The Complexity of What to Wear: A Non-Response to "The T-Shirt Aristocracy"

“The T-Shirt Aristocracy” by David Schantz

This little piece appeared in The Christian Standard, my tradition’s weekly magazine, a few weeks ago, but I’ve just now taken the time to write out a response to it.  The Standard has recently started a segment dedicated to short essays on contested topics called “In Opinions, Liberty,” and it’s one of my favorite sections of the magazine.  Some veteran readers of the magazine think it’s a sign that “the younger generation” (i.e. the Baby Boomers who are on the editorial staff) are going soft on Christian truth, but I appreciate the forum that it gives to preachers, parishioners, and public figures within the movement to try out some ideas where we all can see it happen.

As the title indicates, “The T-Shirt Aristocracy” is no matter of Trinitarian dogma or Scriptural authority but the attempt of an old preacher and retired Bible-college professor to make sense of the “casual dress” trend that’s worked its way even into our little corner of the Christian world.  And to his credit, he quickly negates one of the reasons that so often ends the conversation about the expectations of the older generation:

I was speaking at a small Missouri church, and I couldn’t help noticing I was the only male wearing a necktie. Services were over, and I was shaking hands with the last person to leave.

“Hmmm, seems like I’m the only male wearing a tie today,” I noted.

The lady laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about that! Our preacher doesn’t wear a tie, and he urges us to dress down too, so that we don’t offend any seekers who might be poor and unable to afford dress clothes.”

I said nothing. I have heard this line many times before. But I was thinking, Oh, please! When did a polyester tie from J.C. Penney become a symbol of decadence? I mean, it’s not like any of our church members are wearing Armani suits, Gucci ties, or Berluti shoes.

Without a doubt, there are “dress clothes” (a phrase that’s more and more curious as I think about it–what sorts of clothes, after all, don’t dress a person?) that just about anyone could afford, and for those who can’t afford store prices, Schantz well notes, there are usually suits of clothes (another curious phrase) available at thrift stores for much less than a new pair of “in” jeans and an ironic “graphic tee” might cost.  When it comes to the most commonly given reason for going jeans-and-tees, Schantz dispenses with its inner contradictions in a way that might not displease Socrates.

What’s interesting (and unfortunate) is that such clarity of thought only lasts for this opening dialogue: for the rest of the brief essay, Schantz discovers (in the rhetorical sense of the verb) a host of contradictions at the heart of Sunday-morning dress.  At one moment he says that dressing in coats and ties is not a matter of ostentation and conspicuous consumption (he doesn’t use the Max Weber phrase), but in another he says that poor people who put on coats and ties “dress like a million dollars.”  With one sentence he indicates that Sunday-morning clothing selections are entirely a matter of the individual’s conscience, but in the next he suggests that one congregant should have the right to confront another lest the “come-as-you-are” ethos becomes “permission to seduce” when someone with the right sort of body wears the right sort of shirt.  And by the end of the piece, Schantz contradicts himself within the same paragraph, in one sentence saying that “casual dress” simply isn’t realistic for those who want to work in the professional world and then ending the piece saying, “We have 167 hours a week when we can wear what we like, whether it’s pajamas, riding boots, or camouflage. Is it too much to ask that we put on some decent clothes for one hour on Sunday morning?”

I note all this not to cast aspersions on Schantz but to note that, despite the ease with which people dismiss this question, it’s not an easy one to broach within the word-count limit of a popular publication.  (And as someone who’s submitted a couple pieces to the Standard, I can assure you, reader, that the word count limits are no joke.)  Had Schantz some more words to burn, no doubt he would eventually have arrived at some of these, so in the spirit not of critique but of expansion, I offer the next step to his analysis: clothing, especially but not exclusively clothing worn to Sunday meeting, never escapes the negations and pseud0-negations that make up consumer culture and the subcultures that rise from consumer culture.

