Faith and Fashion

December 26, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Christmas in the Northeast was a warm one. Brad Wright describes the sartorial adjustments his six-year-old made at Christmas eve services (baring midriff, rolling up pantlegs and shirtsleeves). Dress codes were apparently not enforced.

Sunday evening here in New York, at a local Catholic church’s Christmas eve family mass, the father of one of the little girls in the children’s choir sat in the front pew wearing jeans and a mustard-colored sweatshirt. A few men wore neckties; most didn't. Some women were in their holiday outfits, but some others wore sneakers. I was reminded of a couple I know who exemplify the American success story, raised in a Catholic working class home but now quite successful. Somewhere along the way, she changed the family’s affiliation to the Episcopal church because the people at the Catholic churches just didn’t seem to care what they wore.

It’s anecdotal evidence of course, but it may be representative. Thirty years ago in Americans Together, a study of a Midwestern town (“Appleton”), French anthropologist HervĂ© Varenne noted the differences in how people dressed for church. The Protestants dressed up. The Catholics offered a much greater variety, from Sunday best to very casual. As I recall, Varenne traced the differences back to the theology of the Reformation, especially (Weber noted this too) insecurity about one's state of salvation. The more individualist Protestant doctrine results in a pressure on members to show outwardly the signs of grace (not that any of the congregants in Appleton nearly a half-millenium after the fact would have put it that way). In Catholicism, your place in the community and in heaven is more secure; you need only to come to church, confess, take communion, etc.

(I highly recommend Varenne’s book to anyone interested in American culture. Several chapters, though not the one on Protestants and Catholics, are available online at his website.)

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