Sunday Dress

In our most recent General Conference, there has been a push for members to dress up for church. It’s long been a hobby horse of E. Oaks, and that hasn’t changed. Generally speaking, current Mormon dress standards at church are a little more dressed up than most other sects, but maybe less than Easter at a historically black church–we don’t like hats and fans.

Several years ago, we had a French boy staying with us on an exchange program. I asked if he wanted to come along with us to church or if he preferred to stay home. He said he would like to come along, for curiosity sake. I had mentioned that people in our church tended to dress up for church. He was Catholic, an occasional church-goer, but not from a super devout family. When he came down in nice jeans, sneakers, and a tee shirt with a slogan on it, I was worried he’d feel awkward when he saw all the other kids in dress pants and button down shirts. He borrowed a button down shirt from my son and off we went. He was further surprised to see our son administering the sacrament, a rite he was used to seeing a priest in vestments conduct.

Perhaps part of our dress standards relate to lay members performing rites. Actually, we know this is the case from talks by E. Oaks about the white shirt being “the uniform of the priesthood.” But even in my own lifetime, this was not always the case. If it’s a valuable symbolic idea, it’s nevertheless a relatively new one. The white shirt has been a missionary staple for a long time, but it became a church-wide sacrament-ordinance staple only since the late 80s. Prior to that, there may have been local preferences, but there was not a mandate. Sometimes wards take this further, like when one of our YM leaders declared that all the Aaronic priesthood holders should wear a suit jacket every Sunday as well at their white shirts and dark dress pants because it would “look sharp.” While my sons (fans of suit-wearing Barney on How I Met Your Mother) embraced this new rule, as a parent I found it to be a bit of a financial and personal burden to keep growing teenage boys in a full suit every week, particularly since we live in hot Arizona where suit jackets don’t make sense half of the year and result in thermostat wars that the women always lose. But that’s the point of church, isn’t it? Looking sharp?

Scriptures warn us not to be too dressy at church. This was one of the failings of the Zoramites in the Book of Mormon.

“Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, and their ringlets, and their bracelets, and their ornaments of gold, and all their precious things … and behold, their hearts are set upon them.” Alma 31:28

This reminds me of Isaiah going off on the women of his day in a passage that reads like a medieval pre-woke Teen Vogue:

“In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, The rings, and nose jewels, apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, The glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the veils.” Isaiah 3: 18-23.

Like the Book of Mormon, the New Testament is not a fan of fancy apparel:

“For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” James 2:2-4

So, then, why all the angst over dressing like business executives at church and on missions? Is “looking sharp” at heart a missionary tool? “Hey, look at how well dressed we are! If you join us, you’ll be upwardly mobile middle class, too!” If it smacks of prosperity gospel, that’s because it is. Like so many things, we can thank the Victorians, inventers of the middle class, for the idea that we should dress up for church. From an article on The Origins of Dressing Up for Church:

Dressing up for church became a popular practice in the first half of the nineteenth century, first in England, then northern Europe and America, as a consequence of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the middle class. While care was historically given to cleanliness and solemnity on Sabbath days, dressing up for worship resulted, not from a theological teaching, but from the influence of Victorian culture on worshiping communities.

The Victorian era spanned from 1837 (seven years after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or whatever we called ourselves then was formed) to 1901 when Queen Victoria died. This timing is particularly coincidental as it’s when Mormonism was flourishing in the west. Victorian thought was renown for several cultural traits:

  • Family-centrism. Rather than seeing children as an irritatingly small and whiny low-skill workforce, Victorians began to treat the home as a refuge, a locus for the family’s activities. While the role of women was still mostly limited to selfless Madonna or profligate whore, Victorianism also saw the rise of women’s education levels which opened up new possibilities for them and paved the way for women’s suffrage.
    • Leisure also became a staple of family life as the railway system opened Britain up for family holidays. Families could enjoy time away from work together.
  • Prudery. The Victorians are the ones who added fig leaves to famous statuary. Prudery was all the rage around this time, throughout the world, not just a Protestant thing. Similarly, some priests (sometimes attributed to Pope Pius IX) chopped off the genitalia of centuries-old works of art in the Vatican during this era. [1]
  • Scientific progress, including medical advances and creating asylums and sanitariums for those who were vulnerable in society due to mental or physical disabilities. By today’s standards, these aren’t great, but they were innovative and humane for their time. Progress!
  • Order and conformity. This was evident in how families were run (by a patriarch), how society was run, and the expectations of piety, particularly for women and children (to keep them in line, submissive to male authority). [2]

While those may have been features of Victorian life, what really made it possible for society to shift to “Sunday dress,” among other middle class virtues, is the industrial revolution. Rather than an agrarian economy which required participation by all family members during planting and harvest seasons, an industrial economy led to the rise of a middle class. And make no mistake, middle class values inform every aspect of our lives as Americans and Mormons. We hold many unquestioned assumptions that are middle class in origin.

If you go back in time, only the wealthy had access to “dress up” clothes. The poor made their own home-spun coarse clothing, and they wore it to work in the fields until it was torn, tattered, and filthy. They did not have a second set of clothes for church. There’s a reason Jesus’ robe was such a big deal that they cast lots on it. To mock Him, Herod had put a splendid robe on him and sent him back to Pilate for judgment. It’s unclear whether this was the robe that soldiers cast lots for after the crucifixion, but it is noteworthy that the robe was not sewn together, but was rather all one piece of work. That made it more valuable. The soldiers didn’t want to devalue it by cutting it into pieces.

“Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.” John 19: 23-24

According to historian Josephus in his book Antiquities of the Jews, the temple’s high priest wore a blue vestment that had no seams. It was parted along the front and back. Perhaps this is similar to the “splendid robe” that was used to mock Jesus’ status by the wealthy, powerful Herod. Even in Jesus’ day, clothing symbolized power and wealth. Although there is less distinction between wealthy and commoner clothing at church now than then, it is still an important note. Some church members simply have more money to spend on clothing and are more likely to own more “dressy” clothes as a result.

Several Christian groups in the 18th and 19th centuries resisted the introduction of “Sunday dress” (dressing up) in favor of “plain” dress. The Amish to this day consider buttons and variety in clothing to be a worldly vanity, instead opting for hook and eye closures on clothing and mostly black and white clothes. Sects like Mennonites prohibit colorful clothing. In Puritan communities, as I learned on my recent tour of Salem, Massachusetts, wearing colors like red or other bright (and expensive to dye) clothing could result in a charge of witchcraft.

But other sects embraced the emerging “genteel” values that were becoming the norm as the middle class grew in wealth and size. Horace Bushnell, a Congregational minister in Connecticut argued that sophistication and refinement were integral attributes that mature Christians should emulate. In his essay “Taste and Fashion,” he referred to “fashion” as a hollow substitute of the socio-economic middle class for the real deal, “taste,” a virtue of his own gentry class. He decried the “fashions” of the rising upwardly-mobile middle class as artificial in contrast to the natural goodness of a family-run (by gentry, of course) farm. And yet, this seems like a familiar trade vs. gentry argument, old money vs. new money. It’s still a case of the haves vs. the have-nots, and the rising middle class that he decried was mimicking the gentry class and the trappings of wealth.

In 1846, a North Carolina Presbyterian pastor named William Henry Foote  wrote that “a church-going people are a dress-loving people.” He noted that these new dress-up customs had become so ingrained that they defied weather changes that would have dictated more practical choices. Even in warm summer months, Presbyterian immigrants in both Maine and western Pennsylvania carried their nice shoes and stockings to the meetings (to avoid soiling them), and then wore them during the service, replacing them with practical clothing after the meeting before they walked home.

According to historian Nicholas Terpstra, working class men in Britain who could only afford one good suit for church would pawn the suit on Monday for money to live on during the week, only to reclaim it on Saturday for church the next day.

Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher whose life and ministry encompassed the 50 years that saw this change of culture among American evangelicals. At the end of his life, he lamented “The Methodists in that early day dressed plain . . . they wore no jewelry, no ruffles . . . But O, how have things changed for the worse in this educational age of the world!”

As Richard Bushman said in The Refinement of America, a book about the absorption of gentry values into middle class society in the early United States:

“The Methodists, who were among the most restrained Christians at first, were wearing fashionable clothing by the 1850’s, signifying absorption of genteel values.

Certainly, the man who referred to himself as Brother Joseph, who initially found the Methodist sect most persuasive (prior to 1830 at least!), would have been attracted to a more humble, less ostentatious form of dress for worship.

Say what you will, since the industrial revolution, Americans and Mormons are swimming in the unquestioned assumptions of middle class values: self-reliance, community order, and yes, prosperity gospel. We believe you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps (as opposed to the prevailing idea from earlier eras that there are immutable, god-ordained “haves and have-nots”). And an integral part of that prosperity gospel includes the trappings of our middle-class wealth. If it’s not a show of wealth, consider what we say it represents: respect toward God, making church a set-apart, special place. We deliberately make it less casual, not more. Being casual in our dress is taken as a heuristic for being casual in our respect for deity or commandment-keeping. It’s assumed as evidence of lack of commitment or discipleship. And yet, the lord looketh on the heart. Your fellow ward members, not so much.

One problem with the assumption that casual dress equals moral laxity is that what we consider “Sunday dress” is also for many of us our white-collar work wardrobe. What we wear when we dress casually isn’t, for many of us, what we wear to work, but rather what we wear for leisure, something that most workaday people didn’t have prior to the mid-1800s. That’s how many clothes we now have compared to when these norms came into effect. We have different clothes for work, worship, athletics, and leisure time, not to mention our “grubby” attire for cleaning out the garage or doing yard work. The very existence of leisure clothes is itself a sign of wealth, or at least it was when leisure emerged in the mid-1800s.

What do you think of the focus on “Sunday dress”?

  • Does it separate people by financial means and make visitors feel unwelcome or does it advertise that if you join us, you too can improve your wealth with our community’s support network in your court?
  • Does it show respect to God or is it a show for other people? How do you feel impacted by the dress standards in other churches you’ve attended? Does how we dress matter or is it a distraction?

Discuss.

[1] Leaving me to wonder where the closet full of statuary genitalia is.

[2] except Queen Victoria who was the freaking queen.

Comments

  1. Any clothes one wears on Sunday is their Sunday dress.

  2. The story about William Henry Foote about women changing into stockings and nice shoes reminds me of a similar story I remember reading about early Mormon converts here in the Mendon, NY branch in the early 1830s. Apparently they did the exact same thing in the summer, stopping just before they got within easy sight of the stagecoach inn where the branch met to put on their stocking and shoes before the meeting, then after the meeting, once they got out of sight, they would take off the stockings and shoes and walk home barefoot.

  3. Bob Powelson says:

    I gave up white shirts and neckties five or six years ago. For all of you who have seen the movies Men in Black and then look at the stand in the Conference Center I have the urge to comment on the men in black.

