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The Catholic Culturalist: Dressing like a Catholic

To dress like a Catholic is not about dressing one particular way; it entails allowing faith to guide our choice in clothing.

(Image: Volodymyr Hryshchenko/Unsplash.com)

Is there a Catholic way to dress? Well, there’s no Catholic uniform (at least apart from school plaid). An early Christian of the second century said as much when writing a letter to Diognetus: “With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, [Christians] follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.” I have heard people take this sentiment too far, however, by saying, “God doesn’t care about what I wear.” To dress like a Catholic is not about dressing one particular way; it entails allowing faith to guide our choice in clothing.

Catholic culture is a way of life shaped by faith at the center, that allows it to permeate and transform everything that we do. Charity should form our choices to make them an offering to God and an opportunity to love our neighbors. Nothing, therefore, should be left out of how we live as Christians, including seemingly little details like how we dress. Even if there is no Christian uniform, we still communicate who we are by what we wear. Our clothing can and should honor God, reflect our dignity, and convey respect and charity to others.

Following the customs of the surrounding culture, however, as the letter to Diognetus described, has become more and more difficult. Rather than dressing in one particular way, Christians have to discern carefully whether or not the clothing presented by our culture as fashionable or normal truly represents our human dignity and is appropriate to respect others. Although it is often uncomfortable to talk about modesty, it is a necessary conversation, because we need to dress with dignity to guard our own purity and that of others. Certain fashions should be rejected as too provocative, casual, or attention-getting. We also have to think about setting — what is worthy of wearing to church or to create the right disposition for learning, work, or recreation?

The need for modesty does not take away the opportunity for clothes to express positively who we are and our state in life. A recent book caught my attention in this regard, and my wife, Anne, helped me to unpack it, as it is addressed particularly to women: Nicole M. Caruso’s Worthy of Wearing (Sophia Institute, 2021). Having worked in the fashion industry in New York, Caruso continued to deepen her thinking about clothing as a mother, reflecting on the innocence and joy of her daughter Cecilia. More than a book, she explains, “Worthy of Wearing is a mindset, a thought process that reminds us … that we are precious in God’s eyes and that we are worthy of wearing the things that make us feel beautiful. We owe it to ourselves to dress in a what fills us with joy, suits our body, and matches our vocation and lifestyle” (ix).

Caruso’s book helps us to think about clothes in relation to faith but also goes deeper in exploring Catholic femininity. The reflection questions, focused on the themes of “Where am I called?” “Uncover your fears,” and “Be set free,” invite the reader to reflect back on past experiences and to imagine greater freedom and expression, including forming an action plan. The layout of the book itself provides additional inspiration with beautiful layout and photography capturing the author’s family and friends. The book invites women into a process of discernment, guided by the author’s own experiences, reflecting on who they are and how clothes fit into expressing themselves and their womanhood.

The book maintains the balance between seeing clothes as a personal expression and understanding the need for virtue to guide our choices. On the first point, Caruso explains:

That’s what style is: the way you adorn yourself within various contexts to express who you are uniquely, boldly, and unapologetically. It is a method of getting dressed, presenting your appearance, and telling your story without speaking. Style means intentionally choosing clothing that speaks to your mission, fuels your confidence, and creates connections with others by offering a little peek of who you are. In this way, style is more edifying than fashion. (86)

Speaking of the difficult issue of modesty, Caruso also offers some commonsense guidance:

When it comes to modesty, I like to keep in mind a simple question: ‘Is my behavior or my clothing distracting?’ Our behavior and dress can amplify or detract from the wholeness of who we are in Christ: persons worthy of love, with unique gifts and talents, made to change hearts and spend eternity in Heaven. A low-cut dress can distract someone from your incredible talents, just as the way you gossip can distract someone from your virtue. Your unbridled anger might prevent someone from understanding the difficulties you face. We can even distract ourselves by wearing clothing that misrepresents who we are or simply does not fit our body or way of life” (99-100)

She also gives practical tips, such as dressing for each season and for one’s locale, tips for building a wardrobe, and shopping with intention.

