Modesty at Mass – A Case for a Catholic Dress Code

In a few weeks, we will start hearing about the coming changes to the Catholic liturgy. Much to the surprise of the world, the Catholic Church is, in fact, capable of change. There will be a brief period of freak-out, but then everyone will calm down and before we know it, it will be liturgy as usual. People will forget they ever even said “And also with you,” instead of “And with your spirit.” The media will do its schizophrenic thing and claim that the Church is pushing people away with its top-down changes, but before long it will return to blaming the top for refusing to ever change.

What Catholics and the media alike seem to forget is that the Church is evolving all the time, not on fundamental issues of doctrine, but rather in the way the Church engages the culture of which it takes part. And today, the Church in America is a part of a culture where women like to dress like prostitutes, and men like to dress like gangsters and personal trainers.So I would like to propose that while the Church is changing the liturgy it add another change to the docket: attire at Mass.

The way many people dress to Mass is completely offensive. Strapless tops, cleavage, skirts that hardly cover the derriere, shorts, tracksuits, cut-offs. Tank tops. Midriffs. Minis. How this became acceptable is a mystery. How to change it, is not.

A simple solution could restore churches everywhere to basic dignity: a dress code. Think this is radical? It’s not. The Vatican has one. The Vatican prohibits anyone from entering who is wearing:

· Shorts/skirts above the knee
· Sleeveless shirts
· Shirts exposing the navel
· Shirts for women that expose cleavage

Why don’t all Catholic churches have the same standards? It is the same Jesus Christ present in the tabernacle. It is the same discipleship the priests share with the pope. The human beings on their knees are the same people trying to live lives of holiness and chastity in a world that works to undermine them at every turn.

A Catholic dress code could be instituted with a relatively simple, three-step action plan:

Stage 1—Recruit code enforcement. The priests and deacons would recruit lay women of charitable but forceful demeanor, approximately two per Mass depending on the size of the parish, to enforce the dress code. These women would be trained to stand outside Mass and gently but firmly request those in violation of dress code to change. This stage would likely take eight weeks. I assure you, there would be no shortage of eager volunteers.

Stage 2—Announce the coming change. Just as the Church has been doing with the coming liturgy changes, parishes would include a weekly insert into the bulletin explaining the simple, four-pronged dress code. Priests would alert parishioners at every Mass. (The media would help with its usual hit pieces.) This would be done for four weeks consecutively before dress code beings.

Stage 3—Grace Period. For two weeks there would be a grace period, where the newly trained women would give warnings to those not dressed appropriately that in the future, such attire will not be accepted, but still allow them into the House of God. This allows them to practice confronting those dressed inappropriately and allows the stubborn, skimpy dressers to avoid the humiliation of actually being sent home.

Once the dress-code period becomes official, there will no doubt still be much angst. People will wail and gnash their teeth in their desire to attend Mass dressed in PJs or two-inch skirts. People will claim the Church is so draconian and unwelcoming and that Jesus would never send people away!

Sure, Jesus spent time with residents of the red-light district. But let’s not forget, Jesus also flipped tables in a rage when he saw his Father’s house disrespected. He also reminded us in a parable in a recent gospel that the man who showed up to a royal wedding not wearing the proper attire met a dreadful fate. Jesus was clear throughout the gospels: What you wear matters. He went to his own death in a garment so fine that men gambled for it.

The Vatican is clear, too. So are lots of other houses of worship for that matter. When I was in Egypt, I visited a mosque dressed in what I thought was modest attire. The women at the entrance still took my pashmina from my bag and swaddled my arms so no skin above my elbows was exposed. I was swaddled so tightly I couldn’t move. Women and men whose attire was beyond salvageable were asked to wear a giant, floor-length green sheet with a hole through the top for their head.

Mormon Temples have dress codes. I asked a Mormon friend what would happen if a woman tried to enter a Mormon Temple in a mini-skirt and she said, “In theory, that’s not supposed to happen.”