  4. I believe we have downplayed the importance of Sunday dress in the Wards I have been in. Lately we even had a new convert blessing the sacrament in jeans and a collared tennis shirt. Most people rejoiced at the fact that he was up there participating – I saw absolutely no negative reaction. That might be because we are far from the Utah/Idaho area where dress might play a bigger social role.

  5. I think I remember reading something on KeepaPitchinIn about how some wards in SLC had their deacons administering the sacrament in all white with red sashes (or other similar nonsense) in the early 1900s? In other words, members were anxious to add pomp and ceremony to the ordinance the moment no one was looking. Ardis?

  6. I wish the concept of Sunday Best was an invitation to examine what I wear, why I’m wearing it, and whether or not it contributes to my worship of God and my ability to do my calling. Instead of being a call to dress nicely, it could be a call to wear the best clothes for the task at hand. Thus every nursery leader would be dressed in comfortable, easy-wash, stain resistant clothes. No one would be wearing clothes that are stiff or uncomfortable so that we all could freely focus on the messages. “Sunday best” would be remembering to bring a sweater on chilly days, and wearing lightweight clothing in the heat.

    I think if we had a better take on modesty as a gospel principle instead of a dress code (think modest home, not modest skirt), and a more explicit rejection of the prosperity gospel then talk of “Sunday Best” could be more like my fantasy. Currently, “Sunday Best” is an directive to display our in-group status and loyalty through our ability to wear the correct uniform.

  7. Starfoxy: When I was called to co-lead the nursery, my partner had the right idea. Every week after sacrament meeting, he would put on a red apron that covered all his “church” clothes, then he’d set a glass of ice on the piano and crack open a Rock Star. Every week. Another one of the nursery workers always wore an old sweater so it didn’t matter if it got toddler liquids on it.

  8. When I was about 7, my mother made me a lovely dress of sheer turquoise fabric with lace trim. It was not only for Sunday only; it was for EVERY Sunday. I loved it. It was just as beautiful the Sunday after some boy made fun of me for wearing the same dress every week, but I had been made to feel self conscious and much of the joy of that dress was gone.

    As a missionary I had a bright red, very feminine suit, nice fabric, well fitting, worn with a bright white silk blouse and strappy black heels. It made me feel so good that I saved that outfit to wear only when I desperately needed a boost in morale. I happened to wear it once to an activity with local members in the Nice stake in France, and overheard the clucks and whispered-loud-enough-to-be-sure-I-heard disapproval by a clutch of older women who were scandalised that a sister missionary would wear that color. I felt so good in that suit, though, that I held my head even higher and stared them down.

    It’s hard to wear what I have to wear now on my budget, especially in a wealthy ward. What else can I do, though?

    So, yeah, clothes matter at Church, but possibly not in quite the way Pres. Oakes thinks.

  9. A couple thoughts (and apologies if I go off here – I definitely have feelings about this):
    1) One reason I am glad the church is ditching scouting is because of the unreasonable cost of purchasing all the scouting uniforms/manuals/etc. In general church programs, the church has done a great job of either providing manuals for free, or at low cost, but not scouts. My kids were not wild about scouts, but we still felt obligated to prep them for it in case they wanted to jump in more fully at some point. It literally costs $100 to just buy a scout shirt, patches for it, and a manual (I know this because I’ve ponied up several times). That’s NUTS. Why do I mention this? Because I also felt obligated to spend about $150 on a suit/white dress shirt/belt/tie/shoes for my son when he joined YM. And that was at JC Penney ON SALE. It’s not like it’s super easy to go to Goodwill and find the exact right size suit for a kid – if you do, it’s your lucky day (I do not live in Utah). So imagine all the people out there where this is a hardship – after all, the older kids get the more expensive they get in all aspects of life – this just adds another cost. It seems like we should chill a bit and just maybe go for clean and pressed? A white polo shirt and a cheap pair of cotton dresspants for a 12yo should be more than adequate. And affordable. At Children’s place, this whole ensemble could cost $20 with free shipping.

    2) I have an autistic son who already finds church challenging for a number of reasons. For a lot of years, he had massive issues with clothing textures, etc. and even now that he’s a little older and not quite as sensitive, he has very concrete ideas of what’s acceptable as far as clothing that goes on his body. If he doesn’t like it, he won’t wear it. A suit, stiff dress shirt, tie, etc. may not work for him. I absolutely will not make it a fight with him. I *want* him to *want* to come to church, and if I create a whole bunch of barriers related to stuff like what he wears, that may impede his desire to attend church.

    At the end of the day (and I live in an urban area so I see a little more of this) we should first and foremost want people to attend – especially kids/youth. The more barriers we put in place, the less comfortable some people are going to feel. Every Sunday I look at the youth in our ward and I think about how much I love them (when you’re a mom, you’re a mom to the world). I know it’s hard for some of them to be at church and participate for all kinds of reasons. I am just so grateful they are there, and I can’t say that I ever consider what they are wearing.

    Church is a hospital, not a showroom (thank you Elder Uchtdorf!). You do you, and God will accept your efforts and what’s in your heart. Yes, we should show respect, but that will inevitably look different for different people and that’s okay.

  10. What a memory you have, Rachel! You’re thinking of The Old Written Order of Things from 2008.

  11. pconnornc says:

    I’m on board w/ the over focus and the relative lack of importance of the Sunday Dress, but thought I balance the comments w/ 3 positives..
    1 – I think there is something that reminds us we’re in this together when we dress similarly. It reinforces our worship and the shared experience.
    2 – I think there is a message we are reminding ourselves of when we dress “better” than other days
    3 – I know a deacon w/out a tie or a bishopric member in a blue shirt or a RS president in pants can be a stumbling block for others. That’s their problem for sure, but it’s no skin off my back to avoid contributing to their struggles – just like I am sure people make silent allowances for me ;-)

  12. I was amused at first in my mission in Seoul, Korea, as I saw everyone wearing mismatching outfits. It was more noticeable with the men whose ties, shirts, jackets, pants, and shoes were not the combinations I would have worn.

