When I was growing up, my mom insisted that my sisters and I wear skirts and dresses to Mass — allowing pants only in exceptionally cold weather. And in northern Indiana, it had to be pretty cold and snowy for that to happen.
At my Catholic university, I did not often attend Mass (sorry, Mom and Dad) — but when I did, it was in standard casual attire: leggings and a t-shirt. Masses on campus were intentionally casual to make them as inviting to students as possible. At 10 p.m. dorm Mass, many girls even wore pajamas.
My first summer out of college, I stopped attending Mass altogether unless I was with my family. Since my mother was going to be there, I, of course, wore a skirt or dress.
Fast forward a few years, and, for several reasons, I decided to start attending Mass again — on my own, as an adult. I found a Sunday evening Mass that I liked and worked with my schedule, at a parish close to where I lived.
And, for the first time in my life, I was faced with the question, what do I wear to Mass?
“Proper” dress code for Mass
Many days, in the hour or so leading up to Mass, my mind would run through a list of excuses that would justify not going — including that I had nothing to wear or wouldn’t be dressed nicely enough. At the time, I usually spent my Sundays working a full shift at Starbucks and would get off work with just enough time to get to church on time. With my mom’s mentality, I was not dressed appropriately for my one hour a week in front of God.
I panicked as I thought about people wondering about my espresso-splattered clothes or other aspects of my appearance that I could barely show in public, let alone in church.
But, deep down, I knew that it was better to go to Mass than to worry about what people might think of my outfit. So I walked in and sat in the back row, non-slip work sneakers and all.
I honestly don’t think a single person in that church noticed what I was wearing, and certainly no one commented about my appearance.
As I became more comfortable going to church (even daily Mass!), I thought less about what I was wearing and was able to move past any anxiety about what people might think. I generally wore whatever I was already wearing that day and felt comfortable doing so. Modesty wasn’t really an issue because it was winter in northern Indiana, so I was as bundled and covered as I could be.
A change in perspective
Then, Easter came. True to my cradle-Catholic roots, I pulled out a dress — I couldn’t imagine wearing anything else to one of the most important Masses of the year.
My desire to dress up for the Easter Vigil didn’t come from a weird sense of Catholic guilt — but because it was what felt most appropriate for such an event. And although Easter may be an especially important feast in the liturgical calendar, it actually brought to my attention why some people choose to dress up for every Mass.
Again, I found myself wondering, does it matter what I wear to Mass?
I had gotten comfortable wearing jeans or leggings to my evening Mass. In fact, I even considered overcoming my insecurity about others’ supposed opinions a major win for my mental health and spiritual life.
As I grew in my faith over months of Mass-going, I started to understand the importance of Mass a little better. Catholics are taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the spiritual life, and Mass is where you go to receive that gift.
Maybe, I thought, I should dress up a little more for this summit of my spiritual life.
And so the next weekend, I wore a dress. I actually really appreciated having to take the time to get ready, because I used that time to try to prepare my mind and heart for the Eucharist.
A reason to dress up
I got into the habit of listening to a homily podcast while I straightened my hair, and I found that getting into this routine helped elevate the Mass for me, and my spiritual life continued to improve.
I didn’t always wear a dress, but I did always try to take time to prepare myself for Mass — physically and spiritually. Sometimes that meant spending an hour getting ready, and sometimes it meant taking an extra minute in the car before Mass to put on chapstick and think about what I wanted to pray for that day.
Does it really matter if I go to Mass in a dress and makeup or in jeans with wet hair? Not in the sense that anyone should (or does, really) care about what I’m wearing. And I’ve never met a priest who would rather you skip Mass than attend in whatever clothes you’re wearing (within reason 💁🏻♀️)!
But personally, now it does matter to me what I wear. Just as I might express myself with my clothes at any other event I go to, I want to express my faith through the clothes I wear to church. This is the most important time I’ll spend with God all week, so I’m going to dress accordingly. In reality, that rarely looks like a dress and heels — but I think it has been good for me to put some intentional thought into it.
So if you’ve ever been scared that people might care about what you’re wearing, I’ve been there. Thankfully, with a bit of reflection (and maybe a little grace), I was able to move past that fear, and also, thankfully, no one ever confirmed it. I will always be glad that I went back to Mass instead of letting fear of judgment keep me away.
I learned that the truth is, you don’t need to stay away from Mass out of fear of judgment, and if you want to dress up for the occasion, there’s good reason to do so! Whatever you wear, God knows you’re there.