wedding dress, but I don’t wear it to church. I also don’t wear the one or two super-fancy bridesmaid dresses I have collected over the past decade of siblings’ weddings.

    Nah, I now wear pants every other week as a reminder (mostly to myself) that there are lots of ways to be a good Mormon, and appearances really shouldn’t matter. I keep getting compliments when I wear skirts (but not when I wear pants), which cracks me up because it’s not going to change my behavior. I have also started sending my kindergartener son in blue jeans every so often…though that is a combination of laziness in doing laundry and not caring enough to plan ahead. I know it bothers some people in the ward, but that is their problem. Anyway, I know everyone makes their own meaning, but to me that is what Pants is about: breaking social traditions and drawing attention to one of the ways we have become kinda Pharisiacal and lost sight of the real goal of church attendance.

  3. I think you’ve hit on a big issue here. Dress and grooming issues are so strange within the church. The area in Brazil where I served my mission had lots and lots of evangelical churches, and many of them forbade female members from cutting their hair, wearing jewelry or (gasp) wearing pants. It drove me nuts that as sister missionaries we had to wear dresses/skirts all the time. I felt like I spent a lot of time clarifying to people that we were not evangelicals and that Mormon women were allowed to wear pants (but how convincing is that when the only two they’d ever met never did?). And then there are the sillier rules, like the former “requirement” (I believe it’s been phased out) for nylon stockings. (“Requirement” in quotes because even though my official paperwork said they were required, my mission president–a doctor–discouraged us from wearing them, in an effort to prevent fungal infections of the feet. But I digress.)

    About a year ago I was leaving the chapel after church when I saw a guy dressed in athletic clothes, and obviously just out for a walk in the neighborhood, peering into the windows of the chapel. I chatted with him for a few minutes and invited him inside. He noticed that everyone was dressed up, and left almost as soon as he came inside, because he saw what other people were wearing, and said he didn’t feel comfortable with how he was dressed. That made me so sad. I think there’s a lot about our community that’s off-putting to potential visitors, and it would be nice if how you were dressed wasn’t such an issue.

  4. Pants Sunday I happened to be at the Christmas Tabernacle Choir concert, and Tom Brokaw’s wife stood up to accept an award. She wore a lovely pantsuit, but I wished that there had been some people there in the audience similarly attired so she would have felt like she’d dressed appropriately.
    Per your post and thoughts on wardrobes, I don’t know how to become the Zion we seek when our costly apparel is still such a big part of church. Most of the women in my ward would never dream of wearing pants to church, but their high fashion is intimidating and off-putting. It makes me grateful for the donning of white temple dresses, and how we can feel worshipping there without worrying about clothes.

  5. To me, it seems like dressing in a variety of ways has at least two purposes. The first is related to practicality, dressing in a way that allows you to regulate your body temperature and comfortably move in a way that you need to for various activities. The second is related to social or cultural significance of clothing, dressing in a way that is deemed appropriate by society for given circumstances. I think “dressing nicely” to show respect falls in this second category.

    It is interesting when these two purposes come in conflict with each other. There were many Sundays in which I was wearing a skirt and nylons with a squirmy toddler on my lap. It was a constant battle to keep my skirt covering my legs and to not let the velcro on my son’s shoes catch on my nylons and tear them. The way I was dressed was definitely interfering with my ability to comfortably engage in the activity. It was harder to hold and cuddle my son and was also harder to focus on what was being said while I was in constant war with my skirt.

    But this doesn’t even address the larger point that you raise here, that if you have less money, you cannot afford a wide variety of clothes, and, thus, have less ability to change how you are dressed for both practical and cultural reasons. You cannot afford the fancy camping and workout clothing that wicks water, dries quickly, and keeps you warm or cool based on what you need. It is also impractical to buy “nice” clothing that you only save for special occasions. So socially, you are limited in what you can express with your clothing. It is harder to send the message that “I dressed especially nicely for this situation” to show respect (church, job interviews etc) if you don’t have a variety of clothing from which to choose.

  6. I think the discussion of financial privilege has merit.

    Often I found the assumption in church was that if you lived the gospel, you would be financially rewarded. But that’s not always the case. Also – how many people have gone into debt to look their best on Sundays? The idea was that Christ judges what is in your heart, not what you wear.

    I too support(ed) the pants day. I noted that my Mom wore pants to her work, but I never saw her wear a dress or skirt (not once). Yet she had many skirts to wear to church on Sunday. She bought them specifically to wear to church and only church.

    It would be much more practical to let people wear what they have, and not specify different/special clothing for church. But I can also see the other side of the argument, one of reverence for the location, etc.

  7. Loved the post, Lynnette.

    Ever since my mission in Brazil I’ve worried about this issue, because it was very common for the best clothing of our investigators to be nicely ironed t-shirts and jeans. That was all they had for dressing up. The rest of their days they wore shorts, t-shirts or tank tops, and flip-flops. On the other hand, many of the long-time members had shirts and ties or skirts, making it so that new members or investigators felt out of place.

    I was never sure what to do about that. I never wore my suit to church, though, because I wanted to at least dress down as much as I could. So my bias is to dress down as much as I can at church so that visitors and new members can feel less out of place.

    On the other hand, I do like the idea that our clothes can help us get out of the everyday routine, helping us enter a ritual space, a sacred space and time. So, for someone who doesn’t wear a tie during the week, I feel that my Sunday time where I’m dressed differently, signals to my mind that I’m doing something special.

