This morning we were all up early, and by 7 am my daughter was ready to play. I on the other hand was stuck, you guessed it, I was standing in front of my closet and couldn’t decide what to wear. Gracious parent that I am, I disregarded my daughter’s pleas for attention and continued flipping grumpily through my clothes, becoming more and more frustrated. This is too tight, nothing matches, I hate how I look in that one, were the thoughts running through my head. Trying to get dressed this morning not only took me over 30 minutes, but it involved me ignoring my daughter. Eventually I made her breakfast and sat her down at the table to eat alone while I returned to the closet. Desperate, I came up with something acceptable (to wear to library story time, you know, a time where fashion really matters) and then I changed again by lunch.
In the Liturgy of Life reading group, we have just finished The Rule of St. Benedict and are starting The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Both books are about monks and living in monastic community. Both offer a fresh perspective on life that challenge the values of contemporary American culture. One of the topics discussed in both books is fashion. The dress of St. Benedict’s monks was spelled out 1,500 years ago and hasn’t changed much. The monk’s wear something called a habit, it is simple, modest and universal. Wearing the habit is a sign of submission to authority, of unity, and poverty.
The habit stands in contrast to American fashion culture. We live in a country where retailers put out new styles everyday. We are driven by trends. Celebrities wearing the latest and greatest are squeezed into every extra square inch of our lives. We are constantly being marketed to, told that if we can just figure out how to pull this style together then we will finally feel good about ourselves and all our dreams will come true.
We are also beginning to face a hard reality, recognizing that most of our clothes (and really everything we purchase) are being produced through the exploitation another human being. While some improvements have been made on this issue (another post coming on this soon), still many of our clothes are made by children or workers who are enslaved in their job. Others face dangerous environments, risking their lives so we can have sand blasted jeans.
I grew up in a family that valued fashion. My great-grandmother, of all things in her life, was best known for her flamboyant hats and jewelry. After a childhood of wearing shoes that pinched I was fed up. Plus the idea that someone in New York should decide what I wore felt ridiculous. So, as most of us do in college, I mounted my own tiny rebellion and I ditched it all. I stopped shaving my armpits and shopped only at the Goodwill.
Fast forward a decade, where I was spending most of my time in the library or hospital. I had started shaving my armpits again but the world of fashion still remained distant. For years I wore nothing but scrubs and a faithful pair of Danskos (seriously at one point I was working 6 days a week and only put on normal clothes twice in three years). But then one day I woke up and found myself to be a young professional and also a new mom. I was told what I wore affected the confidence my patients had in me. Furthermore I had a little girl looking to me to learn how to dress. And the truth was I wanted her looking at me, not at fashion magazines ( I had long ago given up fashion magazines after I realized that every time I read one I left the experience convinced I needed to loose 20 pounds, get a facelift and go out shopping, which I suppose is their desired effect). I wanted to have trustworthy advice to give my daughter and I didn’t want to be irrelevant to her or her world as she got older.
So I began to pay more attention to fashion. Here are a few things I noticed.
First, women around the world love to feel beautiful. And while beauty isn’t only about appearance, it is not completely unrelated to it either. The little girl trying on over-sized shoes and looking in the mirror hoping that one day she will be as beautiful as her own mother is still alive in most of us. For a woman, feeling beautiful is interlaced with feeling loved and lovable. So if a woman says she feels beautiful (something you will rarely hear a woman actually say, either because she doesn’t ever feel that good about herself or she feels silly and self conscious saying it) it means that she feels good about who she is, not just how she looks. Fashion certainly plays a role in this experience and dressing in a way that helps a woman feel beautiful can have a huge effect on her life. It may be wearing a flowing dress and feeling it swish in the breeze or finally daring to wear that leather skirt that she never thought she could pull off. Dressing well can make us feel more truly ourselves.
The way we dress not only affects the way we feel about ourselves but also the way that others feel about us. The monks for example, though their clothes are simple, are specific and intentional. Monastics realize the power of what they wear. As soon as they are seen they are recognized. Their clothes speak to what they value.
The same is true for the rest of us. Dressing in jeans that are too tight or shorts that are too short says that we value getting attention from our bodies. Staying in our pajamas all day says that we don’t really care enough about the world to wake up and get ready for it.
Getting dressed is one of those rituals we do everyday. And if it involves sniffing through the dirty clothes basket to find something not too stinky or staring at a closet for 30 minutes feeling unsatisfied we we are likely to spend the day feeling stinky and unhappy. Whereas if we walk out of the house knowing that what we put on makes us look good and feeling comfortable we are more confident as we interact with the world.
It seems like the most fashionable people don’t follow trends. People who really look good are comfortable in their own skin. They clearly care about what they wear and want to express who they are through it. They find a way to use fashion to be themselves rather than becoming slaves to the latest styles.
So the funny truth is, I love fashion now, and despite this morning’s failure, most days I am having fun re-discovering how getting dressed is an opportunity to be creative. It doesn’t have anything to do with following trends or getting attention for the way I look.
I love to pair colors and textures together, just like I do when I’m making a craft or planning a meal. I love helping my daughter put together outfits and enjoying the funky styles she comes up with (trust me she comes up with some crazy ones). I still shop mostly second hand or fair trade and I refuse to wear shoes that pinch. My clothes are either a gift from God that I can use to celebrate Him and love His people or it is something that needs to change. I’m not wearing a monk’s habit but I am here to serve God with every part of me including what I wear.