At first I was a bit disappointed about the directions this chapter could have gone, but didn’t, but as I spent time pondering after putting the book down, I realized just how varied the application of her thoughts could be.
Clothes are a personal expression. They are not a perilous moral burden, not a meaningless waste of effort, but an expression of personality and art. Just as Mrs. Schaeffer developed in her first chapters, art is not simply to express ourselves, as modernity would have it, but to express our personalities so that we glorify God. We are not to be conformed to this world, it is true, but we are also not all to be conformed into automatons, lacking personality, individuality, and liberty, dressing the same and acting the same and doing the same things.
Clothes communicate. Some fight this truth and want to deny that clothes say anything about us. After all, people shouldn’t judge us by our clothes, right? Therefore, I should be able to wear what I want without people thinking ill of me.
Of course, that’s not how it works. But sometimes it goes the other way, too. Some say clothes always mean one thing. They think that to say that clothes require context to have meaning is just another way of saying clothes have no meaning. That’s a forgivable assumption, because the people who do say clothes have no meaning use the fact that meaning changes based on context to “prove” their point. How it can be maintained that meaning changes proves that meaning doesn’t exist is beyond me.
Edith touches on this, and at first her missionary-minded examples don’t seem to apply to the same sorts of postmodern American highways and evangelical cul-de-sacs I must navigate. But then, I realize, it actually does apply, quite readily. And, perhaps the most applicable aspect of the chapter is how lightly she treats the subject. Perhaps those of us who have spent and are spending years trying to determine the “Right” way to dress – just where those lines of sin should be drawn – have been taking this entire thing too seriously, and making it more monumental than it is.
If clothing were language, modernity would be Pentecostals at a prayer meeting: Everyone saying something completely different at the same time, not understanding or listening to anything anyone else is saying.
If clothing were language, those whose morality mandates a rigid dress code would be like someone insisting they will only speak Latin because it has historically been the language of the educated, and they are educated, and they don’t care if no one else is and if no one else can understand them.
These are not the only two options. If clothing were language, there would be English and German and French and a time for Latin and a time for tongues (which, biblically, was for an audience’s understanding) and there would be occasions for high English and occasions for slang. And some would specialize in one, some would never know anything other their own dialect, and some would be fluent in multiple languages and dialects. And none would be “Right,” though some would express themselves well and some badly, and there would be hurt feelings and misunderstandings no matter what. In any of these languages, there would be crude street language that would be forbidden to children by their conscientious mothers and polite society and that would make wise ears flinch, mourning that so many people have such a poor and corrupted vocabulary.
Clothes communicate. This is another way of saying that clothes are non-verbal communication, like facial expressions and body language. This means we can be misunderstood. This means we can misspeak. This means we can misinterpret. This means we do well to learn the manners appropriate to our context, which includes our culture, our subcultures, our own idiosyncrasies, and our principles. Saying there are different manners in different cultures or different levels or layers of manners appropriate to different situations is not at all the same thing as saying manners don’t matter; in fact, it’s actually saying that manners are vital to the smooth functioning of society, of conversation, of interactions. Mrs. Schaeffer reminds us that a missionary (which we all are in one way or another) needs to be aware of her audience and not set up hinderances to communication through one’s clothes. This is tricky business requiring wisdom, not a 5-point mandate or a formula.
It’s easy to get into arguments or twisted into internal knots trying to determine exactly what message any individual piece of clothing or a particular outfit might have, with one side shouting “Legalist!” at any hint of a guideline and the other tsking about worldliness at all fashion shifts made within 100 years.
These are exaggerations! Lighten up!
And, Mrs. Schaeffer reminds us, do not neglect beauty! It is the object, actually. Beauty, in its right place, is glorifying to God, and art is the expressing of beauty. Frumpy, dumpy, unflattering clothes are not more holy. A view of modesty that makes us afraid of beauty is a wrong view. A view of ourselves that says, “I’m not pretty enough or thin enough to dress with beauty,” is a wrong view. And, as with all other arts, different people will have different abilities and talents and resources, different expressions, different maturity in the art and practice in the art. Sidelong glances at where others are in the expressing of this personal, hidden art should irrelevant to our own little efforts, done for our God, ourselves, our family, and any other audience God happens to give us.
Read others’ musings on the topic of clothes by following the links found at Ordo Amoris for chapter 12.