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I was wondering how old the idea of wearing your "Sunday Best" (nicest clothes) to church. It only became common to have different sets of clothes in the last few centuries. And even then people would only have two or three outfits, making it difficult for me to believe that the scarcity of fabric would be used for clothing that wasn't practical for every day usage.

It seems feasible that during the 1800s a wider range of garments became available, and the idea of starting to own dedicated formalwear sounds more reasonable. These sources claiming that this began in the 1800 are on Quora but don't provide any citations. Is this the era that churchgoers started having dedicated clothing for worship?

To make the question less ambiguous I am asking about the peasant class, or people who are otherwise not part of the clergy and would not be likely to have a wide wardrobe in the first place.

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    Borrowing someone's 'sunday clothes' is mentioned in Don Quixote', so the distinction was valid in the 17th century at least.
    – justCal
    Jul 25, 2022 at 23:45
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    I'm not a Christian, so I can't say I'm familiar with their writings, but I can comment that the idea to have separate, nicer Sabbath clothes can be found in the Jewish tradition dating back centuries. With Christianity having come from ancient Judaism, I'd assume this practice is very old in their religion as well.
    – ezra
    Jul 26, 2022 at 1:19
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    Living in Thailand, I can confirm people usually wear something nicer when going to a temple. So, it's not just in one religion.
    – Jos
    Jul 26, 2022 at 3:35
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    Temple -> ritual -> better / ritual clothing. I would assume this permeates all cultures / religions.
    – DevSolar
    Jul 26, 2022 at 8:21
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    Also, Temple -> No work (at a time that almost all work was physical) -> Less wear & tear; you use your worst clothes for the workdays. And Temple -> Social gathering -> Time to show your best.
    – SJuan76
    Jul 26, 2022 at 16:42

2 Answers 2

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The Oxford English Dictionary (OED2) lists Sunday best and Sunday's best under the lemma Sunday, but does not provide literary citations for these terms. The oldest instance I could find dates to the late 18th century (my bolding):

The Political Magazine and Parliamentary, Naval, Military, and Literary Journal, For the Year M,DCC,LXXXXI. Volume II. London: J. Bew 1781, p. 424:

House of Lords
Wednesday May, 30.
[...]
Bill for preventing certain abuses and Profanation on the Lord's Day
On the order of the day for committing this Bill.
Lord Abingdon opposed it in the following curious speech.
[...]
Sunday being in this country, as in all other Christian countries, the day of otium cum dignitate, the day of rest, the day when people wash and clean themselves, and as the saying is, put on their Sunday's best; and their being in this metropolis, some who having washed and cleaned themselves, and put on their Sunday's best, are willing to enjoy this otium cum dignitate, not by walking al fresco on a Sunday evening, lest their Sundays best be spoiled by the rain, but under cover [...]

But the concept of a special set of clothes set aside for use on Sundays and religious holidays is certainly older. Searching for Sunday's clothes and Sunday clothes one can trace it back in English-language publications for another century (my bolding):

Jeremiah Burroughs, Four Books On the Eleventh of Matthew, London: Peter Cole 1659, p. 667:

As suppose you have been the last week drunk, or have been committing uncleanness, or have been in Company, and you can come to the Sacrament on the Lord's day, and joyne with the Minister when at prayer, you can come and put on your sunday clothes (as you cal them) and sit at the word and it is as easy to you as any other thing, [...]"

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (tr. John Phillips), The History of the Most Renowned Don Quixote of Mancha, and His Trusty Squire, Sancho Pancha, London: Thomas Hodgkin 1687, p. 142:

"Well — at length I discover'd the Cause of my Grief to a young Shepherd that serv'd my Father: I desir'd him to lend me his Sunday's Clothes, and to go along with me to the Village where I knew D. Ferdinand was."

According to Wikipedia which cites Samuel Putnam, Phillips's translation is not faithful to the original work. I tracked down the original sentence in the 1605 edition of Don Quixote, and it simply speaks of a shepherd boy's clothing (my bolding):

Que fue, ponerme en este habito, que me dio uno de los que llaman çagales en casa de los labradores, que era criado de mi padre, al qual descubri toda mi defuentura, y le rogue me acompañasse hasta la Ciudad, donde entendi que mi enemigo estava.

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This is probably a better question to ask in the Christianity SE site, as the readers there would be more familiar with the relevant historical books on the subject.

The phrase itself was most likely connected with how the early American African American community dressing up for church was a way of making a statement. Aaron Howard wrote an article There’s a deep tradition behind wearing your Sunday best, in which he stated, in part:

African-Americans presented themselves in their finest and connected themselves to the divine,” said Pinn. “The suits and the dresses become a visual statement similar to the verbal statement, ‘G-d made me, and G-d doesn’t make junk.’ Such an explicit connection was spoken about as early as the development of the African Methodist Episcopal Church under the leadership of Richard Allen.

That being said, among the non clergy in the beginning of Christianity, there was an encouragement to dress down in worship. For example, the writer of 1 Timothy states:

"I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes." (1 Timothy 2:9)

The early church appears to have had various traditions on what was appropriate when attending church gatherings, depending on the context. For example, on the austere side, Clement of Alexandria in the late 2nd century wrote:

Neither is it seemly for the clothes to be above the knee. (2.266)

Those who glory in their looks—not in their hearts—dress to please others...Let a woman wear a plain and becoming dress, but softer than what is suitable for a man. "Yet, it should not be immodest or entirely steeped in luxury. And let the garments be suited to age, person, figure, nature, and pursuits. (2.285)

Woman and man are to go to church decently attired, with natural step, embracing silence. . . . Let the woman observe this, further: Let her be entirely covered, unless she happens to be at home. For that style of dress is serious and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty and her veil. Nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled. (2.290)

But times change. In the medieval times churches had decorated glass windows that sometimes reflected a state of au naturale innocence whereby church goers wearing shabby clothing might even feel at ease with. For example, see this medieval (black and white) picture:

enter image description here

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  • Perhaps I am misinterpreting the answer, but this seems like the opposite what I am asking. In your example you have people dressing modestly whereas I was curious when it became common to dress up for sermons.
    – PausePause
    Jul 27, 2022 at 0:03
  • PausePause, Yes, it was the opposite in the sense that practicing "wearing your Sunday best" appears to have been a late cultural accommodation within some (but not all) branches of Christianity. To determine how old a practice it is, it would be helpful to know when and where it was not a practice. That's why I shared what I shared. But the answer is that the question is best asked within specific denominational perspectives on "Christianity SE." For example, in some denominations missionaries are recorded as not necessarily requiring clothing among the naked indigenous people.
    – Jess
    Jul 27, 2022 at 0:33
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    Thank you for the clarification
    – PausePause
    Jul 27, 2022 at 1:17

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