Attending church is a serious social obligation in Ghana, and the phrase "Sunday best" is observed to a T here. (Pun unintended.) A cursory visual sweep over many a congregation might lead a foreigner to think that "I reserve my best for Jesus" is the specially chosen fashion theme for that particular Sunday. The competition is subliminal yet fierce, as the women don their beautiful outfits, strutting their stuff via classy and conservative means.
"Kaba" (pictured above) is the most popular traditional outfit for Ghanaian women. Its popularity is enhanced by the fact that it can be worn at virtually all social gatherings in the country. The kaba designs are made from wax print textiles, and if you find yourself a good tailor (or fashion designers, as they are referred to as these days), you could end up being the envy of other women at the event you are attending. My friend told me that her male Zambian friend once joked that if all Ghanaian women wore kaba all day everyday, then none of them would be unmarried. I am sure his joke stems from the well-known fact that the figure-flattering kaba attires are known to conceal all body shape "flaws" and accentuate every positive asset. (Ah, I could go on forever with this ode to kaba.) It is not surprising that the attractive yet decent appearance of kaba naturally makes it a preferred choice for church wear.
I was watching the evening news on Ghana Television, and the social feature for that bulletin was about the rising incidence of indecent dressing and exposure in the churches of today. As usual, the youth were at the end of the accusation by the old folks that the former were importing indecent "Western" style dressing into the church houses. Other members of the older generation chimed in that the youth were even getting too creative with the traditional kaba designs by resorting to modifications such as increasing the tightness of dresses, exposing cleavage, and creating long (leg- and/or thigh-exposing) slits in skirts.
There has been also some buck-passing on this dressing issue. People in the Orthodox churches here believe indecent dressing is more common in Charismatic churches, which generally tend to attract younger people, who view the Charismatic churches as more liberal and a-la-mode. Some Charismatic churches also contend that Orthodox churches need to recognise that times have changed, so they need to explore new ways of reaching to young people. It also seems that the youth regard the church as less of a place of worship, and more as a venue to meet up with friends and make new ones. Also, it is no secret that churches have always been prime places for meeting decent people for serious relationships and even marriages. Thus it is not strange to see people put their best feet forward in order create favorable impressions.
I remember my surprise at people's dressing when I first attended church services in the United States. I saw people wearing jeans, leather jackets, sweatshirts, and even the occasional sweatpants worn by some college jocks. (Well, there were also those that dressed less casually.) I instantly felt overdressed in my suit and pants. As I got accustomed to life there, I warmed up to the idea of a pair of jeans and dressing shirts: an attempt of creating a balance, I suppose. I discovered that the less I cared about dressing formally for church, the more I viewed attending it as less of a chore. Going to church became more enjoyable because I could simply walk into those St. Mary's Hillhouse Avenue doors no matter what I was wearing. (A little aside: Legend and wikipedia have it that Charles Dickens and Mark Twain both described Hillhouse Avenue as "the most beautiful street in America.")
It is important for individuals to dress decently and comfortably for church, a place of spirituality and communion. In choosing what to wear, we need to be mindful of how the other members of the congregation feel about what is considered 'decent.' However, I am not averse to admiring the occasional tight-fitting kaba outfit on an attractive young lady. I only hope the pastor can cope with the "view" from the "mountain top."
Photo Credits: http://www.ghanasentertainment.com; http://www.ovationinternational.com/