What should I wear?

“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility.” —C.S. Lewis

“What should I wear?”

That was a question I often heard my mother ask while growing up. She intuitively knew that, depending on the occasion and its significance, one should dress appropriately. I smile when I look at our family photo album and see my parents in the mid-1960’s dressed in the same formal attire for both my first Holy Communion and the Tennessee vs. Alabama football game. Were both big occasions of significance? For a kid in Knoxville, Tennessee, you better believe it—and they dressed accordingly, in coat and tie and a nice dress.

I started thinking about this topic after reading a recent article in the monthly journal, First Things. In the most recent issue, G. Bruce Boyer, former fashion editor of Town & Country, writes about the changes in dress which have occurred in the past half century. He notes many factors, but identifies the main root cause as what he calls the “Casual Revolution” which began in the 1970’s. This revolution in dress was spawned by the individualism and self-realization that were born from the cultural revolution of the mid-twentieth century.

He writes, “today we see a man walking in midtown Manhattan wearing a pair of jeans, denim shirt and jacket, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots and have no idea what he may be. He may of course, be a cowboy, but on 34th Street? All we are given to know is that he wants to be thought a cowboy. At least for today.”

Boyer goes on to point out that this “casualization” is an expression of individual freedom and is opposed to the “sense of occasion”. He writes, “Occasions are shared public realities, rituals in which we recognize something other than private expression.” Occasions are also communal in the sense that we give ourselves over to that which is bigger than ourselves. Occasions cause us to be humble, and our dress is a sign of that. Boyer adds, “Wearing one’s Sunday best, as much as kneeling, was a visible sign of a humble heart.”

Even the Bible reinforces this sense of dressing for the occasion. One of Jesus’ most striking parables, the King’s wedding banquet (cf. Mt. 22:1-14), ends with a poor fellow being tossed out the door for not being dressed properly in a wedding garment—to wail and gnash his teeth no less! The Church insists on the newly baptized being properly clothed in a white garment following their rebirth by water and the Spirit at baptism This clothing is called to mind again during the funeral liturgy when the body of the deceased is clothed in the white garment of the funeral pall. The “wedding garment” is also a sign of being clothed in works of charity, and ultimately an outward sign of the hidden realities that are part of the life of grace in Christ. Nevertheless, they reinforce the importance of dress and occasion.

Fortunately, the Casual Revolution has not totally wiped out our sense of occasion. One still sees people dress up for weddings and funerals and the prom. And to be honest, I am glad to not wear a three-piece suit to a Royals game! But is should give us pause to think about what we are doing, for example, when we are privileged to attend the most awesome thing in the world, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and even other lesser “occasions”. We should probably all ask that question of my mother more often: “What should I wear?”

+ Bishop James Vann Johnston, Jr.

Catholic Key, June 2, 2017 issue

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