Manners & Misdemeanors

Sunday Best: On Proper Church Attire and Etiquette

It’s ironic that in today’s fashion-obsessed world, the meaning of “Sunday best” seems to have been lost.
IMAGE COLLAGE Yzabella Cruz
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When Henry James and Jane Austen, writers known for their familiarity with the habits and habitats of the upper classes in New York and the English countryside, want to describe the appearance of a character who doesn’t come from but wants to mingle with the upper crust, they use the phrase “dressed in their Sunday best.” What they really mean is that the person is wearing the best of his usually limited wardrobe.

But now, the meaning of “dressing in our Sunday best” seems to have been lost as surely as Assumptionistas lost the habit of curtsying before the teacher’s desk each time we crossed it or when we passed an Assumption nun. We were trained so hard to curtsy from the time we entered kindergarten that we could put anyone in Queen Victoria’s court to shame.

 In the 1960s, we all dressed to go to church on Sundays. Even the little ones were dressed in their party best—hand embroidered smocking and Spanish callado on the best piqué or cotton material. Being the vanidosa of the family, Sunday gave me the chance to dress up and dress up, I did. I would choose from among my pairs of shoes, which I had in all colors—pink and apple green being my favorites.

Our best guide on what is appropriate to wear is our honest self.

When colored veils came into fashion, it was another thing to match with the rest of the ensemble. There was a time when we stuck fancy pins through our veils so that they would not slide down our carefully flipped and teased hairdos. And then there were net veils, like the ones hanging down from fashionable pillbox hats such as those worn by Jackie Kennedy, to coyly hide one’s darting eyes. I might have gone partially cross-eyed looking at the altar through the squares or diamond shaped holes of the veil, but I still wore it.

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Then one day, all the Sunday primping stopped. The women stopped using veils, and wore jeans more often than dresses; men started going to church in shorts and shoes without socks or, worse, in slippers with their naked toes peeking out.

The women stopped using veils, and wore jeans more often than dresses; men started going to church in shorts and shoes without socks or, worse, in slippers with their naked toes peeking out.

I cannot remember what brought about the drastic change in Sunday wear. But it happened without many noticing it. All of a sudden, it became acceptable for people to wear shorts, tank tops, and slippers. I once spotted someone I knew in the communion line, who looked like he had just jumped out of bed. His hair was tousled and his face looked like he had not even bothered to freshen it with water. He had on a t-shirt so crumpled it looked like he and his dog had slept in it, dirty-looking khaki shorts and beach sandals that must have crossed Boracay shores a thousand times. How can wives allow their husbands to go out looking like that! This might keep the women away from him but they will also wonder how his wife could live with someone like him.

The pace of life in the past allowed our parents more time to dress up elegantly while today’s complicated times must make such demands on people that they can’t be bothered to dress up.

Young women, along with matrons in denial, started sporting backless, haltered, spaghetti-strapped apparel in church, often two sizes too small. Veils are a thing of the past. If you wore a veil these days, people would think you had excessively found religion because your husband had found someone younger.

I wonder why we’ve stopped wearing our “Sunday best” when we go to church. We take pains and so much care to dress for a dinner or a cocktail party—with the same people in a house or a restaurant not particularly known for their food. Who in their right mind would dare go to The Bar at Peninsula Manila or to dinner at Shangri-La wearing Havaianas?

Of course, we can’t turn back the clock. The pace of life in the past allowed our parents more time to dress up elegantly while today’s complicated times must make such demands on people that they can’t be bothered to dress up.

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Who in their right mind would dare go to The Bar at Peninsula Manila or to dinner at Shangri-La wearing Havaianas?

But we can still and should dress up, if not well, at the very least, tastefully. Start with simple clothes. You need not be decked out with jewelry, like the woman who adorns her young daughters with two-carat diamonds on their ears at eleven in the morning. For those who can only wear clothes that show more than their shoulders, bring a wrap. An hour of modesty will not extinguish your appeal; it may add mystery to its fading power. The length of your dress or skirt should allow you to sit without having to tug at the hem to hide your underwear. It doesn’t matter if it is the latest from Paris but the couturier of a woman head of state is expected to “construct” a skirt that falls naturally in place as the person sits down without needing a tug here or a pull there.

Think: Does the dress I’m wearing bring out my own personality and enhance the best of my natural features? Or does it look as if I’m trying too hard to emulate someone I admire and read about in the pages of a fashion or society magazine?

Men should wear clothes that would be appropriate when they visit their mother-in-law. But please no shorts; do cover your legs and above all, your feet. Two hours dressed right won’t kill anyone. I remember when men sprayed themselves with cologne like Eau Savage or Puig. I know one who sprayed his head. He wasn’t very tall but he was very considerate which made him somewhat popular. These days you’re lucky to smell any bath soap on male skin.

Most weddings are in church; even civil wedding ceremonies are eventually repeated before the altar. It is imperative that no one tries to outdo the bride. If there is one big event in a girl’s life, it’s her wedding day. Guests should be sensitive enough to allow the bride to be the star of the evening. For married women, try not to wear white. For the still single, don’t reveal your frustration. And whatever color you wear, bring a wrap because you will be in a church. When shrugs came into fashion, it was so convenient. The short bolero-like addition looked pert and feminine but does not cover you like a cocoon.

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If you are a member of the entourage, dress appropriately, which is to say not in a slinky gown with a back cut open way down and just shy of what one assumes only your yaya has yet seen. There is a time and place for such attire—in your bedroom.

For the men, life is simpler. A well-made and sharply shaped barong or a dark suit will do, especially for evening weddings. I think it’s important that we follow what the invitation requires. If it says barong, don’t come in a suit, even if your suit is Armani.

The bride and groom and their families have spent months and good money to make the wedding perfect, don’t be the one who spoils wedding photos trying to make a statement about your individuality as a person of decidedly wrong taste. You can be sure that the little ones looking through the wedding album will say, “Mama, who’s that? Why is he not wearing the same as the others?” And there you were, trying to stand out.

For wakes and funerals, the same rule as church on Sundays should apply. If you are not a member of the bereaved family, you need not wear black or white. Dark or sober colors like gray, navy blue, beige or brown would be appropriate. That is how you show respect to the bereaved family and the dead.

Since it has become customary for people to stay on and have lunch, merienda, dinner, or all three, during the wakes, the least we can do is dress up for the gathering. Just because you came from your weekly badminton game at the Polo Club, is no reason to show up sweating in your sportswear. The deceased is gone, but the family left behind can still smell you. What was meant to be a thoughtful gesture will only convey that your visit was just incidental, that you happened to be along the way.

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For wakes and funerals, the same rule as church on Sundays should apply.

And, of course, the ancient and abiding horror is still showing up at any event wearing the exact same dress as someone else. With the popularity of upscale fashion boutiques and our own designers going into retail, the likelihood of this happening has increased exponentially. I remember a State of the Nation address when two women came in exactly the same ternos except for the color. That’s the price that two must pay for a designer’s success.

If you happen to be in this unfortunate situation and you have the time and energy to go home and change, then do so. But if there is nothing that can be done, then simply and confidently smile at the other one similarly garbed or stay as far away as possible.

Our best guide on what is appropriate to wear is our honest self. Look at the mirror like the Evil Queen in Snow White did but don’t be mad at the truth staring back at you. Be thoughtful instead. Think: Does the dress I’m wearing bring out my own personality and enhance the best of my natural features? Or does it look as if I’m trying too hard to emulate someone I admire and read about in the pages of a fashion or society magazine? If you can truly answer those questions in the affirmative and see your image looking back at you with a smile, then, chances are, you’re on the right track.

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Louie B. Locsin
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