Ah, church

Ah, church. It’s an environment thousands of years older than the cinematic art, but offers a wide array of cinematic possibilities. Weddings, funerals, Sunday services, confessions – all of these situations have brought the church to the screen, setting a stage for drama and contemplation throughout the annals film history.

Churchgoing fashion in American film starts with puritanism. In Victor Sjöström’s silent 1926 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, Lillian Gish plays the embattled heroine Hester Prynne. She wears the bonnets and long-sleeved dresses of 17th century ladies made to keep their bodies under wraps, though the pointy trim has a touch of contemporary art deco style. The film offers a potent depiction of how fashion can be used to ostracise within a conservative community, with that ominous stitched-on “A.”

In Puritan society, fashion is a mode of control, and while dress codes have loosened since then, there’s always a need to dress to maintain a certain status quo. It’s no wonder that The Scarlet Letter has been adapted so many times since cinema’s earliest days – in this story, clothing is used to telegraph morality, and transport us to another time – a time from which we are never fully free.

In its attempts to dignify religious experience by not bringing frivolity or overt sexuality into a sacred space, church fashion often exemplifies a gothic heaviness. There’s no better example of this than Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 film Day of Wrath, which features long, severe dresses – a look so anti-fashion that it becomes intriguing in its layered impenetrability. The stoicism of some church fashion enhances the rigidity of auteur visions – just look at Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest, with church outfits so dark they blend into the setting.

Church fashion doesn’t always have to be dark

Church fashion doesn’t always have to be dark. In the romantic drama An Affair to Remember (1957), Deborah Kerr shows up to church in a white hat and dotted dress. It’s a sweetly girlish sort of church fashion, formal but not oppressively so, and as in so many cases of church dressing, the hat ties together the outfit. In Elmer Gantry (1960), Burt Lancaster plays a con man evangelist in a plaid suit, surrounded by country locals in their pastel Sunday best. Their outfits are soft, not austere, suggesting they may be easy to deceive. Colourful fashion also historically comes into play in the black church. The Blues Brothers (1980), features a scene in this setting, with none other than James Brown as the preacher. The rainbow of dresses on display, fashionable both inside and outside the church, make for a cheerful spectacle, and provide a marked contrast to the protagonists’ dark suits and sunglasses. This mode of churchgoing has an ecstatic energy, with fashions to match.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952) wearing a prim high ruffled collar and hat in the former film and an appropriately Irish cozy plaid cloak in the latter. The church figures in a number of Alfred Hitchcock films, from I Confess (1953) to The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) – characters wear tailored suits as they grapple with moral ambiguity. A sharp outfit that blends into a vision of 50s conformity can act as a sort of shield for protagonists in a traditional atmosphere inevitably freighted with suspense.

Church fashion is part of the larger theme of orthodoxy. Just because you’re wearing your Sunday best doesn’t necessarily mean it should stand out. In a film like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), with its political overtones suggesting the blacklist, the church scene shows a group of townspeople who may as well all be wearing the same outfit. The women in their long dresses and hats, the men in their suits – the look suggests a larger issue of philosophical conformity.

Sixties church fashion, as expected, is a bit less buttoned-up. Mrs. Robinson’s leopard-trimmed coat in The Graduate (1967) is downright chic, and more seductive than the average church look. In film, there’s something novel about seeing a non-churchy performer donning church garb. Nothing could be further from Cher’s legendarily glitzy stage outfits than the church outfit she wears in Moonstruck (1987). Simply attired, in an oversized tweed coat and a gray scarf wrapped around her hair, she practically looks like she could be in a 50s churchgoing scene, save for her coat’s broad shoulders.

In most cases, the house of worship isn’t a house of style. The many suits and prim and proper ensembles we see in cinematic church scenes usually aren’t given quite the same importance as the space of the church itself, but if we look closely we can see how these clothes place the wearer in a certain time, and suggest a desire to conform or celebrate. Perhaps the most enduring theme of churchgoing fashion since the beginning of cinema is the way it seeks to create a quiet dignity, occasionally accenting it with a frilly collar. Whether you’re wearing a long black dress of a ruffled pastel ensemble in this space, only God can judge it.

Abbey Bender is a New York-based writer on film and fashion. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, The Washington Post, Nylon, Playboy, Vice, and other publications.