Every Sunday for the past 26 years, Gloria McCullough of Oakland, Calif., has chosen her church outfit with the utmost attention to detail. When she wears her red and black Kay Unger dress, she pairs it with her red silk hat from Saks Fifth Avenue, and her favorite red pumps.
On Easter, when McCullough, 59, steps into the nave of St. Benedict Church in Oakland, Calif., she’ll be dressed in a two-piece Kay Unger gray suit with black pumps and a feather-topped hat. The hat is essential. McCullough, who is Catholic, has one for every Sunday of the year.
“That’s just the way I was brought up,” says McCullough. “My mother and father always dressed up for church. He wore suits and hats and she had her gloves.”
Today, it is not unheard of to wear jeans to job interviews and flip-flops on first dates. Even when it comes to worship, there is an increasing come-as-you-are approach preached across faiths to encourage participation among youths. But in some denominations and among certain communities, particularly African-Americans, attending church in your finest duds – including furs, sequined shawls and ornate hats – involves almost as much tradition and ceremony as a worship service. In some faiths, including Judaism, covering one’s head is expected when entering a holy sanctuary.
Marylyn Eyers recalls with fondness the Sundays of her childhood in Stockton, Calif. After church, her mother would drop her off in the driveway, and by the time she parked the car and joined her daughter in the house, Eyers had peeled off her dress and stockings and put on her jeans. She didn’t like dressing up as a child, and she doesn’t like it anymore today, at the age of 74.
But, every Sunday morning, Eyers still dons a dress before heading to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Newark, Calif., where she lives. “Wearing my Sunday best represents the respect, reverence, and heartfelt worship I owe to God, my Heavenly Father,” says Eyers, who is Mormon. “How can I hope for his spirit to be with me if I have not presented myself in a respectful manner?”
The sentiment is felt across denominations. And there is a history to it. Father Jay Matthews of St. Benedict Church says dressing up in the Catholic community harks back to the turn of the 20th century, a time when people didn’t have many personal possessions.
“They had their school clothes, play clothes and church outfit, because church was the one day of the week to really dress up,” Matthews says, adding that Sunday was not only the religious day but the social day – a time to see and be seen.
Ammar Saheli of the West Oakland Church of Christ teaches that the Bible promotes modest apparel. Yet multiple perspectives also suggest giving to God that which is our best, he says. “What that means is your clothing should not be the flashiest stuff but it also should not be out of touch with the times,” says Saheli, an evangelist who holds a doctorate in education.
Church fashion is not limited to ladies in hats. Saheli, 38, preaches in his very best three-piece Steve Harvey suits, leather shoes and silk ties. He rocks a fat knot in the tie so it protrudes from the top of his vest. He favors velvet blazers in gold, blue and burgundy. Like some preachers, he also wears a hat and a cashmere overcoat during his hourlong sermons. This is more function and less fashion, he says.
“It used to be a pimp thing.” Saheli says. “But, from a preaching perspective, it’s very important because after I preach, I’m soaking wet (with sweat). If I don’t put on an overcoat and hat and I’m outside speaking with people and shaking hands with that wind blowing, I’ll get sick.”
At 30, Lerecia Evans of Albany, Calif., eschews over-the-top church attire for what she calls professional or business casual. On a typical Sunday, you’ll find her in a blouse and white elephant pants. She admires the style of gospel singer Yolanda Adams.
“For me, the sequins and hats are for the older generation,” Evans says. “I will still dress up but not to that degree.”
Evans grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “It was very traditional and it was unheard of to go to church in anything but stockings,” she says. These days, however, she might sport a pair of jeans to church. But she won’t wear tennis shoes. “No,” she says. “Not on a Sunday.”
That’s what Henry Washington, a pastor at Garden of Peace, a nondenominational church in Richmond, Calif., likes to hear. Washington says he believes it is incorrect to dictate how well we’re supposed to dress in church. “Nothing in the Bible tells you to put your best foot forward to the degree that you go overboard,” he says, adding that a passage in Timothy 2:09 speaks of limiting adornment so as to not draw too much attention to oneself.
“In today’s culture, we tend to try to project a sense of false prosperity, and that is the danger,” he says. “We put so much into our dress that people who are coming to get to know God might feel offended or uncomfortable. People try to project their affluency or rank in the church through their dress. It’s obvious to onlookers that they’re a bit plastic and pretentious.”
Washington, who has preached in seven countries and 40 states, used to wear custom suits and alligator-skin shoes to give his sermons. But, for the past several years, he’s toned it down. “I’ve been pulled toward a real personal type of ministry, and I feel so fulfilled. I still dress nicely, but I don’t spend 30 minutes finding the socks that match the trim in the suit. And it’s not as important.”
As a child growing up in New Haven, Conn., EJ Foster-Hilliard was the daughter of an Episcopal minister and a seamstress. Her mother made many of her clothes, including ruffled pinafore dresses and hats to match. Back East during the 1940s, anyone who went to church wore a hat, she says.
The family moved to California when Foster-Hilliard was 12. And the shift to casual attire, both in church and out, was a shock. “We thought the Californians were savages,” says Foster-Hilliard, who is in her 60s and now lives in Fremont. At her church, St. James Episcopal, she’s one of a few who still dresses up. A pinstriped suit with a hat – fedora, beret or wide-brimmed, depending on her mood – is always a necessity.
“There are few things I hold very personal,” she says. “Wearing a hat to church is one. It shows reverence to God.”
© 2009, Contra Costa Times. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.