    Then I had a member explain to me that the men were wearing their best tie, best shirt, best jacket, best pants, and best shoes. It didn’t matter how they looked in combination. What mattered was that they were wearing their best.

  13. My personal reaction is two-fold:
    1. I appreciate the dress code because it makes it so easy for me to mark myself in or out. I can calibrate the things I am asked to do by the way I dress.
    2. I like “Sunday best” because I am part of the culture. My opinions and preferences are informed by when and where I was born and what my mother taught me.

    My philosophical reaction is that it is error to teach Western middle class and Victorian mores as eternal verities. If instead they were taught as culturally positioned opinions and preferences (my #2 above) I would have no objection except for prioritization. What we spend time on informs our values almost as much as the content of what we say. This goes for a lot more than ties and dresses at Sunday meeting.

  14. Royce Van Tassell says:

    Despite our pulpit rhetoric, the current Handbook of Instructions offers the following: “Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance. Bishops should use discretion when giving such guidance to young men, taking into account their financial circumstances and maturity in the Church.”

    Sadly, I don’t think this message gets through very often. Instead, the implicit, if not explicit message Young Men hear is that the color of your shirt indicates your worthiness to exercise the priesthood. I make that statement based on my own experience; when I worked with the Young Men and wore a white shirt, the Young Men frequently asked me to help pass the sacrament. When I’ve worked with the Young Men and worn a colored shirt, they’ve never asked me to help pass the sacrament. At this point, I wear a colored shirt routinely, if only as a private symbol that decoration (what I wear) does NOT reflect obedience.

  15. Holy horse manure. Is there anything you gals and guys don’t love just picking apart about our faith, members, culture or leaders?

    You can’t withstand 1/8 the personal scrutiny that you subject your targets to. The leaders you non-critically criticize would be a good model to follow if you’re sincere in doing the right thing.

  16. This seems to be dead on to me for all members: . . . should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament.

  17. Perma banned says:

    I am one of the least-dressed up members in my ward. And yes I know it’s signaling to my fellow members.

  18. Angela C says:

    pconnornc: “I know a deacon w/out a tie or a bishopric member in a blue shirt or a RS president in pants can be a stumbling block for others. That’s their problem for sure, but it’s no skin off my back to avoid contributing to their struggles” I’ve given this notion a lot of thought, and obviously it’s something Paul wrote about as well, but the flip side is equally problematic. We give insiders heartburn if we look like we don’t belong according to group norms, but we give outsiders the message that they don’t fit if we ALL fit a highly specific norm. That’s the other side of that equation that Paul (who was more concerned about community cohesion) doesn’t mention.

    Libc: Up next, a post entitled “All is well in Zion.” There is no content.

  19. Dog Spirit says:

    I will now begin the hunt for jewelry so gaudy it’s distracting during sacrament. Given the current fashion of statement necklaces I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’ll call Mr. T and get back with you later.

  20. Are you sure that it was Oaks, not Holland, talking about Sunday dress? I must have zoned out and missed his comments. I did hear Elder Holland speak quite a bit about the sacrament and how we treat it. He spoke several years ago about his preference for white shirts and ties, and I suspect the overreaction from priesthood leaders triggered the handbook section cited above.

    What stood out to me was Holland’s much greater emphasis on timeliness, preparation, and reverence for the sacrament. I think it is easier to put on a Sunday dress or suit than it is to modify behavior. It’s also a lot easier to judge judge people on their appearance than to understand their actions. The first happens each week at church regularly, but to be like Jesus, we need to do the second.

  21. Angela C says:

    Mark: I was thinking of Sis. Craven’s talk. Oaks’ remarks are from over his entire career as apostle, not this specific conference.

  22. Cynthia H says:

    I don’t care what ward members wear, it’s most important that they’re there. I think we do need to be aware that cost of suits and dresses can be prohibitive for some families and we should be gentle with each other. However, it does bug me a bit on the Sundays after school dances when the high school kids come in the dresses and tuxes they wore to the dance the night before. It seems over the top to me. Mostly it probably bugs me because I was one of the kids in school who didn’t go to a lot of dances during high school, so I always wonder what the kids who stayed home think about those Sundays after dances. I know I would have hated going to church on those post-dance Sundays if this had been a practice when I was youth age. Is this a Utah only thing, or does this happen church wide? Again, I’m glad that those kids are there, but it doesn’t seem very modest to wear such over the top apparel to a church meeting.

  23. Beatrice says:

    I don’t mean to invalidate anyone else’s take on this, but I think the invitation (thinking of Holland here) to renew “Sunday best” wasn’t meant to be taken as a token of prosperity gospel or to show off. For me, growing up in a white, Western, middle-class culture, I *feel* more prepared for church when I spend time getting ready physically – wearing Sunday best. For others, maybe not. And dressing in Sunday best doesn’t have to be something everyone does the same way.

    We can always take invitations to focus on something outwards as an invitation to judge. Maybe it would be better to 1) think of how we can use this outwards practice to improve our own spirituality? and 2) leave others’ decisions to themselves?

    Leaders may call on us to change our dress, but I’ve never heard any leader say that we should judge others as less than for not dressing the same way we do. That’s a take we choose, not them.

