Un-dressed on the Altar

With the lazy, hazy days of summer upon us, I have been asked to address the topic of appropriate dress for church on Sunday. However, at the moment, I’d like to focus the attention on appropriate dress for lay people while serving on the altar in the capacity of lector, usher or Eucharistic Minister.

Last week I was addressing a group of professionals on the topic of “professional” dress and presentation. It dawned on me then, that we wouldn’t dream of griping about the heat and our comfort or lack thereof (among other things) when attending an interview or a business meeting. However, I guess church seems to be lumped in the category of “weekend” dressing and therefore we find it easier to bemoan the formality of dress that is expected. Besides, our livelihood is not connected to it; funny the role that little detail plays! In my opinion, serving on the altar is a privilege and when we are on the altar we become “presenters”. I doubt anyone would attempt a business presentation other than in business attire. So the need to modify the expectation for a presentation at church really baffles me. Further baffling is most priests’ reluctance to upset the apple-cart by addressing the topic.

Let’s evaluate some of the arguments against dressing in professional attire for church:

  • Affordability: I am hoping we don’t hear this complaint from someone who regularly spends almost $5 on a cup of Starbucks coffee. I have purchased high quality business jackets for less than I have paid for a pair of jeans. Organizations like “Dress for Success” or “Goodwill” also have professional attire available at no cost or an extremely subsidized rate.
  • The weather: If we’re really honest we’d acknowledge that walking around in our birthday suit would FEEL the most comfortable on a hot summer day; but handcuffs, in jail, for indecent exposure might negate that good feeling! So refraining from focusing on our FEELINGS for a bit might make it easier to be rational. I don’t think keeping a jacket on for about an hour in an air-conditioned facility, will kill anyone. Quit whining and deal with it – offer it up for some souls in purgatory if that makes it easier.
  • Formal dressing is a thing of the past: Says WHO? Has the priests’ attire changed? Is mass or service not still a formal gathering of believers assembled to worship the most high God? I believe we use this lame excuse because are just getting lazier and don’t want to make an effort to dress up. What a shame that signs like “No shirt, no shoes = no service” are necessary to remind us to stay clothed!

A couple of weeks ago I was alerted to a situation where a lector had a cut out in her dress, in the middle of her back, which was in clear view as she went up to lector and later to serve as Eucharistic Minister. Lector assignments are pre-scheduled so I’m wondering, was there nothing in the closet that was not cut out, that could be chosen for the privilege of proclaiming God’s word? In the corporate world, cutouts on clothes are prohibited even on “Casual Fridays”. Where is the sense of decorum and respect for the sacredness of the occasion – that being the mass?

Based on “professional” expectations, here are some guidelines on what to wear to serve at mass on Sunday or Saturday Vigil or on days of obligation:

  • Coat and Tie for men.
  • Trouser or skirt suits are optimum and most preferred; so are professional dresses (may be two-piece), dress trousers with appropriate dressy tops are acceptable for ladies.
  • Stockings for ladies if skirts are above the knee; socks for men (trust me; there IS a need to say this!).
  • Dress shoes (cleaned and polished) for all.

Guidelines regarding appropriateness:

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Marisa Pereira


Marisa Pereira is a mother, fashion designer, currently runs a Design and Image Consulting business in Atlanta, GA, is a freelance writer and volunteers at her church and in the community. She holds a BA in Fashion Design and a BA in French with a minor in Psychology and has worked in the Fashion Industry for over twenty years. Frustrated at her inability to find appropriate church clothes for her 14 year old daughter, she heeded God’s call, and created the stylish but modest, Michaela-Noel clothing collection, now available on-line. Having lived in multiple countries, she is acutely aware of the emphasis cultures place on visual appeal. She analyzes the importance of presenting the best image of ourselves and passionately insists that it starts within. She regularly addresses adult and youth audiences – encouraging and teaching them to make a memorable first impact but more importantly - to create a lasting impression. Her websites are: www.mpcimage.com and michaela-noel.com.

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  • Deanna Bartalini

    It is certainly an uphill battle to get people to dress correctly when serving.  My favorite was an Extraordinary Minister of Holy communion wearing a strapless sundress and a mantilla.  
    I agree with everything except stockings/socks.  In S. FL professionals skip them pretty much all the time, myself included.

