One day about 20 years ago, I needed to have a court order signed by one of the judges at the Peoria County Courthouse. I walked over to the courthouse from my downtown office. When I entered the courtroom, the only people present were the judge and a local area attorney. As soon as I walked up to the judge to ask him to sign the order, he said, “Where’s your jacket?”
The dress code for local male attorneys requires that they wear a dress shirt, tie, and a suit or sport coat when they enter a courtroom. At the time I walked into the courtroom, I was wearing dress pants, a dress shirt, and a tie, but I had forgotten to put on my sport coat before I left my office.
I responded to the judge’s question by saying, “Your Honor, I forgot my sport coat at my office. I just need you to sign an order.” He responded, “Don’t you know the rules require that you wear a jacket when you enter a courtroom?” I replied, “Yes, judge, but I forgot to grab it when I left my office. I won’t let it happen again. Would you please sign this order while I’m here so I don’t have to come back?” He responded, “No, I’m not going to sign it until you have a jacket on.” Without thinking, I said, “Are you serious?” “Of course I’m serious!” he replied.
I turned and looked at the other attorney in the courtroom and said, “Dan, can I borrow your jacket so I can get this order signed?” Dan looked at the judge and then looked back at me and replied, “Sure.” He took off his jacket and handed it to me. I put on the jacket, walked over to the judge, and handed him the order. He signed the order and handed it back to me. I then said, “Thank you, judge” and he responded, “You’re welcome.”
I took off the jacket, handed it back to Dan, and thanked him for helping me out. Then I returned to my office.
About 10 months after the incident with the judge, I made the same mistake again. I forgot to put on my sport coat before walking over to the courthouse. When I approached a different judge and asked him to sign an order, he refused to sign it because I wasn’t wearing a jacket. I didn’t bother questioning the judge. Instead, I turned to the only other person in the courtroom and asked him if I could borrow his jacket. The person I asked was a court bailiff who weighed about 150 pounds more than I do and had a belly twice the size of that on Santa Claus. He was wearing the standard red bailiff jacket that they all wear. In response to my question, he said, “Yeah, you can borrow it.”
When I put on the bailiff’s jacket, I looked like a four-year-old boy who put on his dad’s over-sized coat. I handed the order to the judge, and after signing it, he handed it back to me and said, “Have a good day.” When I gave the jacket back to the bailiff, he had a big grin on his face. I thanked him for his help and returned to my office.
I thought about the two incidents with the judges last Sunday during Mass when I noticed a man who was sitting three pews ahead of me. The man appeared to be in his mid-seventies and was wearing a T-shirt, baggy shorts, and slipper-type shoes. He looked out of place to me. It’s one thing to see a teenage boy walk into Sunday Mass with shorts on, but I guess I just don’t expect to see men in their 70s dressed as though they’re on their way to the beach.
The first thought that came to my mind after I thought about the judges was: The first time that man wore shorts to Mass on Sunday he felt guilty. I know he felt guilty, because he grew up in an era when men dressed up for church. In fact, when he was a young man, most men wore suits to Mass on Sunday. Unfortunately, it probably didn’t take very long before he got used to the new, more relaxed, unwritten dress code, and now he probably doesn’t think twice about wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and slippers to Mass.
Several years ago, after my employees starting getting reckless about how they dressed for work, I put a formal dress code into place. The dress code requires that all tattoos and other “body art” be covered during business hours and includes a prohibition against facial jewelry, such as eyebrow rings, nose rings, lip rings, and tongue studs.
The dress code requires that the men in the office wear business suits or sport coats, dress shirts (long-sleeved and pressed), ties, tailored slacks, dress shoes, and color-coordinated socks. In situations where there are no scheduled client appointments and/or hearings, the men are allowed to wear professional casual clothing.
The dress code for the women is more comprehensive. Some of the requirements are:
• Business suits, dresses, skirts, and split skirts should be worn at a respectable length. The suggested guideline is no more than 2″ above the knee; however, as styles change, keep in mind that a professional appearance is always expected along with the ability to perform daily duties with dignity.
• Sleeveless dresses/blouses that do not cap over the shoulder should be worn only with a jacket or sweater.
• Nylons or stockings should be worn at all times, but not socks or anklets. Trouser socks are appropriate with slacks.
• Tailored slacks with coordinating blouses, sweaters, and/or jackets are acceptable. Slacks should be ankle-length.
Clothing that is listed as inappropriate includes sundresses (anything that is backless, v-backed, strapless, or has straps at the shoulders); mini-skirts; skirts with extreme slits; blouses, sweaters, or tops that reveal above the waistline with normal working movements; denim and leather, regardless of style; slacks of any color with outside pockets, stitching, or rivets resembling “jeans”; cropped pants/leggings/un-tailored stirrup pants, even as maternity clothes; leggings under dresses and skirts; canvas shoes, tennis shoes, moccasins, sandals, thigh-high boots, snow boots, and military boots. Legs and/or feet should not be bare at any time. No open-toed shoes are allowed.
Needless to say, a few of the women in my office were upset with how strict the new dress code was. Their biggest complaints were that they were required to wear nylons with dresses and skirts and that they were not allowed to wear open-toed shoes. They got together and pushed for a change in the dress code, but I told them that they worked at a professional office and I wanted them to look professional when they interacted with clients of my law firm.
After a while, the women gave up trying to change the dress code but then started pushing for me to approve “casual Fridays.” My response was that it didn’t make sense to insist that they look professional the first four days of every week while looking unprofessional on the fifth day. Over the years, as employees have left and new employees have been hired, the new employees have not complained about the dress code. They’ve simply accepted it as a condition of employment.
So what has happened over the past 50 years that some men feel free to wear T-shirts, shorts, and sandals to church and some women don’t have any problem wearing tight-fitting pants, skimpy shorts, and flip-flops? Does a state court judge deserve more respect than our Lord? What if our priests behaved like judges and denied us Communion until we were appropriately dressed?
A lot of Catholics have become reckless and sloppy about the way they dress for Mass. We wake up in air-conditioned homes, drive to church in our air-conditioned cars, and attend Mass in air-conditioned churches. So why do we need to be wearing shorts and flip-flops to church? Before we had air-conditioning, men wore suits and women wore modest dresses to Mass.
I have a proposal. Under the leadership of Fr. David, we’ve seen a number of improvements to our school and our church. Attendance at Mass, enrollment in the school, and contributions have increased. He really has done a lot of things to raise the standards at St. Philomena. There’s a way in which we parishioners can reciprocate. We can raise the standards by dressing in a more respectful and dignified way. Why wouldn’t we want to dress up for Mass when our Lord is physically present with us at every Mass?
One thing I like about the parishioners at St. Philomena is their competitive spirit. They love it when their teams beat the competition and win awards. Do we have it in us to be the best-dressed team of parishioners in the Diocese of Peoria? I hope so.