  24. I think there’s a lot of value in considering what your wear to church, and aiming for something that is distinctive (different from what one normally wears) and respectful. But I do think that what constitutes distinctive and respectful varies enormously between culture and individuals within a culture. I wear light colored suits to church because I don’t want to feel like I’m going to work.

    I also don’t think our current culture reflects “fancy apparel”. There is hardly anything worldly about what most members wear to church. No one is likely to confuse a sacrament meeting with a Hollywood premier.

  25. A white polo shirt and a cheap pair of cotton dresspants for a 12yo should be more than adequate. And affordable. At Children’s place, this whole ensemble could cost $20 with free shipping.

    Though prices like this raise the issue of how low-wage labor in developing countries affects the consumption patterns of the wealthiest country on earth, so I don’t think we are out of the woods simply by buying on the cheap.

  26. Angela, I misread the first paragraph in your OP. I may also have mentally blocked Sister Craven’s talk, which rubbed me the wrong way. I think as long as we are teaching an “ideal” that relies on temporal prosperity, we are pointed in the wrong direction.

    Cynthia, in my Midwest ward during the 70’s the youth would show up to church the day after the prom in their expensive dresses and tuxedos. It was pretty easy to pick out who was able to get and afford a date and who was left out. I think pride and modesty have always been in opposition.

  27. Salzgitter says:

    I’ve found that the further away you get from Salt Lake, the more relaxed the dress standards are. We were in the Hannover Ward in Germany and there were several women wearing pants. One of the speakers was a woman, who was wearing pants. We attending church at the Hyde Park Chapel. The dress varied from clean and neat causal clothes to “the uniform.” Despite what Pres. Oaks may say, we are not Zoramites.

  28. felixfabulous says:

    I think, this like many other areas, reflects how we are woefully behind the times. Our emphasis on “Sunday Best” seems to be wanting to transport us back to the 50s and doesn’t reflect the current reality, in America at least. Nice jeans, dress shoes, a button up shirt and a sport coat would be dressy enough for most business meetings and, where I live, the only people who wear suits and ties to work either work for the Church, the government or are lawyers appearing in court. When we say Sunday Best, we don’t mean looking nice, we mean wearing our uniform, dark suit, white shirt and tie for men and traditional “modest” dress for women.

  29. I have always understood “sunday best” to be the nicest of whatever we have. (Kind of like the comment about Korea). Without being ostentatious or over the top. I have never liked the practice of wearing prom dresses to church (as Mark commented), and when my daughter bought a sequined covered dress for Christmas, we both decided that it was great for parties, but too much for church. In our very diverse (both economically and culturally) ward, sometimes the “best” another member has may not be the “best” that I have. Frankly, I’m not one for skirts, but I wear one to church, because it’s “dressier” than the jeans I live in, and Sunday should feel different. My friend, who struggles financially with several children, has children that come in jeans and tshirts, but are always clean and neat. Her son just became old enough to pass the sacrament, he found a white shirt at Goodwill, and he wears it with his best jeans. (And his ponytail, which would give some people apoplexy, I’m sure). To me, it’s important that it feel NOT like the rest of the week, and if dressing up is part of that, I’ll do it. To someone that wears suits to work everyday, it may be something else. But, I think that respect for the ordinance should be part of the decision of what to wear.

  30. I came home from my mission tired of white shirts. I love blue. After my first term back at school post mission, I was home for the holidays. I wore a blue shirt with my suite and matching tie to church. I liked the look. I later found out it it caused my mother much anxiety and stress. In my rural conservative home ward, I learned that evidently I was signalling rebellion and members murmured behind my back–they were sure I was unworthy and living a wild life at The BYU. My mom had to do damage control to keep my preserve my reputation.

    Shirt color, like hair length, (and like a thousand other things that are nothing more than cultural artifacts) is not a moral issue. Yet so many get twisted up. I too appreciate our traditions. It makes me feel a part of something, but not when it gives way to ‘if a little is good, a lot is always better’ thinking. We seem to still struggle with that, but not as much as we seemed to when I was young. Most of my experiences suggest as a culture we are moving forward. I’m delighted to see men today wearing beards sitting on the stand as bishopric members.

  31. Angela C says:

    I think the prom dresses at church phenomenon is at least Mormon Corridor if not entire Mormon West. It definitely wasn’t a thing where I grew up (back east), but it has been done a few times in my Arizona ward (and we live where Mormons are a definite minority, not in the east valley where there are more Mormons than Provo). I found it a bit shocking the first time I saw it, but I guess that’s the culture. I haven’t seen it much recently, perhaps because most of the girls wear sleeveless or other stuff that might get them the stink-eye at church.

  32. Kevin Barney says:

    I usually wear a non-white dress shirt, dress slacks and nice shoes, a tie and a nice sweater. In other words, fairly dressed up, but I specifically avoid the 1960’s IBM salesman “uniform of the priesthood,” which I personally find to be ridiculous.

  33. A few months back my teenage son and I began visiting other local denominations. Because of the unwritten order of most LDS meetings, how members dress is one of the first things I notice when we arrive at a new congregation. I find I feel most uplifted at those churches where clothing is less a focal point of worship. I feel these faiths do a better job focusing on the word of the Lord instead of the dress code of the Lord. But maybe it’s just me projecting my disdain for dressing up on these other denominations.

  34. The other Chad says:

    As a senior missionary in an impoverished Caribbean area, one of my weekly stresses is watching the self-conscious reaction of virtually every investigator who walks into the chapel. They were proud to “dress up” in polos and denims, only to feel ashamed. Most members can’t even afford transportation to church and buy groceries by the day, yet newly baptized men work for several weeks to earn enough to buy “the uniform.” When they finally show up in white shirts and ties (items otherwise unknown in this scorching country), the branch members seem to take it as the final sign of real commitment. Most would be shocked to know I wear colored shirts and no tie in Utah. It’s all so weird given all the scriptural injunctions about “fine apparel” and assurances that in the inward vessel is what matters.

