Growing up, I didn’t have many role models for professional attire. The neighborhood where I grew up in Long Branch, N.J. was a working-class one, peopled with construction workers, nursing home attendants, store cashiers and the like. My father was absent from my life, and most of my uncles were blue-collar laborers. My most important role model for manhood, the late John “PJ” Roberts, who began dating my mother when I was 13, worked in the machine shop of the local alarm factory and on the clean-up crew of Monmouth Park Raceway. I couldn’t have asked for a better father-figure, but PJ’s idea of formal attire was a turtleneck shirt and blazer, instead of a white T-shirt and windbreaker, with his gray slacks and Hush Puppies. In fact, other than teachers (including a rarely seen maternal uncle) and preachers (including my paternal grandfather), I almost never saw a Black man in a tie. That is, outside of church.
My mother, with an eighth-grade education and raising four children alone on public assistance, made a big deal of teaching my brother and I how to hand tie our ties and properly wear a suit. Other than for school pictures, the only occasion requiring such attire was an important one to her: church services. My mother believed in “Sunday best” before it was a hit gospel music competition on BET, when it meant putting your best foot forward in terms of attire.
I think about this often when I attend modern church services, many of which no longer ask men to wear suits and ties to worship. I totally get it: Most churches don’t want people to feel unwelcome, uncomfortable or judged by others at services because they are unwilling or unable to meet a dress code. People shouldn’t be discouraged from seeking salvation because they don’t want to face stares of disapproval from those judging them by their wardrobe.
On the other hand, I think of boys and young men who are like I was growing up, with no professional men as role models and no reason to wear a shirt and tie outside of church. For men, the Sunday Best of church is still the closest equivalent to the dress code for most of the best opportunities and most powerful positions in America—options too many of our boys and young men don’t even consider because they cannot imagine themselves as American Express CEO Ken Chenault, Magic Johnson (the entrepreneur, not the ball player) or President Barack Obama. For many boys, dressing for church may be their only chance to see themselves in that light, the only way for them to appreciate cuff links or a pocket square, or to experience the pride and affirmation that comes when someone(especially a woman) tells them that they really look sharp. I still smile a little at the memory of being told for the first time that I was “cleaner than the board of health.” It made me feel like I was somebody—or I would be someday. That feeling never gets old.
I hope more churches follow the lead of Lawrence Powell Jr., senior pastor of Agape Family Worship Center in Rahway, N.J. Casual dress is clearly defined (usually sweaters and jeans) and specifically encouraged for certain Sundays, such as the fifth Sunday in a month. This leaves room to encourage a Sunday-best standard for men and boys at other services, not by edict, but by example.
How about encouraging the men of the church to donate ties, dress shirts and other accessories, making them available to families who can’t afford them? And why not bring in a menswear retailer to conduct seminars for boys and men in the community, teaching them to dress their best not just for church, but for job, education and business opportunities? Is it enough to ridicule their baggy pants, exposed underwear and appetite for over-priced athletic footwear, without showing the merits of polished dress shoes, a crisp dress shirt, and a proper Windsor knot?
I worry that in our efforts to allow our boys and young men to feel welcome and comfortable at church, we are undermining their ability to be welcome and comfortable pursuing dreams and opportunities outside of church—like leading a major corporation, serving in the White House, or running a national magazine. Maybe I’m over-thinking things. But I am grateful that my mother had reason, at least once a week, to dress me in my Sunday Best. If our boys and young men don’t learn the value of wearing a suit and tie at church, too many of them will never learn it anywhere.