  • Ffarrell

    Ok – You got me on the, “It’s so hot” excuse! For years that has been my rationale for not wearing a tie to Mass. Have been somewaht embarassed by Catholic attire (whether on the altar or in the pews) at Mass for some time now. Time to shape up and wear a tie.
    Having settled that, you must follow up with a column on dress when in the pews – particularly when on vacation! I shudder at my possible previous errors! Seriously, this is necessary medicine Marisa!

  • Caroline McCoy-Hansen


    Thank you for addressing proper business attire at The Career Ministry at Holy Spirit. You were, of course, spot on, as you are in this blog.

    I find that women are the greatest offenders. Many of the EM’s would not be permitted in the Vatican, dressed the way they come to mass, or ascend the altar. Would anyone who had an audience with the Queen of England, or the Holy Father dress the way they do when approaching the Body and Blood of Christ? 

    I can only think they do not recognize that they are standing with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Perhaps we should be praying for their lack of faith!

    Deanna: Forgive me, but you are not a professional when attending mass. You are a child of God, a position I would think is much more important, no matter what the climate. It is called respect! 

  • annie


     “Perhaps we should be praying for their lack of faith!” Really, maybe for their lack of common sense, but who are you to judge their faith? Although, the guideline in the article are extreme, I do think there are people who forget where they are going when they get dressed for Mass. However, I really don’t think God is judging these people, I would bet He is just glad they are there.

    What about all the brides these days in their strapless dresses? That is something I don’t like, but If the priests aren’t saying anything about these things then it must not be the issue you think it is. BTW, I believe we are suppose to walk with Jesus no matter where we are, not just at church.

  • Annie,
    Unfortunately, we can’t use priests as yardsticks these days as many are liberal and not Magisterium friendly. They are more concerned about being liked by the congregation that calling a spade a spade. So if a priest doesn’t say something about dressing then he doesn’t care, that’s it.

    At my parish, the priest is very strict about dressing. If any lector or EMC came dressed like the examples Marisa gave, they would have not served that day. We even have a poster educating about proper dress.

  • MaggzyMe

    Marisa, I appreciate this article and wanted to share it because it is so necessary but it begs a strong question for people I know as we are in the Northeast.  

    Our churches are not air-conditioned.  At Mass this evening all the doors were opened in the Cathedral but it was still in the 80’s.  Fortunately it was not too humid as it will be in just a month or so.  God love the priests that are in their full attire but I do find that most people have sweat pouring from them in the summer.  I tend to wear a sleeveless top with a very light sweater or jacket and light dress pants (no stockings but no flip flops either) most of the time in the summer but there have been some times that I’ve felt near faint due to heat an taken the outer piece off during Mass (I’m not on the altar, just in the pews), though I do put it on for receiving communion.  I don’t mean this as an excuse, I’m actually asking because you appear to be knowledgeable of both fashion and liturgical form.  I’m hoping you can make some suggestions for those that might disregard your whole article as soon as they see the line  ” I don’t think keeping a jacket on for about an hour in an air-conditioned facility, will kill anyone. ”  as people fainting is not unheard of in our churches.  The men and women that I see, who model appropriate attire in our churches in the summer, typically wear thin sweaters (appropriate for their size and shape) or light jackets, long skirts (no stockings) for women and dress shirts (sometime short sleeve) and dress pants or quality khakis (with socks 🙂 no ties or jackets though) for men.  Other thoughts on this?As a side note for those that are thinking “why in the world don’t they put air-conditioning in”; it would cost a fortune to air-condition these facilities, particularly the older gothic style structures.  Heat nearly wipes us out financially in the winter as we have about a 6 month heating season.  Stained glass and stone are not friendly to modern conveniences of temperature control.  We also only deal with the extraordinary heat (that’s 80″s and 90″s for us 😉  )  for about 2- 3 months.  

    If you do write on the subject of attire for parishioners, I do hope you will distinguish between those in climate controlled environments and the rest of us.  

    Thanks so much for your wonderful work here!