  35. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    I also heard more of this coming from Elder Holland than anyone else this past conference. And in the context of being more thoughtful and prepared for personal worship in sacrament meeting, I think it is good instruction.

    He did not give any particulars on hemlines or shirt colors, but emphasized that that hour of the week really aught to deserve our best in every sense. I did not anticipate any trend towards formal gowns and black tie, but I could probably dispense with the khakis a little bit more often, in favor of a decent suit.

  36. I usually adore Elder Holland’s talks, but his scolding delivered here was just too much!
    I never viewed the whole “Sunday beat” in any way related to “prosperity gospel”, but holy mackerel….. can the Brethren refrain from harping on what people wear to church?!?? We have a local denomination (actually, I think it’s nondenominational) that has a billboard that says “wear your jeans…. we do”. It makes my husband and me laugh, but I think there is something that is missed when our top leaders are preaching from the pulpit about how the members need to dress.
    If I’d heard that when I was taking the discussions I might have shied away.

  37. Bob Powelson says:

    I am 79 and a bit stove in. I take diruritics which means at least 2 trips to the men’s room in a hurry. I wear sweat pants.

    I also have a rotator cuff problem which makes it pain full to put a tie on. So I don’t put it on.

    I teach SS and teach sitting down. Most don’t care. A councilor in the Stake presidency said something and I snarled at him. No repeats from him either.

  38. Sometimes I wonder if I was even at the same conference when I read these things! Why do people focus on weird things? I’ll have to reread the talks but I don’t recall a focus on what people wear to church this past conference. I’ve been a member all my life (I’m in my 50’s) and the white shirt and tie had always been a thing, it did not start in the 80’s. I also don’t live in Utah or anywhere near Utah.

  39. Why do people focus on weird things?

    Since the kind people at By Common Consent are not the ones promoting a particular dress code over the pulpit, you may want to direct your question to those who do.

    what we consider “Sunday dress” is also for many of us our white-collar work wardrobe.

    Yep. I sometimes mix it up for church by not wearing my suit jacket, but I usually miss the pockets so mostly I wear my “Sunday best” six days of the week. Also, I like white shirts because 1) they go with any suit/tie combo and 2) you can wear them more than once without anyone noticing (but don’t tell anyone I do that!). At any rate, I hope the angels are silent notes taking because this is an area where my orthopraxy really shines!

  40. The prom dresses and tuxes thing was definitely not just a Utah or Western US thing. Here in upstate NY I don’t remember seeing it much in the early 90s, but when I was in high school in the late 90s everyone did it. People still do it, but it seems to be a little less the past 5 years or so. I totally hate it.

  41. from lds.org (New Era 2008): “Wearing formal clothing on the Sabbath sets Sunday apart from the rest of the week in our minds and, thus, in our actions.”
    I don’t think the writer meant prom dresses and tuxes.

    There were decades when wearing a white shirt, tie, and suit on the Sabbath wholly failed to set Sunday apart. I referred to that get-up as my “lawyer costume.” Some years ago one of the leaders in my ward insisted that one dress that way to give a blessing to the sick, because it set the ordinance apart from everyday activities. He was a construction worker. I told him my lawyer costume was of no help to my faith or priesthood. By his principle I should be wearing jeans and a workshirt to church or to give a blessing.

    I have noted and appreciated the variety of clean and casual and sometimes semi-formal dress at the many non-LDS churches where I have been present. In their services, rehearsals, and social hours at church I never saw eyebrows lifted at anyone’s attire and never heard it discussed. I liked that. My ward has become somewhat more like that over the years, perhaps still not enough for some.

  42. I don’t post often, but this one always irks me. I saved the email copied to me from the bishop regarding my son’s behavior. Someone complained that he was not wearing a white shirt to pass the sacrament. The unknown part of the story is that he came directly from the airport to church after spending the week with his grandparents. He asked me to grab a tie on the way to pick him up. He considered it more important to be at church to complete his priesthood duties than to worry about whether his best was good enough. Some busy body complained that he dared to pass the sacrament wearing pink. I still am at a loss for words.

  43. Bob Powelson says:

    There was an incident from the days of the great depression, where some youth in Cardston were unable to afford the white shirt bit. Nathan Eldon Tanner, later an apostle and member of the First Presidency wore overall to the meeting as Bishop.

    My quibble with dress codes is the emphasis on the “letter of the law” rather than the spirit. I would rather have someone in church dressed an sweats and a hoodie than not being in church.

    We should spend a little more time concerned with our own salvation and assist our brothers and sisters to find theirs.

  44. nobody, really says:

    Our current EQP took me aside and asked if I’d “got the memo about white shirts at church”. I told him it was a calculated action to make sure investigators and new members would get the impression that it was okay to attend in something other than a suit, tie, and white dress shirt (we are in one of the worst poverty-stricken areas of the United States). He told me, “Well, Brother Really, it is up to set the example and they will get the right idea eventually.” My response – “So, your idea is to make people feel uncomfortable until they either buy a suit or stop attending?”

    There’s nothing I like better than to see a new member, recently ordained a priest, to be there in a clean white polo shirt and his best jeans, passing the sacrament. I suppose he could have bought a suit and dress shirt, but he chose instead to buy a used bicycle so he could ride with the missionaries.

