The Conflicted History of Church Garb
Written by: Liam Watts
“A man becomes the creature of his uniform.” Napoleon Bonaparte understood a simple truth: uniforms cast identity. To the people who wear them and the people who see them worn, uniforms suggest feeling and belonging. And, whether formal or informal, strictly followed or loosely applied, uniforms bond people together. For these reasons, uniforms can tell you a lot about a person. From the uniform itself, to how it’s worn or not worn; all these factors compound to paint an abstract picture decipherable by those paying attention. While we may not realize it, most of us wear some form of uniform every day. Dressing professionally for work, wearing styles similarly to our friends, and putting on your jersey before a game: all of these are uniforms. Unfortunately, not every uniform is clearly defined. However, no matter how poorly it may be defined, one is still expected to follow it and to face the consequences of social stigma for failing to do so. One such nebulous uniform exists in the Church. Most churches hold some expectation of what people should wear on Sunday. By looking at how this approved attire of churchgoers has changed throughout the years and across denominations, one can follow a pattern of how values and norms have shifted in the Church. Church clothes tell their own story.
Now, while the idea of cleanliness may not be a piece of clothing, it is still an important part of the Church uniform and a good place to start. No matter what someone is wearing, the practice of being well-groomed and covering basic hygienic needs before church is one thing that has remained mostly universal since the beginning. Historically, cleanliness has often been associated with holiness. While showering and teeth brushing might not carry the same symbolism as incense burning or a sacrificial offering, cleanliness is still connected with the Church and the Sabbath. No matter what someone wears, most people will do their best to be clean and presentable. This is because going to church carries a sense of formality. However, as we will see, this level of formality has shifted over time and continues to do so.
As for actual clothing, from the early church in Acts through to the eighteenth century, there is little to note. This is mostly because, barring the uber wealthy, people lacked more than the necessities. They did not have a wardrobe filled with clothes to choose from. When they went to church, people wore what they had. However, following the eighteenth century, society experienced a radical shift, thanks in part to the changes brought about by industrialization. Along with the emergence of wealth in the middle class, new techniques in manufacturing allowed for clothes to be made cheaply and in bulk. Like never before, the common person had access to more clothes and a higher quality of them. This had the unfortunate effect of creating a distinct split within the Church. Some denominations believed that status symbols such as clothes would alienate the poor from the Church. In John Wesley’s own words, “Let your dress be cheap, as well as plain.” These groups believed that parishioners should continue to simply wear their normal clothes to church. Conversely, other churches, began to open their doors to these middle-class fashionistas recognizing that this sect of the new middle-class was both newly clothed and newly wealthy. This was responsible for creating large wealth disparities between churches. The wealthier churches were then able to outgrow and out-build their more conservative fellows. Eventually, to keep up, everyone was forced to accept fashion into the Church, paving the way for a more formal experience.
Today, the fashion styles of the Church can be split into a few categories. Some churches still hold to strictly formal fashion standards such as suits and dresses. On the other hand, others adopt a more “come as you are” approach that accepts any level of modest attire. Of course, some also accept a stance in the middle of these positions, formal but not fancy. The most formal-dressing churches argue that when going to church one should wear one’s best. This is done out of respect for God. The less-formal churches argue that, as John Wesley believed, fancy dress can turn people away. Each church must decide where they fall on this spectrum.
What is considered appropriate church-clothes has changed and shifted throughout the years, but it has always revealed values in the Church. The emergence of the middle-class has had the largest effect on church fashion, splitting denominations between formal-dress and not. Today, churches weigh a choice between formality in uniform being respectful towards God, and less formality being comforting to new members. Whether or not we realize it, uniforms are all around us.
*Picture gathered from Pintrest*