"God doesn't care what we wear to church, He's just happy we're there." Who ever believes this might be a little naive, maybe even fooling themselves. It sounds good at first, reminding us to be thankful that people are coming to church. But it also implies that people can't do any better, that we should just settle for the pews being occupied, and that's not true at all.
When people aren't dressed well for church, I doubt they are trying to be inappropriate, they just haven't put much thought into it. I'm talking about that lady who wears those very short, bright green gym shorts where the bottom of her butt cheeks peek out, that middle-aged woman with cellulite who shouldn't be wearing a mini-skirt, or that guy wearing a T-shirt with the yellow arm pits that commemorates the last concert tour of a certain grunge band in the late 1990s. I wonder if their mothers be embarrassed to see what they are wearing to church.
Something else I wonder- If they were stopped for speeding on the way to church, would the police officer believe that they were on their way to church based on the clothes they're wearing?
Jennifer Fulwiler offers some good insight on this. She says we aren't dressing up anymore because as a society, we've lost a sense of value and gratitude. Flying on an airplane, going out to eat at a fancy restaurant, even attending certain sporting events used to be considered a privilege or an honor, so you wore your best attire. Now that we as a society have less respect and gratitude for things, we've put less effort into our clothing. When it comes to the Eucharist and what we're wearing, the same thing has happened. We have devalued what is really the greatest privilege of all, being able to Communicate in such a unique way with God; and it's reflected out in the clothes that Catholics wear to church.
Disproportionate values can also share some blame, especially if someone spends an hour or two getting ready to go out on a Friday/Saturday night, yet can't afford more than 15 minutes to get ready for church on Sunday morning. There's also that family that goes to church first, then goes home and changes into nice clothes to go out to eat. Talk about having priorities ordered all wrong!
Not to long ago, Relevant Radio's Fr Francis Hoffman was asked about why more priests don't preach more about the length of a woman's skirt from the pulpit. He responded jokingly, "Because we fear for our lives!" It's true- it's hard for a male homilist to tell certain female parishioners what to wear, especially in light of the other issues that have to be waged. A bulletin insert seems much safer.
Therefore, a lot of this effort might be up to us lay people. After all, it is lay people that don't know how to dress up for church. Of course, please be careful how you go about telling others about this problem. My wife and I once watched a woman come into church wearing a hoodie, gym shorts, and flip flops. Shortly after she sat down, another woman approached her with an angry look on her face and said something to the mal-dressed women. The woman, obviously embarrassed, cried for a few moments and left as Mass started. I haven't seen her in church since.
If you're in a position to be able to say something to someone else, please do so charitably and with encouragement. Point out that the individual deserves more, and God does, too. How much (or how little) effort one prepares externally for church could be an indicator of how much effort they are prepared spiritually. If you love God, and you're looking forward to the Eucharist, let it show in your attire.
Women, if you wear nice clothes, other women will notice and follow your example. Men, tell all your buddies to man up, and dress better for church. Parents, start now with your kids. I know it's hard (I have two small kids), but they won't learn it if you don't teach it.
Lastly, if you're one of those people that actually believes God doesn't care what you wear to church: I don't know if He cares or not (since there are bigger issues out there), but I sure do. If you don't see the need to do it for God, then please wear appropriate attire in church for the rest of us. I'm trying to set a good example for my kids and would appreciate your help.
On a side note, since we've been talking about what lay people wear, I thought it would be fun to briefly describe the most frequently used vestments worn by the clergy during Mass.
The outer garment that the priest/celebrant wears is called a chasuble. The most commonly used style looks like a poncho. It's color will be that of the Mass. A deacon wears a similar garment called a dalmatic, but it has sleeves and tends to look a little more like a tunic.
The next vestment is the stole. This indicates the rank of the cleric. A bishop/priest wears it hanging from both shoulders (like an untied scarf or necktie). A deacon wears it over the left shoulder and fastened at the right hip. It usually matches the chasuble/dalmatic and is the color of the Mass. It's worn underneath the outer vestment so you won't really see it unless the cleric isn't wearing a chasuble or dalmatic.
The last garment is the alb. It's white or off white, worn over the individual's secular clothes (the stole and chasuble/dalmatic are worn over the alb). It represents the white garment given at baptism. The alb worn by both clergy and laity that are ministers in the liturgy (such as altar servers). It can be secured at the waist by a cincture, a cord which acts like a belt. The cincture can be white or the color of the Mass. There is an additional piece called an amice, but this is less common and/or often not visible.
One last piece of liturgical vestment trivia. A priest who is present but is not a concelebrant doesn't have to wear a stole or chasuble. This if often the case when the priest is acting as an acolyte or master of ceremonies for the bishop. You'll see a priest don a stole if he takes a priestly ministry such as proclaiming the gospel or assisting with the distribution of Holy Communion. The same goes with a deacon who is in the sanctuary- if he takes one of the roles proper to a deacon, he will wear a stole. If he doesn't, the alb (or surplice with cassock) is sufficient.