Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Clothes that Wear Us

Clothes in our society seem to have a lot of purposes. On the simplest level they are cover ups for the body. They also serve as protection against the elements of nature, keeping us warm, cool or dry. For these simple purposes any type of clothing should do, regardless of style or color, as long as they do what they are supposed to do.

Sometimes clothing is used to identify an occupation: we all recognize a policeman's uniform or a nurse's uniform. Sometimes clothing has been adapted for specialized use in some activity: bathing suits for swimming or cleated shoes for golf, for instance.

Sometimes the color of clothing is used to identify "roles" we are playing at any given moment. Students wear clothing in their school's colors to a sporting event to show support for and solidarity with their team. Gang members wear certain colors to show their membership and allegiance. The Irish wear green for St. Paddy's Day. Americans sport red, white and blue on July 4th.

Other times the clothing itself identifies our "roles." A first-time bride wears a white dress and a veil. Job interviewees wear suits cut along classic lines. Students in parochial schools wear uniforms that signal they are students and at which school.

We have clothing that signals "serious activity ahead" and clothing that is decidedly casual. We "dress up" or "dress down" according to the "script" we need to follow. No one wears jeans and a t-shirt to a formal wedding. No one wears a three-piece suit to mow the lawn.

Clothing can identify our age, our marital status, our social status, our financial standing, our group affiliation or even our ethical/moral viewpoint. Without our having to say a word, our clothing "speaks" for us. Other people look at what we are wearing and how we are wearing it and they know, or think they know, important things about who we are and how we think.

Clothing gives information to others, but it also gives us "information" as well. When we see ourselves dressed in a particular way, we are encouraged to act in the way that clothing, for that particular "role," requires. We adapt our behavior to our clothing choice. And when we adapt our behavior we also many times adapt our thinking to fall in line as well. Sometimes we are successful in adapting our thinking, and many times we are not.

When we are playing a role we may not actually be that "character" we are presenting to the outside world. We may "look the look" and "act the act" but inside we are someone else. There may be a conflict between who we really are and who the world sees us to be. Sometimes it is our choice to play this dual role. Other times we are forced into a role by the dictates of our society, of our peer group, of our job or by our particular religious sub-affiliation.

Clothes seem to say a lot about the members of groups in Klal. Certainly we use them as identifiers--we know who "belongs" to which group just by looking at the clothes and accessories worn. Wear a kipah srugah and we know what group to put you into. Wear a sleeve below the elbow paired with a skirt at mid-calf and we can categorize you. But what are these clothes really saying about you, as a person, as an individual?

Walk into any venue that is a gathering place for members of certain groups of Klal and you see a sea of clones. The occasion dictates the costume to be worn. The costume dictates the behavior to be practiced. If, as Mason Cooley says, "Clothes make a statement. Costumes tell a story," then the "costume" wearers of these communities are telling a strange story indeed. A story of conformity or else. A story where one character can easily be substituted for another because there is no visible difference, so there can't be an invisible one either, right? A story that is one size fits all.

I'm not talking about tsnius here, although it can enter into the story line. I am talking about the type of "scripted story" that says that young, unmarried frum girls leaving their homes should not be wearing long skirts, pony tails and no makeup, otherwise they look "bummy." I am talking about the modern-day script that calls for all "players" at a wedding to be dressed in black. I am talking about dating uniforms that send the clear message "I am this type of person" while saying nothing about the wearer's hopes and dreams and aspirations, never mind their personality.

There are definitely times when a "uniform" is appropriate; there are also times where we need to drop the "acting" and be ourselves. Psychologists tell us that all people yearn to be seen for who they really are. They crave validation that their inner person has merit and acceptance in the eyes of others. They need to know that it is "safe" to reveal who they are without fear of being ostracized. They need to see themselves as distinct and separate from all others even as they also are a part of a larger group.

We need to remember that clothing styles and colors are neither universal nor everlasting. They are foisted upon us for reasons that are often both base and crass--money, and the making of it for one reason. Control for another. Why shouldn't you make your own personal statement instead of telling over and over and over again a story written by someone else, and which you may not like and which you are heartily sick of?

Hashem gave us the rainbow as a sign of his love for us. Ever notice that there is no black in the rainbow? Look at the flowers and plants and trees in nature. Each is distinguished by its unique coloration or fragrance or shape. What a boring place the natural world would be if all trees in the world looked exactly like all other trees, if all flowers were identical in shape and color. And yet humans, or at least some of the frum variety, insist on a bland and boring uniformity, one that cloaks and hides the individual yearning to breathe free.

I'll let Virginia Woolf sum all this up for me: "There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking."


Anonymous said...

During the week my wife wears all kinds of colors but then comes a chasune and it's all black. She is so not a black person and to me she never looks as good as when she is wearing something bright. But my opinion and most mens don't seem to count when it comes to the uniform.

G said...

Well put

--my biggest concern lately is the slow death of individuality.

Anonymous said...

I hate black. A few weeks ago I bought a beautiful dress in a aqua color of blue. My mother in law agreed it was very pretty but then she said "Where can you wear that?" To the next wedding I hope. I'm who I am and everyone else is just going to have to accept that.

Anonymous said...

The black at weddings is understandable. Black is a slimming color and when you are bouncing around dancing and everything is sort of jiggling around you want all the help to disguise that that you can get.

Anonymous said...

The frummer you get the less you are allowed to be an individual, at least on the outside. You have to look like and sound like and be like everyone else or you don't get to keep your membership in the club. I'm getting really sick and tired of all the rules that don't make sense and that force me into a very uncomfortable mold for no logical reason.