Oh for the day when mini-skirts in Mass are a thing of theory instead of reality!

Even I am embarrassed of my idea of Sunday Best when my husband and I drive home from Mass. Our route home takes us past a black, Baptist church where the men and women are dressed as if they were going to tea at Buckingham Palace. We often slow down to admire the men in three-piece suits and the women in bright, colorful hats. No exposed boobies or hairy man legs to be found there.

A Vatican insider told me that when a United States Supreme Court Justice showed up for a visit in shorts, he was turned away. On another occasion, a high-ranking woman showed up for an event with the pope in a low-cut top and Vatican officials sewed up her shirt in the car on the ride over. If St. Peter’s can turn away a Supreme Court justice and make a famous woman sew up her blouse for the Pope, then surely our local parishes can ask women to grab a shawl on their way out the door. Heck, put a basket of them inside the
door and hand them out. Just like Jewish synagogues often have flimsy yarmulkes for men who show up with bare heads.

People would freak out about the dress code. And then, suddenly, it would stop. People would move on. Girls would begrudgingly grab that shawl on the way out the door. Parents everywhere would breathe easily again knowing they won’t have to fight their children to dress appropriately for Sunday Mass. And then the House of God would actually start to look like the House of God again.

It’s just an idea.

Ashley E. McGuire is editor-in-chief of AltCatholicah.

This entry was posted in Catholic Lives, Mass and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Modesty at Mass – A Case for a Catholic Dress Code

  1. toadspittle says:


    “I visited a mosque dressed in what I thought was modest attire. The women at the entrance still took my pashmina from my bag and swaddled my arms so no skin above my elbows was exposed.”

    And there we have it. The woman who wrote this very odd piece did not know what constituted ‘modest attire’ for herself, under some circumstances, althought she does know exactly what it is for the rest of us.
    Let’s all choose to dress from eyebrow to toenail in black garbage sacks for Mass. (Only the women, of course!)
    Very reverent. God will be pleased.


  2. toadspittle says:


    “The Solution: …Recruit code enforcement. The priests and deacons would recruit lay women of charitable but forceful demeanor, “

    On the other hand, wouldn’t it be simpler, and more pleasant, just for us all to go straight to Hell?


  3. JabbaPapa says:

    This is a matter for individual Bishops and individual curates to decide, according to whichever local reasons — in accordance with the desires of their congregations ; and it always has been.

    Modesty in personal attire means that you dress like everybody else ; not that you adopt some conservative dress codes, ostentatiously setting you above and apart from the riff-raff.


  4. Gertrude says:

    Whilst I don’t agree with all the above, I can think of some formidable ladies of a certain age in my parish who would probably relish the idea of being ‘dress code enforcers’. Seriously though Toad, I have a certain sympathy with your comments. I cannot recall seeing too many outrageously dressed youngsters in church, but I do get a tad irritated at trainers on the Sanctuary! (Must be my age). Perhaps it is more of an issue in the United States where this article originated. After all though, you wouldn’t attend say an Investiture at Buck House in jeans and trainers, or a mini and bare mid-rift, so it equally it behoves us to dress appropriately when meeting with the King of Kings.


  5. toadspittle says:

    “Why don’t all Catholic churches have the same standards?”

    Toad lives on the Camino de Santiago. Sometimes lady pilgrims show up for Mass wearing relatively short shorts, above the knee, anyway. Not a bit ‘immodest’ to him, or any of his neighbours. Maybe we ought to tell them, “No Mass for you you look like a ‘personal trainer’, (whatever that is) or a prostitute – keep walking.”

    Stuff like this does nobody any good. Suspects Toad.


  6. toadspittle says:


    Strangley enough, Gertrude, just between us, Toad is very often a bit ‘disconcerted’ by what people wear to church in Spain where he lives.
    Last Sunday he was at a baptism and was the only man dressed in what he would consider an appropriate manner for such an occasion – ‘proper’ jacket and white shirt.. But then, he is a slippered pantaloon.


