Below I will try to reconstruct from memory an email I sent to our parish council several years ago, in response to their solicitation for ideas on improving worship. Needless to say, my ideas were disregarded. I offer these words to all my readers, to use as you deem best. Here goes..
There has been a decent number of comments from the pulpit regarding immodest dress at Mass, particularly on the part of women. While I agree with the comments as they are, they fail to address a larger question - that of proper attire for Sunday Mass, for women and men.
It is no secret to those with at least one functional eye ball that the bar has been lowered quite a bit over these past five decades. I daresay it's been visible over this past one decade; parishioners who ten years ago would always have worn a tie to Mass now show up in jeans, sneakers and open collars.
Now let me anticipate some preliminary screeching from my readers, as they wail and gnash their teeth protesting, "You're judging by appearances." New flash! News flash! Dress is NOT appearance! Dress is behavior! This behavior is reflective of the philosophies, attitudes and priorities of those engaging in that given behavior. It might even be reflective of one's relationship with God. I lamented in a previous post of the overly-casual, overly-jocular and even flippant attitudes that people harbor to their Creator, Savior and Sovereign Lord.
I believe the idea behind the "bar lowering" was the false hope that relaxed dress standards would increase Mass attendance. So church leaders encouraged informal attire. Well, we all know what happens when the bar is lowered just one inch. Informal becomes casual becomes careless becomes sloppy becomes indecent and even obscene. For all this bar-lowering, has Mass attendance improved? No! Quite the opposite! Mass attendance has not increased but plummeted over the years! I think there is a correlation between dress standards and Mass attendance, but not the one imagined by church leaders. "When we dress like Mass is no big deal, what's the big deal about attending at all?" While that attitude is lamentable, it is also logical.
Truth be told, if one leaves the issues of modesty aside for sake of this discussion, men dress in a more slovenly manner than do women. Should not men be leaders in all things - including attire at Mass? In other words, should they not be leading as opposed to lazing?
Let's get down to "nuts and bolts". The thought of discussing that does cause outbreaks of cowardice among church leaders but it's high time we did violence to such reticence. For all: there should be no shorts, jeans, tee-shirts, polo shirts, no bare shoulders, no bare midriff, no sneakers, no sandals nor flip-flops, nothing either tight or baggy. No denim, including those jean-jumpers. Nothing ripped or dirty. Here are my specific suggestions.
For men - of all ages and at all times - jacket and tie, please. That also entails dress slacks, dress shirts and dress shoes. And keep the jackets on. In our own church, we have added incentive since our hvac seems to be overly-efficient in the summer.
Ladies, we're not off the hook! Skirts and dresses (no slacks!) should be no shorter than just below the knee. Blouses and dress tops should not be "see-through". There should be no bare shoulders (in other words, nothing sleeveless) and neck lines should be no lower than two fingers' breadth below the larynx. Of course that means no bare backs or spaghetti straps. In the summer, I see lots of bare legs. Unacceptable. I cannot see how that passes the most minimal standards for modesty. Wear stockings and formal shoes. This is no great hardship, ladies!
What I suggest should be most especially emphasized to those who occupy prominent positions of service during Sunday Mass: ushers, choir, lectors and most especially to the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. How is it that one can presume to handle the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord without so much as tucking in their shirt-tails? (On a happy note, the men in our choir are quite exemplary in their dress.)
Will there be exceptions? Yes. Military, medical and emergency-service personnel who are on-duty may be in uniform. Illness, injuries and severe weather may necessitate changes of dress. But by definition, these will be the rare exceptions, not the every-day standards.
Since I wrote my proposal to our parish council, it has become apparent to me that others have noticed the problem and are doing something about it. I see more suits and ties among the men, and some of them are dressing their sons accordingly. These boys can only benefit from the examples of their fathers.
What I'm suggesting is not extraordinary hardship. Fifty years ago, when class and dignity were more ingrained into our thinking, my suggestions would already have been established norms.