Tactful Response to Untactful Garb


black gownTo: Marybeth

From: Irritated Aunt

My 13-year-old son will be confirmed in a solemn ceremony at our church. We have invited our extended families to join us for the confirmation and, afterward, for a nice dinner in our son’s honor. We would like everyone to dress appropriately (and modestly) for the occasion, but I’m certain that my 19-year-old niece will show up scantily dressed in something ridiculously short, revealing and inappropriate for a church service. This is how she typically dresses and has done so for similar occasions. If I say something to her mother (my sister-in-law), I’ll cause a family feud because I will offend my nieces’ “sense of style” (and tacitly call her a skank). If I mention it to my brother, he’ll shrug his shoulders and say it doesn’t matter. But it does matter to us, and I’d prefer not to be the family at church sitting with the woman who looks like a streetwalker. Any suggestions?

To: Irritated Aunt

From: Mb

Oh, for the days when “proper attire” meant something, and people conformed to the social expectation to dress in a manner fitting to the occasion.

Your problem reflects the need for social conventions. When norms about attire existed and everyone knew and respected them, families didn’t face that awkward moment when you consider confronting a sister-in-law about her daughter’s skanky wardrobe. But there we are.

There’s more to this than a manners issue, though. From a cultural perspective we’ve forgotten — and neglected to teach our children — that the way in which we dress reflects the seriousness or solemnity of an event. Today, folks believe that any special occasion that warrants “dressing up” means you can wear whatever you believe is fancy, irrespective of the neckline or hemline. That’s not really true, and we do a disservice to our children when we don’t instruct them properly about attire.

Then again, this is a family occasion and what’s most important is that those who know and love your son celebrate his confirmation (presumably this is why you invited extended family to be there). When you confirm the plans with those attending, you might do so by email with a line about appropriate attire. (Something like, “Since this event takes place at our church, everyone is asked to dress in their Sunday best. Ladies’ dresses should be modest and appropriate for the occasion.”) If your church has put out a formal statement to this effect, include that, as it would indicate the message isn’t just coming from you.

Since you’d be sending this message to everyone in the family, you would not be singling out your niece. But just to be on the safe side, bring along a sweater you could offer her if her dress is too revealing. You can’t make her wear it, though; you can only offer it for her comfort.

More importantly, remember that your son’s confirmation means he is being brought more fully into the church and will receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit — wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate, by your example, how those gifts inform one’s life and relationships.

If you make a big issue out of your niece’s attire at the upcoming confirmation, especially if you make a comment beforehand about how she always dresses scantily, you’re not likely to advance your relationships. You’ll just be that mean aunt who criticizes someone for the way she dresses, and you’d be “Judy McJudgey-pants,” to boot.

If it turns out that her attire embarrasses you, remember that she took the time to be there for your son, she’s a family member, she probably thinks she looks nice, and there already is someone in that church whose job it is to judge her choices.

And that someone is not you.


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  • Stabat Mater

    For our home school group’s graduation (yes, even homeschoolers have this issue with such diversity amongst us), I preface our expected code of dress with “Out of respect for Our Lord and our priest, and in keeping with the dignity of the Mass…” I hope this keeps the “personal preference/style” debate out of the larger issue at hand. It seems that many people (esp. those of us born in and after the 70’s) may never have been taught to give these points much consideration, and perhaps this is an opportunity to shed some light.

    Thanks for a poignant article!

  • Marybeth said: …there already is someone in that church whose job it is to judge her choices.
    And that someone is not you.

    Sorry, but that statement and the attitude behind it could not be more wrong. It plays into the prevailing falsehood that to criticize wrong behavior is to judge another. It neither judges anyone to Hell nor does it judge what’s on her heart but it does take a stand on what is NOT ACCEPTIBLE when a family member is receiving a Sacrament.
    I like your opening suggestion of forwarding the request of the Church, but it should be accompanied by an attempt to procure the neice’s agreement to comply in advance. To fail to defend the sacredness of one of the Sacraments when the opportunity or nbeed arises is to share in the ongoing dilution of the strong Catholic identity which once existed but now gives way to going along to get along.
    In spirit the only difference between faltering in this situation in the way you’ve prescribed, and refusing to uphold Church teaching against same-sex marriage because your sibling or adult child is same sex-attracted, is one of degree.