  7. JabbaPapa says:

    Toad lives on the Camino de Santiago.

    ooh !!! 🙂

    Where exactly ?


  8. toadspittle says:

    Between Leon and Burgos. You are, as are all on CP&S, very welcome to stay on your pilgrimage.


  9. JabbaPapa says:

    Between Leon and Burgos. You are, as are all on CP&S, very welcome to stay on your pilgrimage.

    It’s hard to remember every single pueblo one’s walked through ; even several times ; but I DO remember THIS :

    It’s one of those pueblos with the great buried bodegas, so it’s possible I’ve slept in your pueblo in ’93 … but 1993 is pretty hazy in my memory, so maybe not…

    The rather curiously straightforward nature of the Camino round there doesn’t really lend itself to creating distinct impressions.

    But yes, in 93 we did sleep in one of those bodegas, and it’s quite possible this was in Moratinos. It was round August 15th anyway, and the meteor shower display was on, wherever it was 😉

    It’s hard to remember, that was in my first ever weeks of walking ; and I wasn’t a pilgrim yet !!


  10. JabbaPapa says:

    And thank you for your kind invitation ; I *really* need to get back on the Camino, and will be gratefully happy for a friend on the road when I do 😉


  11. The Raven says:

    I’ll be honest; I’m not really in sympathy with the author of this article.

    I’d rather have people attending Mass in their clubbing outfits than feel that they can’t turn up without having changed their clothes. I’m a bad Catholic but even I don’t notice when young ladies turn up “under-dressed” (something, mea culpa, that would usually engage my attention in any other setting) – I devote too much of my attention on the holy sacrifice of the Mass to really care about the dress code or behaviour of my fellow parishioners.

    It is surely a species of vanity to insist that an externality like dress is key to Mass attendance and receipt of communion; we should be looking at the more important things, like being in a state of grace, when we consider these issues.

    The whole article reads (to me at least) like a lady looking for a reason to be horrid to other ladies.


  12. Lizola says:

    Who cares what people wear ? Welcome everyone into church. Honestly, if this is all anyone has to worry about – the world is full of starving, sick, lonely people. Christians should care more about Christ and what he said than about judging others. I am constantly amazed at this attitude. Love God and love each other. Amen


  13. Jerry says:

    And today, the Church in America is a part of a culture where women like to dress like prostitutes

    Really? Why then, is it normally so easy to recognise a prostitute on a city street? Probably because prostitutes tend to dress in a distinctive manner that draws attention to their trade. The lady in a tank top and shorts probably isn’t a prostitute, she’s probably a jogger. And it isn’t hard to tell. So I think the author is simply wrong.


  14. Jerry says:

    Mrs McGuire might well agree with the great Tertullian, who always had something sensible to say on matters of sexuality. He praised Arabian women who not only cover their head, but their whole face…preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face.
    And there’s nothing more off putting at mass than a prostituted face, as the saying goes.


  15. rebrites says:

    There is so much to love about this article, it had me laughing out loud!
    Ashley McGuire´s got issues. She gives them a good airing here. In short:
    1. Ashley, and by extension all good Catholics, are terribly persecuted. The media is out to get us. The world wants to undermine us at every turn. The answer? Shawls!
    2. American women are sluts. American men are slobs. Ashley does not like “boobies and hairy man legs,” so every Catholic church must follow a “four prong” dress code inspired by the Vatican, the Mormon Tabernacle, an Egyptian mosque Ashley visited on her vacation, and the colorful black Baptists the McGuire family gapes at on their way home from Mass on Sunday.
    4. Women will be shock-troops of the new Catholic Fashion Police. No explanation is given for barring men from this important work of ministry and evangelization, but I think that´s because Ashley wants to be in the front lines, and men took all the other fun jobs at church already.
    5. And just imagine the fun! 8 whole weeks of kindly confrontations on the church steps, with pronouncements from bulletin and pulpit to show the ladies are not just meddling old busybodies — they are doing the work of Christ. While the prancing chippies and trainer-clad slouches are sweetly offered “opportunities to avoid humiliation,” the good ladies can glory in weeks of great gossip as well as media martyrdom!
    7. My favorite passage of all was envisioning the “high-ranking woman” having her low-cut top sewn shut in a moving vehicle by “Vatican Officials.” The mind boggles, Mrs. McGuire! This was the Vatican, after all — don´t they keep extra chasubles on hand for such emergencies?