  45. MrShorty says:

    This, is an interesting conundrum for me. On the one hand, I like the idea of a small, separate, church wardrobe that tells me that church (and Sunday) is different from activities the other 6 days. However, I also would really like to see a more open “come as you are” attitude that doesn’t care what others are wearing. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. I can choose to have a special Sunday/church wardrobe for myself, and be fully welcoming of the clothing choices others make.

    Without getting to bogged down in the professional/corporate/academic cultures that the vast majority of our church leaders would have spent their careers in, I was just reminded of the long running debate over “casual friday” and dress codes in general in the workplace. I am no expert on the research (and not inclined to become one), but the popular literature reporting on the effects seems mixed and contradictory. I expect that, if such data were extended to church attire, results would also be mixed and contradictory. (Using men who wear ties as an example), Do men who wear ties to church have a better worship experience? Especially if you looked across denominations, I expect you would find mixed and even contradictory results. Are men who wear ties more committed to their faith? Again, I expect there would be mixed and contradictory results. I don’t even know how to design the research to really get at those questions and separate them from confounding issues.

    Much seems to come down to culture and tradition. When all is said and done, is this one of those issues where it is difficult to separate culture/tradition from God’s eternal, revealed truth?

  46. On one hand we have scriptures eschewing fine apparel. On the other hand we have modern day leaders saying that we need to dress up for church. If I don’t dress up for church, would rebelling against the Lord’s servants be of benefit to me on Judgement Day? God does want me to be an agent unto myself, and not a drone. But His house is a House of order.
    Perplexing.
    I brought up these points with my mother-in-law over dinner, and her second reaction was “I can think of some less active families that would probably come back to church if they didn’t have to dress up.”
    But we do have a lay ministry, and for better or worse, people do treat leaders differently with how they’re dressed. My bishop mentioned once how he has to keep an outfit in his car to change into. I asked him why, and he said that when he was first bishop and he was doing interviews during the week, that he’d keep on the business casual clothes that he wore at work. But it seemed like members were having trouble connecting with him as bishop. He experimented with wearing “the uniform” and people started reacting to him as a bishop, and using him as a bishop. Since he didn’t want his outfit to get in the way of someone being able to make use of their bishop, he wears the uniform whenever he’s needed as the bishop.

  47. Food for thought.

    When I was a kid, my father wore the same suits to church that he wore to work everyday, and I thought all adults did the same. So church clothes just seemed like professional clothes to me.

    As an adult, I home taught a part member family. The wife had converted and wanted her husband to join as well. He attended church a few times, but his wife told me he expressed reluctance to continue because all the men wore ties, and he was embarrassed because he did not know how to tie one. Honestly, he may have had other reasons to not attend, but that is what he said.

  48. joshua harrison says:

    is the emphasis on white shirts and suites and dresses about “Sunday Best”, or is it really about conformity? People on this board seem to be non-conformists who are part of a culture that worships conformity in behavior, thought, and yes dress

  49. Jack Hughes says:

    I’ve said this before elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again here–some of the most spiritually powerful sacrament meetings I have ever attended were during military deployments, where NO ONE was wearing a white shirt. We wore uniforms with body armor and most of us were carrying loaded weapons. The only things that mattered were what was in our hearts, and the fact that we were all far away from our loved ones doing dangerous work. That tends to bring a special spirit to a Church meeting I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.

    In a stateside military branch I used to be in, we often had young enlisted members fresh out of basic training attend. They usually had no civilian clothing except whatever they were wearing when they were inducted. So they came to church either in uniform or dressed like a typical 18-year-old. I once received the sacrament from a young man wearing a flaming skull t-shirt and black jeans, with visible tattoos on his arms. I later found out he had been inactive most of his life, but was making an effort to come back to church after joining the service. The branch presidency never made a big deal about anyone’s dress or appearance, because they were just happy that they were showing up at all.

    Most importantly though, any man who thinks a short-sleeved white dress shirt with a tie is appropriate Church attire should have their temple worthiness questioned. Don’t do it!

  50. There HAS to be a dress code, because if there wasn’t. how would I enjoy violating it? Look, I currently have a beard, which keeps me out of any admin callings. But if they ease up on the beard thing (at it looks increasingly like they may), I have to resort to colored shirts. What are you people trying to do, destroy my entire safety net? Geesh!

  51. Joshua, some worship conformity and some worship non-conformity. I don’t think anyone particularly cares what color your shirt or suit is so long as you look nice without becoming ostentatious. My sense is that some attack dressing nice against people who go overboard in conformity but then go overboard themselves.

  52. Mike Hunt says:

    *President Oaks

  53. Bob Powelson says:

    “Most importantly though, any man who thinks a short-sleeved white dress shirt with a tie is appropriate Church attire should have their temple worthiness questioned. Don’t do it!”

    All of my white shirts are short sleeved. I lived in Korea for 9 years, Korean summers are insufferable 95 degrees, 95% humidity. You’ll only get my short sleeved by prying them from my cold dead hands. <;-D

  54. Wayfaring Stranger says:

    Can someone please tell me when the white shirt thing men and boys became the “uniform” at church. I grew up in the 70’s and went to college in the late 70’s early 80’s. There was no ban on colored shirts or requirement for a tie back then. Was this another case of a GA (BKP?) making a comment in Conference that suddenly became the law? I’ve taken non-member friends to church, and they’ve wondered if the white shirt and tie was some kind of sacred costume. If you go to church outside of the US and Canada the whole silly “uniform” situation is much less noticeable. In most wards and branches they’re just happy that people have shown up to worship. A white shirt and a tie certainly doesn’t make the boys and men any more spiritual for wearing them. For two years my son was the only priest in our ward. He refused to wear a white shirt as a matter of principle and told our rules driven bishop that he was worthy to bless the sacrament regardless of the color of his shirt. Our bishop just about had a stroke. However, our stake president sided with my son and reminded the bishop that the white shirt thing was not a matter of doctrine, nor was it scriptural, so he should lay off my son and any other boy who blessed or passed the sacrament in a colored shirt.