  • Brother_Pilgrim

    Great article!
    If you wouldn’t be allowed into the Vatican,
    then you shouldn’t be allowed in the regular parish church.
    We should all follow the Vatican guidelines;
    therefore, I would add no bare shoulders.
    Also, I have seen a number of families where Mom and teh kids look nice and Dad is wearing shorts…Dads need to step up to the plate!

  • terentiaj63

    A friend attended a wedding where the bride’s dress was one of those “mermaid” style dresses-strapless, backless, tight thru the body to the knees then flaring. When she got to the altar, the priest told the groom “Take off your jacket and cover that woman.” My friend was highly offended. I say, good for him. but this kind of thing could be avoided in pre-marriage counseling.

  • Sjocr

    I live in San
    Antonio, Texas, it hasn’t got to 90 yet but the humidity is the
    deciding factor in regards to heat. I’m 58, make below the federal
    poverty line, walk six blocks to St John’s to serve as usher at the
    8:00 Mass, I also greet people, open the door and offer help when
    needed. In the winter, which sometimes last a month I wear a tie, I
    do wear dress pants, and a polo shirt, a Mexican dress shirt, or yes,
    one of the nice ‘T’ shirts I got as a team member on a ACTS retreat,
    after Mass I serve as a Eucharistic minister at the Metro hospital
    downtown. I try to look my best; shaven, hair cut and combed,
    respectable, but I seen people in my life come to church in tattered
    jeans and torn ‘T’ shits and I don’t think it’d be right for me to
    say anything (unless I knew they were dressing down!) because God
    called sinners, not the righteous, and the wealth He offers lies in
    our heart, not our pocket. I ask all before offering communion if
    they’re practicing Catholics, I regret not being able to serve those
    who haven’t been to Mass (not because of their hospital stay) because
    that’s one of the top three commandments. I do understand that
    presentation is important; but there is a man that come to church
    dressed in his best, and his best is not that good, but I always
    treat him with respect! He’s at church to listen to the gospel, and
    receive the body and blood of our salvation! I think I counted five
    ties today,(They have AC in their cars) but most dressed sharp! Wait
    till it hits 100! Oh I don’t wear socks that often either!

  • Sjocr

    Sorry, I was wrong, I don’t have a TV so never know, it has gotten past 90 in San Antonio!

  • ernie.castillo@yahoo.com

    Mass is not a job interview. It is a family coming together to love the Lord and one another. Is this discussion really necessary?

  • yakinmol

    Ernie, I think short shorts, mini-skirts, tank tops or halters by women, and torn jeans, shorts and flip-flops by men are more indicative of self-love than love for the Lord.

    And yes, this discussion is necessary because we are apparently hard-headed and the lesson bears repeating each summer. Also bear in mind that such attire
    especially by the former group, is an occasion for leading people into the sin of concupiscence.

  • Marisa Pereira

    MaggzyMe, thank you for your comments. Sorry that you have to suffer the heat especially when it is not the norm, it feels hotter. This article was specifically to address dress on the altar. A light weight dress or top would certainly be appropriate even on the altar if it is not skimpy or clingy. God Bless.

  • Marisa Pereira

    Ernie Castillo, True, mass is not a job interview, and IS a coming together of the larger Christian family to worship our most High God. Weddings, broadway shows, formal dinners are also family events – most people dress well for these… as they should. If we all dressed appropriately for service on the altar – which this article addresses, there wouldn’t be a need for this discussion, would there?

  • bronwyn

    We used to have this problem in our parish too. Some of the female lectors were wearing high heels and mini skirts. Now they wear choir robes over their clothing. It is a practical solution and not so distracting for either the men (who may have been distracted by their legs) nor for the women (who may have been distracted by their cute outfits.) Now if only the congregation would dress modestly.
    Re: strapless dresses for brides & bride’s maids. I think the priest should outline proper wedding attire for the ladies at the initial meeting with the engaged couple. Here are the rules….you have one year to work around them.

  • livethegoldenrule

    anyone claiming its too hot argument, should be asked to look at what the priests are wearing, what we wear would not be as hot at all those layers!

  • Adam Scott

    I think males should be obliged to wear robes in church whether modestly dressed or not.