I use the term “negation” because, at least since James Dean established blue jeans as a symbol of “rebellion” (although his character Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause does nothing remotely political, as that would indicate a cause), American consumer culture has marked off classes not according to wealth (a point that Schantz makes nicely) but according to authority.  Where clothing has always signaled social status, in the last half-century clothing has specifically signified whether this or that body is aligned with “the man” (in the authoritarian sense mainly but sometimes as well in the sense that someone has exhibited notable ability) or whether this or that body stands among “the people.”  Whether or not a youth minister has done a day of real manual labor in her or his life, wearing blue jeans or a tee-shirt to a Sunday service indicates that, whatever else is happening and however much money exchanged hands, the youth minister does not identify with “the suits” (a phrase that’s so telling that this parenthetical comment can only be superfluous) but against them, perhaps with “everyday people” or even with “hip” people (a term which in its earliest uses indicated special awareness, indicating that “the hip” can see through the hypocrisy of “the suits”).  Likewise, when wearing a suit becomes a protest against such hipster stylings, as it does in Schantz’s piece, the advocacy for a suit (without scare quotes) becomes a negation of the negation, not an innocent assertion of reverence or anything else.  In other words, when the context changes, the suit itself becomes a protest against a culture of jaded cynicism, a re-assertion of old modes of piety in the face of lackadaisical dress that is itself a protest.  Likewise, the anti-Victorian and sometimes-feminist protest that accentuates the shape of the body means that the assertion of the suit as a mark of modesty is always in reaction against exhibitionism just as the original shift to form-fitting clothes was a protest against prudishness.

Confused yet?

My point here is that, if Schantz’s piece seems to contradict itself, it’s because the culture of clothing in America is itself a ball of contradictions.  Such is not to say that either the T-Shirt Aristocracy or the Post-Hip Suits is right and the other wrong, but it is to say that, when we live together as disciples of Christ and witnesses to the Gospel in the world, or to put it more simply, when we live as Church, the mission on which we’re sent requires that we dig into the contradictions of our moment, to think carefully about what faithfulness means in dress and to take on all of the questions that Schantz raises.

Because I don’t have any answers to this, I’ll put it to our readers: what do you make of “T-Shirt Aristocracy,” and what place if any should discussions about clothing have in our life as congregations?

5 thoughts on “The Complexity of What to Wear: A Non-Response to "The T-Shirt Aristocracy"

  1. Nice job with the reductio ad adsurdum. The dearth of biblical data on ecclesiology makes me default mostly to missional pragmatism for issues of form and style.

    We once went to a party where the host wore a tie and the hostess wore a t-shirt so that no one would feel like ‘I don’t belong here’ regardless of how they dressed. I see congregational dress, similarly, as an issue of hospitality (which is an actual biblical catagory). And in this case, diversity is the key to hospitality.

  2. I wasn’t necessarily going for the reductio, though I do like your phrase “missional pragmatism”–it nicely describes what I do when I fill pulpit. If the preacher normally wears coat and tie, I do. If I’m preaching at our college’s convocation service, I dress as I would were I teaching classes. (It helps that I’m usually teaching classes that day.) And if I ever get invited to preach for a t-shirt and jeans congregation, I’ll get a large, gut-concealing t-shirt and go to town.

  3. I kept thinking of James 2:1-4 as I read this post: though James is working with the categories of rich/poor, perhaps preference or favoritism based on the categories of hip/square/anti-hip/anti-square can also make us “judges with evil thoughts.”

    1. I think that verse is precisely what’s operative in this conversation. The problem is that, in an economy of dress in which the “gold ring” that the visitor wears could be a necktie or a tight-fitting tee-shirt, the passage really does send one back to relying on humility to resolve the problem. And that, I’ve found, is in short supply.

  4. How is it useful for church leaders in the late capitalist United States to hold forth on how others should dress? Why is this something on which anyone can add to scriptural commands to be humble and considerate of others? Only an individual, or her close friends, has all the information to have any kind of insight into a dress decision. The factors that must be taken into account include the weather, decisions about how one should spend one’s money, one’s personal style, whether one is going somewhere before or after a service, how one travels to church (don’t assume everyone can afford a car), and the expectations of others (which may conflict: you can’t please everyone). A visiting speaker with a lingering attachment to mid 20th century bourgeoisie dress codes is unlikely to have most of this information.
    Why is it important enough to warrant a remark, let alone an article?
    In the many and various churchy situations that I’ve encountered in three continents I’ve heard more middle aged men curiously obsessed with how young women dress than young women who actually dressed seductively.

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