My father was a man of exquisite taste in business wear. He was the proverbial "educated consumer," and he knew how to choose the perfect tie with a glance. Each morning he left for work looking like an advertisement in a men’s fashion magazine. My father also hated to wear a tie and closed collar. Within moments of sitting down behind his desk, his tie was loose, his collar was unbuttoned and, for good measure, his shirt sleeves were rolled to his elbows.
I inherited my father’s dislike of haberdasherial confinement; his sense of style he left to my wife. And so, it should come as no surprise that I will embrace any excuse for comfort over conformity.
Certainly, standards of dress have changed over the years. Once, no self-respecting man would walk outdoors without a hat. And a woman in pants – why, she was a hussy! Today, hats are frequently considered affectations, and an elegant pair of slacks is the norm in a professional woman’s wardrobe.
Synagogue fashion has changed as well. Men still wear hats (at least in OUR shul), but the eclectic standards of our culture have made their way into the sanctuary. Some people see the synagogue as the last bastion of modest and formal attire. Some see it as the place where comfort should be reflected in both attitude and apparel. And, for better or for worse, some see it as a place to make a fashion statement.
Unfortunately, those attitudes are mutually exclusive. Some congregants are absolutely insulted by any breach of what they consider respectful, while others resent any attempt to define what constitutes distinctive synagogue wear. In the end, these attitudes, even unarticulated, can serve as a distraction to the reasons we gather in the sanctuary – to pray, to learn, to be together.
The solution is not in regimentation, but in consideration. When you dress (and when you dress your children), consider the impact your attire will have on others. For men, blue jeans, wrinkled khakis or a shirt without a collar will unquestionably agitate some members. For women, especially short skirts, low-cut tops and bared backs or shoulders will make many others uncomfortable. By the same token, congregants with strong opinions on appropriate dress must consider the different ways to honor Shabbat and holidays – including, for some, a different manner of dress than the business world commands or the selection of a "best outfit" you may consider either too formal or too casual.
Consider first that you are a part of a community, and only then your sartorial tastes. Then, whether you are fashion wearer or the fashion critic, you will focus on the collection of sacred souls which fill our sanctuary, and not just the containers in which they reside.
Excuse me while I loosen my tie.