Decoding Casual Dress
Frederick Marks (“The Rush to Radical Informality,” Jan.-Feb.) uncovers a point rarely considered as a cultural phenomenon: the way a narcissistic generation dresses only out of self-regard for comfort. The way people dress in any generation certainly says something about what they think they are, or want to be, but it also indicates a regard for others. In a demoralized culture, neglect of dress expresses moral lethargy. In some New York firms that instituted “casual Fridays,” leisure clothing resulted in leisurely job performance.
Beyond civilian dress, uniforms dispose people to the service of others. This is why priests and judges do not wear whatever they want. And when vesture in churches and courts is slovenly, you can be pretty sure that the officials are more concerned about themselves than about what they represent. If I dress better for a cocktail party than I do when I commune in God’s house, which is my real sanctuary? On the other hand, if I wear a T-shirt in a restaurant, I am clothing myself in the sartorial equivalent of a belch. And if I am in shirtsleeves while the waiter wears a jacket, I am pulling reverse rank on him.
In the prosperous suburbs people dress down for Mass. The best-dressed people in church on Sundays in New York are the poorest: hats and gloves in Harlem and in the neighborhoods populated by immigrants from Haiti and the Caribbean islands. People dress best in storefront churches and worst in the cathedral.
Clothes do not make the man, but they indicate what a man has made of himself. Forms of dress do matter. The baptismal rites refer to the candidate’s white garment (and the candidate is called such precisely because the garment is white, candida) and the Elect before the Throne wear white garments. Christ told a parable about wearing the proper wedding garment and, while it symbolizes baptismal grace, it nonetheless refers to visible raiment as well. The Lord’s garment was seamless, and I suppose it may have been made with devotion by His mother.
What it boils down to is this: God’s inscrutable providence can make slobs into saints, but saints are not slobs.
Fr. George W. Rutler, Pastor
Church of Our Savior
New York, New York
Frederick Marks makes an excellent point about “radical informality” (Jan.-Feb.): It has spread like a contagious disease in our society. In the old films from the 1930s and 1940s, people getting on and off the subway in New York’s Times Square were well dressed. The men wore a suit, tie, and hat, and the women wore long dresses, a hat, and gloves. That was at a time when most people were poor. Now the dress code there seems to demand, for men, jeans or shorts, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap. The same tendency to “dress down” is apparent in many Catholic churches on Sunday.
When I lived in New York a few years ago, I noticed that the men and women going to the local synagogue on the West Side were well and formally dressed. The same thing was true of those attending Baptist churches in the Bronx or Brooklyn. Proper dress at church shows respect for God. Those with an appointment to meet the governor of a state or the president of the U.S. dress accordingly, as Dr. Marks notes. They dress up for man but not for God.
Radical informality is an assault on form. Form in our culture has taken a big hit since the 17th century. Jay Richards, in his book God and Evolution, points out that Descartes identified quantity with essence and thereby eliminated form. We know from Aristotle that there are four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. Since Descartes, science has discarded formal and final causality; for modern science, the only real causes are material and efficient. One result is that, if there is no form to make a thing be what it is, then each thing is just an accumulation of atoms and molecules that can be arranged in any way. According to this thinking, there is no formal difference between a dog and a cat. And if there is no formal or final cause, then nothing really makes any sense — and you can do or dress as you will.
This metaphysical error is at the root of the fraudulent error of materialistic evolution. It is also, in my opinion, the root of the dominance of the philosophy of relativism in our culture today, or what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism.”
The culture of informality has also influenced priests and religious men and women. It is very common today that priests and religious do not wear their religious garb either in public or in private, contrary to many exhortations from Rome. One reason they give is that it makes it easier for them to associate with the laity. But it seems to me that it is hard for them to influence others as imitators of Christ if no one knows who or what they are.
Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Editor Emeritus, Homiletic & Pastoral Review
There is a problem here with an equivocation on the word form? The shape/pattern/design of the clothing may be dictated by some convention, yes. What about casual? Are some designs intrinsically better than others?
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