Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No Shoes, No Shorts, No Service

The other day a friend of mine posted on Facebook, chastising people who come to church dressed like they were going to a picnic. She's right of course. The standard for acceptable dress in church has slipped a long way. As boys at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Brooklyn, we were required to attend 9 o'clock Sunday Mass as a group with our classmates. Attendance was not optional. We sat together all dressed in our school uniform of white shirts and blue ties. We were also subject to surprise inspections by nuns on the lookout for dirty fingernails and shined shoes. We stood, knelt and sat in the church pews like a platoon of soldiers doing close-order drill, all in instinctive response to the little "froggie-clicker" wielded by the nuns. If you missed Mass and didn't bring a note explaining why on Monday, the Inquisition would begin. Few of us were crazy enough to take the risk.


For me, one thing that set Sundays aside from other days was going to church. We lived in a working class neighborhood where many men did physical labor to feed their families. We usually saw them in their scruffy overalls carrying brown bag lunches to the Rockaway Avenue subway station. Women wore drab housewife's smocks with most of the color bleached out of them from hanging on clotheslines in the sun. Kids ran around in patched corduroy pants or dungarees and hand-me-down coats and shoes. These were our weekday clothes and they served their purpose. All that changed on Sunday. Even the poorest families had "Sunday clothes". They may not have been the latest style, but they were clean and neat and worn only on Sundays.


Some days I wake up trying to figure what day of the week it is; retirement removes the weekday-weekend distinctions we make while we are working. Sundays don't have the same feel for me as they used to. Back then, it was different. The church was maybe a 15 minute walk from our house. Along the way we would run into neighbors all decked out in their Sunday best on the way to Mass. They seemed friendlier, as if by donning their church clothes, they somehow changed their personalities as well. Even the grouchy old men who chased you out of their yards from Monday to Saturday might favor you with a forced smile. It was like an ant hill come to life...people you saw every day going about their business were now united in a single purpose...dressed up and marching to church to spend an hour with God. 


It wasn't always easy to recognize them. Mrs. Marino's faded, flowered house dress was gone and in its place a smart silk suit with a fur-trimmed collar. She wore make-up and high heels and walked with a slightly grander air than usual. Mr. Marino was recognizable only by his wrinkled, mahogany face burned brown from years of laboring in construction. Although no longer young, his strength showed through the dark blue suit he wore without favoritism to weddings and funerals alike. Around his starched white collar, held in place by a Holy Name Society tie pin, hung a brown and cream colored tie that clashed horribly with his suit. Well-worn but polished brown shoes and unfashionable white socks completed the ensemble. 


All the people in church dressed this way. The ushers (all in suits) were stationed at the door to head off violations of the dress code, and did not hesitate to enforce them. Women were reminded to cover their heads, and if their dresses were a bit too low cut, were handed modesty scarfs to pin over their cleavage. Anyone stupid enough to show up in shorts or tank tops was politely told to go home and change. If somehow a woman got by the ushers, she could count on getting a lecture about proper dress from the priest along with her Communion. Sandals and sneakers might not make the cut either. As harsh and old-fashioned as these regulations might sound, having a respectfully dressed congregation somehow lent dignity to the service...it reminded people that they were in a special place and privileged to worship in freedom.


My friend clearly remembers these days too, and, like me, is offended to see how much things have changed for the worse. It's not just in church where decorum is ignored. People show up in public places wearing pajama bottoms, flip flops, embarrassingly short shorts, and my favorite, the guys with their pants lowered to show their underwear. Mr. and Mrs. Marino would be aghast.


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1 comment:

The Whiner said...

Yes, my favorite is when some teenage girl is going up to Communion in cropped sweatpants with the word "DELICIOUS" printed across her ass.