Reclaiming our culture for Christ is a big task. For us, however, each day presents us with little opportunities to use all that we do to give glory to God. Clothing is no exception, as we make it an expression of our dignity and respect for others.


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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 13 Articles
R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

23 Comments

  1. Many Catholics have to learn how to dress for church. I do not think shorts and sandals for men or short skirts for women give glory to God.

  2. Has anyone else noticed that this “dressing” for who we are is directed only to women? How about men who come to Mass with a shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest or wearing the Charlie Sheen wardrobe of cargo shorts and a short-sleeved shirt? Granted, most of the revealing clothes belong to women, because of the objectification of women by men. It seems to me that at least the demeanor part of this “lesson” should have been directed at both sexes. Are men immune from gossip or anger?

  3. In light of the Motu Proprio it is interesting to note the style of dress often seen at Tridentine Latin Masses. It is very common to see people dressed as exactly if the walked out of 1962, for the most part people who might not even have been alive in 1962. Whole families of men and boys in suits, ties, overcoats, fedoras (on the pew of course; no more hat clips on the back of the pews). Women and girls in calf length dresses and lace mantillas. Some others in hat styles typical of the early 60s. One Mass I used to attend in a small Tabernacle (pre-Benedictine but authorized) was mostly, but not exclusively, older people, and nearly all in such anachronistic dress. Most recently, since the TLM was widely available, it was in our parish church and you would see a whole range from the 1960 style just described to modern dress – always conservative and respectful of course, but more gents without ties than with. Francis would call this mere nostalgia and offensive, in his brutal assessment of traditional Catholics. Of course there is an obvious element of nostalgia in it but it is false and uncharitable to claim it is merely so, or that it reflects anti-Christian virtue.

  4. To me it is a matter of respect. Not just to God and Jesus, but to each other. Granted, we come to present our hearts to God, Jesus, and each other; and not necessarily our clothes. However, our clothes do express in some manner, the respect we are showing for the Holy Eucharist. Bermuda shorts and sneakers (or sandals) just doesn’t seem to reflect respect. There may be medical reasons for sneaks, but never shorts. Mass is not a casual experience, it is the most significant event of the week for us. And we should dress appropriately for it.

  5. Oh boy, this is opening up a can of worms.

    There is a phenomenon in Latin Mass circles whereby an elememt of extreme modesty is practiced by women, and men try to “out dapper” the other men. While I suppose the claim can be made that it’s out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament and those present, too often it becomes immmodest in the other direction, by calling attention to itself because in this day and age, in our present culture, it’s a bit out of place.

    Women are not responsible for men sinning; A man needs to practice custody of the eyes. Placing blame on women is all too common in extreme modesty circles, particularly in Protestant sects. I’ve experienced it in Latin Mass groups as well, and the result is not healthy for men nor women, because it’s a perversion of modesty.

    Clothing choices, for Mass or anywhere, should be reflective of the time, place, situation, and cultural norms.

    • I see, women can wear hot pants and halters to Church if they like, after all it might be hot that day, because men are obliged to avert their eyes at all times to preserve dignity,

      • No, I don’t think women should wear those to Mass, because it’s not the time nor place, and it is in poor taste. But certainly wearing them to the beach or while swimming really shouldn’t be an issue. I do think if women wear that to Mass it is certainly the man’s obligation to avert his eyes. We all must practice self-control. You can’t hold others accountable for your actions. We have free will. We make choices.

  6. I’m thinking of this “modesty imperative” heavily and mostly required from women only. In the TLM; why is it that only women are required to cover their hair with a veil, why not the men as well?

    • Simply because holy writ through St. Paul directs women to cover their heads in church. It is not the invention of the church, it is inerrant Sacred Scripture. What was the invention of Modernism and its author, the devil, was to convince women in the last sixty years to tear off the veil and “come as they are”. It is such a beautiful thing to see women make the wonderful decision to veil at Mass, whether TLM or NO. I make no judgment on those who do not veil … it is just sad that they do not see how feminism has warped the culture. By the way, it is not required by canon law to veil at any liturgy! It is a beautiful devotion, though!

