BALTIMORE – From the days of early Christians, fancy Easter Sunday clothes have been a cosmetic commemoration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
Now, churchgoers don social media post-worthy outfits such as frills, lace, head-turning hats, stylish suits and dresses as well as color coordinated looks for the whole family.
While weekly church fashion varies depending on the place of worship, Easter ensembles are historically rooted in centuries of customs and norms, not religious theology or tenets.
Two Baltimore churches, Rehoboth Ministries Church of God in Christ and Central Christian Assembly, have very different approaches when it comes to Sunday style, but according to the spiritual leaders, dressing up for church, in general, is all about cultural expectations.
“My best friend and I often tease each other because our church culture is so different. We serve the same God, believe in the same doctrine, but she wears jeans on Sundays and I wear a sequined gown — not really, but kind of,” said Kimberli Thomas, director of Children’s Ministry at Rehoboth Ministries
Bishop William E. McMillan Jr., founder and senior pastor of Rehoboth Ministries, said he leads by example in how he dresses for church every Sunday.
“I believe that the people of God should look their very best when they go to worship. However, our fashion should not be to draw attention or cause us to lose focus on our primary purpose and that is to share the love of Jesus Christ,” said Bishop McMillan, who is often pictured on social media in three-piece tailored suits or traditional bishops’ garb, such as a purple clerical shirt and collar.
‘Looking good for Jesus’
For Thomas, who is Bishop McMillan’s daughter, dressing up for Sunday service is steeped in family traditions as well as African American heritage.
“As early as I can remember, church clothes were a thing. Whenever my parents or grandmother would take me shopping, we were either getting play clothes, school clothes or church clothes,” said Thomas.
“We honored Sunday and gave God our best. For the Black church, that includes our dress,” she added.
At Central Christian Assembly, the ethos behind worship style has changed over the past 10 years to a “come as you are,” approach according to the church’s Next Generation Pastor Jonathan Prothero, who often opts for jeans and sneakers.
“It’s a simple take on making sure that we’re not creating more barriers to entry than we need to — that people feel comfortable in their own skin,” said Prothero, who works in church communications and with congregants ages 13 to 30. “It might sound really superficial to start with an aesthetic like clothing, but actually it’s a first step, and we found it just relaxes people a lot, when they can come in, wearing what they would usually wear.”
Even with varying approaches to Sunday style, there are shared rules when it comes to fashion at both churches.
“Nothing too revealing, nothing too distracting, but [clothing guidelines are] pretty loose in terms of how strict,” Prothero said.
“Nothing is too tight, too high, too low, too loose, et cetera,” said Thomas. “Church fashion is looking good for Jesus with a splash of your personal style.”
‘Where does the reverence begin?’
Historically speaking, “Easter” was a pagan holiday to celebrate the beginning of spring, but Christians adapted the celebration to commemorate the resurrection of Christ, and soon after rules about attire came into play.
“Dressing up for Easter is a tradition that really goes back as far as medieval times,” McMillan said. “Christians in medieval times began to wear new, clean clothes on Easter Sunday to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the new life for believers. In 300 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine declared his court would wear their nicest and newest clothing on Easter Sunday.”
Coming from “humble beginnings” as one of six children, McMillan said he did not have the fanciest Easter clothes growing up. Nonetheless, he instilled an appreciation for Easter ensembles in his children and enjoys seeing his family and congregation dress in their Sunday best.
“I am the daughter of the churchiest bishop ever in the history of the Church of God in Christ,” Thomas said jokingly about McMillan. “As a child, I looked forward to going Easter shopping. That meant going to a fancy store, getting a shoe with a little heel, lacy stockings and gloves.”
“Easter for the Black church is what Christmas is to the world,” Thomas emphasized.
Easter even brings out some traditional church looks for members of Central Christian Assembly.
“You’ll see people come in shorts and T-shirts, if it’s good weather, and you will see people come in more formal attire: button downs, tucked in pants, whole suits,” Prothero said about the outfits he expects to fill Central Christian on Easter Sunday.
“People can sometimes get judgmental when they see somebody who they feel should dress up a little bit more, or they see a pastor wearing a cap on stage,” Prothero said. “For some people, it crosses a line at ‘where does the relevancy end and where does the reverence begin?’”
Dorothy Cunningham, 33, said for this Easter, her twins Dominique and Da’yonne, will be wearing linen short sets, one white and one sky blue, with three-button polos and new white Adidas. “They didn’t want to wear suits this year. Their sister, J’Lynn, will be wearing a “pink puffy tutu dress and white patent hard-bottom shoes.”
“I like to do the things that I wasn’t able to do as a child, dress up, go to church, have Easter egg hunts or even something simple like an Easter egg basket. It wasn’t provided for me and my four siblings. My mother was incarcerated so we were pushed from family to family in East Baltimore,” Cunningham said.
“Looking around as a girl, watching other kids play, all dressed up with new shoes, I felt like I was deprived of a happy Easter Sunday....For my kids, I love seeing them happy in their Sunday outfits, smiling in the mirror, and telling me, ‘Mommy, I look good!’ Then they pat me on the shoulder and say, ‘Mommy, you did good.’” said Cunningham, of Easterwood.
Despite cultural opinions, there is no theological basis on how one should dress to worship on Easter. All should be welcomed to worship, no matter the outfit, the church leaders emphasized.
“There is no theology about dressing up for Easter. The scriptures basically tell us that we should be clean and appropriate when we come into the house. If there is someone that is not blessed to have clean, new or dressy clothes, the church should receive them without any discrimination,” McMillan said.
Prothero also said there is no scriptural foundation for clothing choices and it’s about personal comfort in worship.
“It’s not like Paul’s in the New Testament saying, ‘Thou shall wear a suit and a tie of red,’” Prothero said. “We just want you to feel like you’re welcome. That, for us, is so much more important than what you wear.”