“You can follow all these rules men set up and be on your way to hell,” she said.
Concepts of appropriate dress are, of course, a mix of denominational, regional, racial and ethnic components, and they are sometimes specific in unpredictable ways. Black churches are generally known for formal, modest and elaborate style, even in summer. Catholics stereotypically are dressed simply for Mass — full suits and hats are less common, as are plunging necklines.
Rainey Ray Segars, 26, grew up with a Southern Baptist pastor-father in Tennessee, where shorts were common around church but strapless dresses were not. At 24, she moved with her new youth-pastor-husband to Illinois and found out on the first warm week since their move that jeans and Packers jerseys were fine at church activities but shorts were not.
After coming to a choir practice in shorts, a congregant “sent by a group of offended people” told Segars that she had caused someone to be lustfully distracted — “That it was my fault,” Segars remembered.
“I said, ‘I’m interested to know if that person will seek out help for themselves,’ ’’ Segars said. “I don’t agree that a woman is to blame for lust someone feels towards her. My thought was to start a dialogue.”
“It was like: ‘Yeah, that’s all fine, but please don’t wear shorts,’ ” she remembered.
The congregation she’s part of now, Segars said, includes a huge range of dress and cover.
“I think it shows a loveliness and a comfort: ‘I came just as I am, just looking to be known.’ It communicates a safety I think is really beautiful,” she said.
Conversations (and condemnations) on the issue of modest clothing and summer worship seem to focus on women. Monsignor Ed Filardi said he put the notice in the bulletin at Our Lady of Lourdes at the request of women reacting to the clothing of other women. Personally, he said, he doesn’t see a real problem, though after services Sunday morning one usher engaged the priest on the topic.
“You’re coming to see the Lord,” said Len Thompson, 65, recently retired from the Navy, and one of two men out of about 80 wearing a jacket at Mass. “What if I was going to see the Obamas? It seems skewed.”
Foundry United Methodist Church in Dupont has many gay men as members, and last Sunday many men present wore dress shorts and polo shirts.
“I’m not sure if my shins are distracting anyone in here,” one 39-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said with a smile.
Discussions about possible sins of immodesty inevitably lead to discussions about another sin: judging.
“Jesus is most strong when he speaks about judging people,” said Johnnie Moore, youth pastor at the evangelical Liberty University, noting students have come to his services in pajamas. That said, he feels religious and secular Americans are joining forces over concern about an oversexualized youth culture. “Generally speaking, you shouldn’t come to church as you would to a club,” he said.
Northwest Washington image consultant Ketura Persellin has written about appropriate clothing for worship, down to the size of bag, jangly jewelry and skirt length. This is a woman who cares about clothes. But as her preteen children are getting older, Persellin finds herself less tolerant of clothing chatter at her synagogue, Adas Israel.
“I don’t want people talking about my kids like that,” she said. “I’ve definitely been trying to get down from my high horse.”