      • In our culture, “veiling” sounds (and looks) very much like a female Muslim slave costume. It doesn’t look modest, but archaic. If women want to cover their heads they should do so with a modern hat, not a “Mantilla”, which does nothing but bring attention onto themselves as a kind of outdated modesty costume. We are not Amish and should not adopt their almost superstitious thinking about modern attire.

        • Manillas were originally used by the Spanish. The women in my family always wore hats. We didn’t do it for modesty, it was just what was required.

    • They don’t necessarily need to use a veil, it can be a hat or headscarf. My Dad told me that sometimes women who forgot would pin kleenex to their heads! It was an old custom that women were required to cover their heads in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s no longer a requirement, even at a Latin Mass, it’s simply optional. And it’s not referred to as “taking the veil,” or “veiling;” it’s simply covering your head.

    • According to a Bible study that I took St. Paul’s comment about women covering their head was in response to the pagan worship practices of the time. The general sequence for pagan worship was for there to be an animal sacrifice to a pagan god. The meat was served in attached dining halls or sold in meat markets. The people in the dining halls got drunk and engaged in sexual orgies. In the pagan temples women who wore their hair down meant that they were sexually available. Proper women wore their hair up.

      • Thank you, Greg B., for doing the research for information I only vaguely remembered. Women covered their heads as a traditional sign of modesty, the same way women who were married wore their hair ‘up’ as a sign of not being available for marriage, or teenage girls used to get their first floor-length dresses (and boys their first ‘long pants’) as a sign of maturing into an adult. Clothing used to send MANY signals – of social class, of state in life, of major life events (like wearing black for mourning or cutting one’s clothes in Jewish tradition). Priests had in effect a ‘uniform’ as did male and female religious who wore habits that had great significance for any who looked on.
        As for veiling being something ‘Muslim’ or to be rejected… Years ago I listened to a speech by Dr Alice von Hildebrand (a great advocate of the dignity and beauty of femininity) in which she explained that ‘veiling’ represents holiness. All that is holy is veiled: the tabernacle is (or used to be) veiled; the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament is at times veiled; nuns are veiled – NOT because men are lustful and NOT because there’s something wrong with women, but because every woman has a holy tabernacle within her body: her womb. The womb is where God becomes present in a woman at the moment she conceives a baby. God enters the woman’s womb with his creative power and creates from nothing an eternal soul – in the holy tabernacle of the woman’s body. The woman’s body is thus a sacred space – like a church or tabernacle – and thus is veiled as a sign of respect for the holiness of the woman’s body.
        Mary is always depicted veiled, not to shield her from the lustful gazes of men, but because she is the new Ark of the Covenant. In her womb she bore someone sacred. Likewise all women partake in that particular kind of holiness: they bear in their bodies a sacred tabernacle where God may – if he wills – create something greater than even the universe itself: a new human soul.
        Men don’t have such a sacred space in their bodies, and thus men have no need to signal the sacred space within them. When women veil (I do not, for the record), they are signalling something significant: respect for their own bodies, as tabernacles of God’s creativity. No one can mistake that a modern woman, who chooses to wear a veil – no matter her religion – is sending an important message about her faith in God. Why slam women who wish to signal to the world that GOD IS, and that they honor and worship him in their bodies?
        When you are tempted to condemn an ancient practice because it doesn’t jibe with your 21st-century assumptions (or feminist indoctrination), you should probably do some research to find out why the ancient custom (or just a custom of a foreign country or different faith) makes sense to THEM. People are not evil or idiots just because of cultural practices that don’t make sense to you. They make sense to THEM. Better to ask THEM why they do a thing, than to make assumptions and condemn in ignorance.

  7. “A low-cut dress can distract someone from your incredible talents, just as the way you gossip can distract someone from your virtue.”

    IF a woman wears such clothing, she knows what she is doing. The emphasis should be on the real meaning of that aspect of “modesty” which is the mitigation of pride in one’s physical attractiveness, especially when considering the proper attire for worship.

