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In Defense of the White Shirt and Tie

 

OPINION, By: GODWIN


Last Christmas Eve, in the frostbitten late hours of the night, my wife and I walked through the grand oak doors of Tewkesbury Abbey and looked up and around at the marvelous 12th-century architecture. The vast nave was bathed in the orange light of a thousand candles. The resonant boom of an antique organ shook the ancient stone walls with Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The Christmas spirit was as thick in the air as the incense.

Tewkesbury Abbey, Photo by Matthew Hartley

We took our seats near a massive pillar and waited reverently for the Christmas Mass to begin. As I looked around at the parishioners filing in, I noticed something that shocked me. We were the best dressed—by a mile.


It shocked me because my wife and I were wearing the same thing we wore to our ward’s sacrament service earlier the same day. It was the same standard outfit we wear every week: a dress for her, a white shirt and tie for me.


And yet here we were, guests at one of the most important Anglican liturgies of the year, and I was lucky to spot even a buttoned shirt, let alone a tie. No one was dressed any different than they would be on a Saturday trip to the mall.


This has been a pattern at every non-LDS Christian service I attend. And I believe it contributes to the dwindling number of believing Christians here in England and across the Western world.


Some of my fellow Latter-day Saints are critical of the white shirt and tie standard. They say it is outdated, unfashionable, and needlessly restrictive. But I believe they are throwing the baby out with the bath water if they insist on a more relaxed dress standard. A polo here and a plaid shirt there, though seemingly inconsequential, can quickly erode an important strength of our worship.


“Sunday best” is more than just a superficial cultural norm. It is an important psychological mechanism for separating the sacred from the profane. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed in his most recent book, "One of the founding insights in sociology [is that] strong communities don't just magically appear whenever people congregate... [they] come into being when something lifts people... so they have powerful collective experiences." He explains that when religions set apart certain times, places, and objects as sacred, it enables their members to have these extremely beneficial collective experiences easily (Haidt, Chapter 8 10:00-11:30).


“Sacred” and “profane” describe a very real dichotomy. That which is sacred deals with ideas of God, salvation, and existentialism. It is a transcendent plane of thought and action above the everyday hustle of life. The “profane”, on the other hand, refers to all the mundane, everyday motions of our lives. The grocery store, gas station, and post office are profane.


Our ancestors understood well how to keep the sacred and profane apart. The Hebrew word for holiness, Kadosh, literally means separate. Sacred spaces were reserved for sacred rites done in sacred language wearing sacred garments. The profane was considered unfit for the sacred, so a symbolic or literal cleaning and redressing had to occur before entering a sacred space.


Members of the LDS church completely embrace this concept regarding the temple, where dress codes are strict and very distinct from the profane world. But when it comes to Sunday worship, some members forget that the sacrament is just as sacred a ritual as those done in the temple.

Doorknob on the Salt Lake Temple

There’s a reason we all feel a little weird going into the chapel on a Saturday morning cleaning assignment in a BYU shirt. The chapel is a sacred space, reserved for sacred rites. We speak differently in the chapel. We interact differently in response to its sacred status. The clothing we wear in the chapel is a crucial element of that.


Members critical of the LDS dress code fail to understand the sacred context of our “Sunday best”. They argue that it is an antique holdout of mid-century American corporate dress codes and that standards should be loosened to allow for more diversity of tastes. They rebel against “conformity” in dress because it appears as the enemy of authentic individuality, one of the idols of modernism.


Of course, a white shirt and tie aren’t mandatory by the handbook. Nothing about a white shirt and tie is inherently more sacred than an open-collar blue shirt. It has only become sacred because we give it that value above profane clothing. It’s a culturally enforced standard (which are always stronger than policy-enforced standards anyway).


This doesn’t mean, however, that people who don’t meet this standard should be punished or ostracized. Bishops should make sure every sacrament attendee has access to a Sunday-best outfit. I’d gladly offer a tie to a disheveled deacon.


When an investigating friend or returning member feels out of place in a sacrament meeting because of their attire, that shouldn’t cause us to panic that we aren’t being inclusive enough. These brothers and sisters aren’t out of place; they are just spectating rather than participating. (and that’s fine because they are!)


In many Christian sects, the priestly caste dresses in distinct sacred vestments as they administer sacred rites. But because the parishioners don’t have a Sunday-best standard to match, they subconsciously become spectators to their own liturgy instead of active participants. It doesn’t take long then for them to find more interesting things to spectate on a Sunday morning. They have no skin in the game.


There may come a time when the body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints transitions to a new Sunday-best standard. I don’t see a problem with that. But the broader that standard becomes, and the more it bleeds into how we dress in the profane world, the more we as a people disconnect from our sacred spaces.


From what I have observed, that leads to older and smaller congregations. Other churches used to have a Sunday-best standard, but a liberal attitude towards the sacred caused them to abandon it. With that has come an indifference to worship.


The community created around our sacred spaces is strong partly because we adhere to a standard of the sacred that is wholly separate from the profane. It is one of the many strengths of LDS culture, and it’s one I hope we don’t abandon.

 

X account: @libraryofgodwin

Instagram: @libray_of_godwin


Haidt, Jonathan. The Anxious Generation. Narrated by Sean Pratt, Jonathan Haidt, Penguin Audio, 2024. Audiobook.


Ward Radio News is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church) and does not officially represent the Church. The views expressed by contributors do not necessarily represent the position of Ward Radio News


@libraryofgodwin@libraryofgodwin

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11 Comments


I have been to weddings in other faiths and the guests were wearing shorts and T shirts! Went to a Sunday meeting at an evangelical mega church and everyone was in casual attire, shorts, t-shirts, etc. I was always taught, even before I was a member, that you are in attendance where the Lord is present. You should wear your best. I'f your best is clean jeans and a shirt, so be it, But I doubt that is the case in the majority of instance where attendees wear inappropriate dress. "And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou hither not having a wedding garment?" Matthew 22

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I just had a conversation with another LDS member at work today. He had some tattoos and said he stopped attending church because he felt judged by others because of his tattoos. It makes me want to get a tattoo for solidarity with him. I used to have a tendency to be pious and judgmental of myself and others, it is a huge character flaw I am working to correct. We need less smugness.

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I have experience returning to church with tattoos. I felt weird because I knew that tattoos were advised against. This is the way I am perceiving the environment. When we feel "judged" it is because of what we are thinking. It is internal not external. This person may be surprised if he went in to church thinking that he is there for himself and for his relationship to God and not worry about his tattoos.

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When I was younger, almost everyone I knew had a Sunday best outfit. It did feel different. I wasn’t even raised going to any church. Sunday best, gave a focus that there was something different about that day. It felt special.

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This is a very challenging topic. As a unit leader, I would love if everyone wore a white shirt and tie on Sundays. The reality is that we are a very poor and working class area and Sunday best may not be a white shirt and tie for everyone. We also have culture differences that affect the definition of Sunday best. This isn't an acceptance of sloppiness or a lowering of a standard, it is just the reality of the place where we live. I think most people in the U.S would be shocked to see how people live in our poor area. But, the saints here are just as righteous as saints in more affluent areas.


In a previous…


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