Sunday, March 10, 2024

The purpose of clothing. . .

Those who know me know that I am always overdressed -- at least according to the times in which we live now.  But it is not simply a matter of dressing up instead of down.  It is also remembering the purpose of clothing.  Clothing does not exist to make us comfortable but rather to make us presentable.  I fear we have forgotten this or rejected it, if indeed we did remember it at all.  From the People of Walmart websites to the ads that adorn everywhere we do (physically or digitally), we live in a world in which this wisdom is largely overlooked.  We dress stupidly, erotically, and dumpy in our pursuit of using clothing as one more means of self-expression.  Somewhere along the line, we forgot that our clothing should at least not make us look worse than we do without clothing.

I know I am out of step with the times.  If I had my way, male teachers would wear shirts and ties and female teachers would wear dresses.  Yes, I am that kind of a curmudgeon.  Doctors would look the professionals their degrees say they are.  So would business people.  Don't forget pastors.  What is true for the professional class should be true for all of us.  We ought to wear modest clothing at all times but clothing which makes us look good and not like the slobs we might be underneath our duds.

This should be even more true of Christians.  Sometimes I think we should come up with a People of Christianity website to showcase the more strange and self-serving outfits people wear to the House of God.  Let me note here I do not advocate for a dress code but neither do I suggest that dressing down for God is a good or laudable reflection of the inward attitude of the heart as we enter a church building.  If we are wearing our best, that is fine but if we are not wearing our best, why not?

You might be surprised to note that John Cassian (John the Ascetic!) began his Institutes describing the life of the desert Fathers in Egypt, with a discussion of appropriate and inappropriate clothing.  Even monks must dress to fit their vocation, for the monk will be known like the Prophet Elijah, “by the description of the character of his clothing.”  John Cassian suggests that we are sacramental beings who express ourselves outwardly in our demeanor and in our choice of clothing.  If these manifest our personality and even our character then they ought to reflect as much honor and dignity as we possess. Cassian said the habit or vesture of the monk should “aim at modesty of dress as well as cheapness and economy.”  Clothing achieves its objective by meeting our needs—not only by keeping us warm but also by reflecting the principal of modesty and humility.  We need to work to make ourselves presentable before each other and most certainly before God.

While it is often presumed that modesty is for women, it is a principle also for men. St. Francis de Sales wrote of this in his Introduction to the Devout Life: “St. Paul expresses his desire that all Christian women should wear ‘modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety;’—and for that matter he certainly meant that men should do so likewise.”   St. Francis gives more explicit guidelines: “Always be neat, do not ever permit any disorder or untidiness about you. There is a certain disrespect to those with whom you mix in slovenly dress; but at the same time avoid all vanity, peculiarity, and fancifulness.”  The saint also tells us why modesty matters and the principle is familiar.  “Purity has its source in the heart, but it is in the body that its material results take shape.”   In other words, what we wear on the exterior expresses what is in the interior of our lives -- or at least what should be.

Dare I say it?  If you look like a slob, do not be surprised if you are treated like one.  Your clothing ought to make you look better than you are.  I remember the old series on TV What Not to Wear.  While I did not always agree with the hosts on what the person should be wearing (or spending on clothing), it was not surprising why that person ended up on the show in the first place.  The clothing did not accentuate the positive but certainly did draw the eye to the negative.  So don’t dress like a bum. Don't dress down for work and social engagements because it simply says you don’t really care.  Dressing up honors the people around you as much as it does you.  You don’t have to end up at the opposite extreme of vanity.  You definitely do not have to be a fashion hound to look presentable.  Dressing well is often very simple.  Don't dress to entice the opposite sex.  Modesty befits our call not to lead others into sin.  In the end, ask yourself i you are honoring God by the way you dress -- especially in church.   There really was something to the old adage of Sunday best.  We could do far worse than to follow the example of our great-grandparents.


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