  8. so much more can be said concerning modesty. The Thrill of the Chaste book makes this same point. Our dress says a lot about us before we say a word. This article does focus on women, but men should and can have modesty too. Some of the saints have given advice, and there was a church document on manner of dress from the 50’s (many of the ideas hold true in any decade). Modesty is so important that it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit!

  9. Commenting the TLM dress, I wondered about this too because I attend one. There are many articles on the internet about why women veil. We dress modestly (not extremely as mentioned above), women usually in dresses although it is not required. I’ve never attended a TLM where people were comparing their clothes to others(out dapper). We dress for the wedding feast.

  10. Things I would like to see less of at mass:

    Clothing apparently deliberately chosen to show off tattoos, especially back tattoos on women.

    Football jerseys, with their huge numerals larger the numerals designating the upcoming musical selections.

    Men passing the collection basket in mid-winter with short sleeve shirts apparently intended to show off biceps.

  11. You have missed the single most important biblical dress code…

    “Let thy garments be always white” Ecclesiastes 9:8

    This is from wisdom literature so if you are wise you will always be dressed in white.

  12. On weekdays, I attend a Novus Ordo Mass. There is a young woman who comes frequently and sits on the first pew, middle aisle. She seems so deep in prayer during Mass, and after Mass, she stays with the same decorum. But she tends to wear tight T-shirts and jeans, or a blouse the style with cut-outs on the shoulders. I am tempted to print this article and give it to her. I hesitate. It’s none of my business (I think), it’s between her and God. Any thoughts?

    • Jess… don’t do it. Pray for her. Pray for yourself not to be distracted by how she dresses. You have no idea what’s going on in her life. She may be quite poor and unable to afford to buy new, more modest clothes. She may be uninformed. If she’s attracting your attention, then every time you notice that she is dressed inappropriately – pray for her and get your mind back on whatever is happening at the altar.
      If God wants you to give this young woman some hints, he will find a way to make you into a trusted friend to this young woman. The question is not, ‘Should I give her this article?’ But, ‘How is GOD CALLING me to love this young woman as my sister in Christ?’ Praying for her intentions – and thanking God for the witness of her devotion – are always appropriate responses.
      I’m a woman and I see the same kind of thing sometimes in Mass. I say nothing. I pray. I attended a funeral with a devout young man the other day… He was wearing shorts and sandals and a short-sleeved shirt, the only person at all casually dressed (I don’t live in the US, but in Poland, where people still normally dress more formally for Mass). I said nothing, though I have known the young man (OK, he’s in his mid-thirties) for at least 15 years and he was my student; I have a kind of authority in his eyes. I said nothing because he was there, at the funeral of an elderly man he only ‘knew’ from attending Mass. He was there to pray, to support the family, to do a work of mercy by his presence. And his presence was appreciated greatly by the family.
      Yes, he should have worn long trousers and made an attempt at black (if he owns such clothing) as another young man (French) did. But never mind: God was looking at the heart, and I noted the lapse in formality of dress, but was simply so very glad he came to the funeral.
      If you want to give the young woman something, give her a sincere word of appreciation for the example she is to you of deep prayer, love of God, faithfulness and devotion. Thank her for being a young person of faith and encouraging you with good hope for the rising generation of young Catholics. She is YOUNG. She is not finished in her path to God. None of us are. Give her time; give her prayer; support her faith.
      It’s generally not from God when we are stopped by externals and wish to correct other people in Mass. Calling her out – no matter how gently – on her appearance might drive her away from Mass. Thanking her for her witness of faith and devotion can only encourage her to go deeper into her faith. Leave her choices of dress to the intercession and guidance of Our Lady. Ask Mary to take the young woman under her protection, and leave it to Our Lady to lead her gently to more lady-like choices in dress.

    • You’re right, it’s none of your business. Maybe if you were flash deep in prayer before and after Mass like she is, you wouldn’t have time to scrutinize her attire.

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