  55. Angela C says:

    Wayfaring Stranger: According to LDS Living, it probably gained steam in the 1995 Holland address on this topic, but apparently it’s not “officially required” despite strong encouragement and local wards not getting the memo that it’s not required. http://www.ldsliving.com/White-Dress-Shirts-for-Men-What-the-Church-Has-Actually-Said/s/87765

    There’s additional interesting information in that post about some GA statements regarding Sunday dress.

  56. Angela C says:

    Joshua Harrison: “People on this board seem to be non-conformists who are part of a culture that worships conformity in behavior, thought, and yes dress” I think you’d be hard pressed to pick any of us out of a line-up on Sunday for our non-conformity. We may not believe conformity is a virtue, but that doesn’t mean we don’t, in fact, conform.

    All social groups value conformity to norms. Even in theater, renown (or infamous depending on your perspective) for being accepting of all types of creative thinkers has its own norms that the group looks for. I doubt you’ll find an NRA tee shirt or MAGA hat on any of the theater kids at my kids’ school, nor a shirt saying “Adam & Eve, Not Adam & Steve.” Groups have norms. This essay was intended to explore the origin of those norms, not declare a rebel uprising. But hey, if you are all uprising, let me know, and maybe I’ll join. (That’s a little conformity humor for you).

  57. My husband surprised me by showing up to church in a loud Hawaiian shirt proclaiming we were on vacation. We weren’t in Hawaii, we were in Nauvoo. I have to agree with the brethren when it comes to wearing appropriate attire for a Latter-day Saint Sabbath day meeting. It is a way to worship when the heart is in the right place.

  58. Horseradish says:

    My behavior on this matter is somewhat influenced by that of my father, somewhat of a non-conformist. He purposely wears colored dress shirts to church and almost never a suit jacket. He also had a lot of ties, including some with cartoon characters like Homer Simpson and Dilbert on them. He let me wear these to church when I was a teacher, and I remember being asked by one of the YM’s leaders not to wear those specific ties to church. Otherwise though my parents always had my brothers and I in white dress shirts and ties all up to our missions.

    I also remember the last day of my mission in which the mission president’s wife told the outgoing elders to ‘always wear white shirts to church’ for the rest of our lives. Which only reinforced my non-conformist tendencies on this issue.

    When I got back from my mission my dad promptly threw out all the ragged white shirts I came back with and took me to go buy colored dress shirts. I still have a couple white shirts for going to the temple and such but I intentionally never wear one to church and I’ll often go without ties in the summer time. (I also intentionally take the sacrament with my left hand to see who gets mad).

    I did that for years until I got married and we started attending a Spanish ward in Provo. And after a while I honestly didn’t feel the need to intentionally be a non-conformist anymore because of the much wider socioeconomic diversity in that ward. They were just happy to have people there, for many of the men there, jeans and a polo shirt was the best they had. But now that no one was giving me crap anymore about my sunday attire I didn’t really pay attention to it anymore.

  59. Another Roy says:

    In practice, I believe the “white shirt and tie is not a requirement” language prevents local leadership from physically barring individual young men from passing but that is about where it stops. My son has mild autism and the sensory issues referenced in another comment. We have discussed this with our bishop. Our compromise is that our son will wear the white shirt and tie for the sacrament but as soon as the ordinance is over our son may change into a more comfortable shirt that we have packed. I share this to illustrate the lengths that we go through to comply with the recommended (but not required) white shirt and tie for passing the sacrament.

    This whole issue seems to me to be about boundary maintenance. Sunday dress, modesty, coffee or tea consumption, wearing garments 24/7, etc. There are many ways to signal and police boundaries for organizational behavior.

  60. Billy Possum says:

    Historical quibble: We can thank the Victorians for so much (I hate the Victorians), but probably not for the *idea* of set-apart, superior-quality Sunday clothing. Wherever a distinction in clothing has been economically attainable (e.g., rule out the medieval lower class), particularly for clergy, we find clothing associated with worship. There are bad examples (vestal virgins) and good ones (The Royal Navy’s review of divisions on Sundays, in the century before the Victorians).

    Personally, I think plain dress would be better. But also not great for PR.

  61. How interesting. We are in the Mormon corridor and our ward has several young men with longer unkempt hair who pass the sacrament (one is the rs Pres son) and probably at least half of the men wear colored shirts or sweaters or whatever they think looks nice. We also have a lot of plaids and stripes and cowboy boots etc. might just be our farmy location.

    The women are quite dressy though.

  62. Back when we had more than 1 or 2 sibling sets of youth in the ward, when we had growing children of recent converts from the ‘hood, I really didn’t care what they wore. Black shirts celebrating rap stars with obscene words. Lots of blink-blink; fake gold chains, teeth and fake rings with fake jewels. Loose pants at the mid thigh level. Athletic shoes costing multiple hundreds of dollars. Bizarre hair. Tattoos.

    I was more interested in what they had in their pockets. Loaded hand guns? Switch blades? Dice?Condoms for use after church? Cocaine or china white for sale? Maybe only some pot or kratom. Hoodoo paraphernalia? I know not all of the youth gave such cause for concern, but several of them did.

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