    I hope CP&S runs lots of McGuire comedy things in the future. She is a scream!


  16. Scout says:

    I visited Vatican City myself last month. It was scorching hot, and I saw several women asked to cover-up their exposed shoulders.

    The Sistine Chapel was quite an experience because the visitors (mainly Italian, I think!) could not stop talking. There were members of staff who seemed to be employed as shushers, walking around the chapel going “Ssshhhhh!” every 15 seconds.


  17. Jean says:

    I’m from NZ and we have had the changed liturgy for almost a year now and it’s as you say, people grumbled and complained at first, but now it’s the ‘norm’ and is generally accepted.
    I like your comments about unsuitable clothing at Mass. Our outward appearance refects our inward convictions and anyone who goes to Mass in tiny shorts or a revealing top, clearly does not realise what the Mass is, or how serious and holy it is. Maybe a few sermons on THAT would open people’s eyes to the need for reverence and to the unsuitablilty of immodest clothing

    Thank you for your blog, I love it.


  18. We start with two admirable ideas – reverence (for the Mass and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament) and charity (in not distracting fellow worshippers by dressing “immodestly”) and we end up turning people away from Mass because we don’t like the way they dress. May God preserve us from such folly.


  19. teresa says:

    This thread reminds me of a story I heard from a good friend, it is her own true experience:

    She, a nice looking young lady, half Hungarian and half German, was this summer in Jerusalem, and her friend there warned her not to go to the district of ultra-conservative Jews, as intruders who don’t know their rules will get into trouble very quickly. She went for a stroll, and went directly in such a district without knowing, quite mindlessly as she didn’t know the city and was just walking quite at random. It was hot, she was dressed lightly (not indecently but just as European young ladies do in summer). And she wore a cross around her neck. Soon she was eyed with suspicion, and one of the Jews went up to her and tried to talk with her in broken English. Then, suddenly, the children who were drawn by curiosity started to talk to each other in Yiddish. She turned to them and spoke with them German, and the Jew cried out in joy: “Look there is one who doesn’t belong to us but speaks our language”! (He didn’t know that it is German and Yiddish is in reality a German language). And all were happy, and she brought home such a surprising but happy experience.

    A little off topic but I would like to share this story with you. I find it wonderful.


  20. kathleen says:

    Yup, I laughed too at the idea of these ‘formidable ladies’ guarding the entrance of the Church to turn away any inmodestly dressed folk coming to Mass!! (And the sewing up of the lady’s blouse to hide the cleavage in the taxi on the way to see the Pope that Rebrites also refers to – what a scream!) Surely such dire measures should never be necessary if proper catechesis is given to young and old alike, women and men.
    I usually wear jeans, but I prefer to either wear a skirt (that falls to below my knees) or put on a long jacket when going to Mass to pray to my Lord and Saviour. It’s just common courtesy and sense, isn’t it, not to be provocative to anyone kneeling in the bench behind?

    Not so long ago in Spain I do remember a priest tactfully mentioning in his sermon that one should not come to Holy Mass dressed in the same flamboyant way one would go to the bullfight (ugh!)…… and everyone nodded in agreement.


  21. Baba Looey says:

    Thank you! As the one church that offers the eucharist as the true body of christ, we indeed should have a dress code! The Catholic Church needs to stop being so hippy-dippy! It’s embarrassing that we’re losing our class to the Protestants.


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