    But back to the other hand: today the bishop told my son and another boy not to pass the sacrament because their shirts were not white. My son felt very upset and actually left church early because of it. I’m really baffled as to why a leader would prefer that outcome, rather than going to great lengths to make the youth feel welcome and wanted. Instead, I fear the youth learn that church is about Pharisaical rules instead of inner transformation. It made me really sad.

  8. Mike, I think we have a generation of leaders who got there by being obedient. Obedience has become an end in it’s self rather than a means to an end. the result is the unthinking treatment your son got.

    I have not worn a white shirt since Prop 8 because I do not want to be mistaken for a conservative Mormon. But I don’t think I have been asked to talk in that time either. So yes you get punished for disobedience.

    The Gospel is pretty scarce at church.

  9. Wow! You hit on an issue that never even occurred to me, Lynnette. I guess this is probably just evidence of male privilege: nobody says anything when I wear the same thing to church every week.

    Also, I really like Beatrice’s point about how the cost of clothes pretty much means that you just can’t express as many things with your clothes if you don’t have enough money to buy a wide variety of them.

    And the point several of y’all raised about the sheer variety of clothing at church maybe making it easier for people to feel comfortable I think is a great one. It’s like the norm is so strong that exceptions really stand out. But if it were weaker–if people wore more different stuff in general–visitors could much more easily feel like they fit in, since it would be clear there isn’t just one way to dress.

  10. Thanks for the post, thoughtful and insightful as always.

    I rarely wear white shirts to church any more, they’re boring and life is too short to wear boring clothes. Yesterday I wore my kaleidoscopic purple paisley shirt(!!). I also wear my beard proudly and have only run into trouble once (ironically at the Oakland Temple – where God and Jesus shockingly flaut contemporary Mormon grooming standards).

    But in Northern California no one cares about my weird clothes, and I’ve never been subject to any discrimination or judging that I’ve been aware of. I’ve had to speak 3 times in the past 2 years, and currently serve on the ward council.

    Sometimes I think the church is truer when it’s lived in the minority. We don’t have time to keep the fences up when we’re just trying to stay afloat.

  11. .

    Yeah. We shouldn’t be sorting each other so much.

    Satsuki—don’t feel bad. My message disappeared to and now I don’t even remember what it was…..

  12. Great post, Lynnette.

    I’ve been debating whether to post this comment because I think Mormons can be oddly quick to label each other based on where they come from – but I do tend to think that Mormon culture changes a bit in areas (like the Mo corridor) where the demographic majority is Mormon. The seven years I lived in Utah I found class to be a huge issue. It felt to me like people focused a lot on appearances at church. I also remember hearing letters read across the pulpit in UT that I couldn’t imagine in my home ward. I grew up in a poor area of the Pacific Northwest and a lot of members of our ward only had one skirt /dress/ suit. I remember in particular one group of awesome ladies who wore Birkenstocks and jean skirts every Sunday, and it was clear that they didn’t have other wardrobe options to choose from.

    When I moved to UT I remember hearing over the pulpit specifically that it was “disrespectful” to wear “casual” clothing like denim skirts and sandals to Sac Mtg, and it made me feel very shocked and embarrassed — I knew plenty of people who would be publicly humiliated if such a letter were read in my home ward.

  13. I gotta be honest, my church clothes are different from my workweek clothes, but the primary consideration has been whether I could comfortably take a nap in it. So those long knit dresses are perfect for that.

    As others have said, it is less angsty the more miles away from SLC. Women have routinely worn pants here, including RS presidency, SS teachers, etc.

    In Brasil we had a room with clothes to give away, including children’s clothes, so that money did not prevent one from dressing in a way that folks would be comfortable.

  14. “But back to the other hand: today the bishop told my son and another boy not to pass the sacrament because their shirts were not white. My son felt very upset and actually left church early because of it. I’m really baffled as to why a leader would prefer that outcome, rather than going to great lengths to make the youth feel welcome and wanted.”

    This is tragic. Made even more so by the fact that the current version of the CHI specifically states that the wearing of a white shirt should not be made a requirement of participating.

    Unfortunately, many Church leaders reason as follows: “If a general authority says something is ‘suggested but not required’, we will always treat the ‘suggestion’ as a statement of the higher law and therefore go ahead and enforce it anyway. After all, we always obey the higher law around here.”

    So sometimes Obedience is so Obedient that it becomes Disobedience.

  15. #11, I found Elder Bednar’s BYU address in being quick to observe disturbing for that very point. An elderly now disabled man feels the only way he can show respect to the Saviour is to dress in his white shirt, suit etc., so the visiting SP takes the message that he ought to do the same (erm how about discussing with the guy why he feels like this? – seemed a sad state to be in to me), and Elder Bednar then implies we should all be taking the selfsame lesson. And this in an address that goes on to speak about discernment. Help!

  16. I know how you feel, Lynette. I felt conflicted about pants day for lots of reasons, and this is one of them. I ended up wearing pants mostly because I found a pair of red pants on clearance and I wanted something Christmas-y. So I wore those, and I suppose I’ll wear them again this go-around. I do wear pants to work, but they don’t seem “dressy” enough for church. Ugh. I hate thinking about what I wear to Church. I don’t think that’s the headspace Jesus would want me in.

  17. This is a nice, sincere post. I hate how people in the church can be so obsessed with appearances, and it would be unfortunate if an event intended to move away from that obsession has the opposite effect.


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