The Kind of Clothes We Wear—Does It Really Matter?
“I DON’T know what to wear!” Does this appeal for help sound familiar? Today’s fashion houses are, of course, always eager to help you—or to confuse you even more—with their latest offerings.
To make decisions still more difficult, these days you may be encouraged to dress, not up, but down. Of this reverse trend of the ’90’s, a fashion editorial says: “It can be reassuring to learn not only is it okay to look a little distressed, aged, worn and generally washed out, but it is desirable.”
Yes, in recent years high-powered advertising, TV role models, peers, self-promotion, and also the craving for identity have worked their wardrobe wizardry, especially on the young. Some of them even steal to have the right look.
Many popular styles of the ’90’s find their seeds in such fringe cultures of yesteryear as the hippie movement in Western society of the ’60’s. Beards, unkempt long hair, and bedraggled clothing announced a rejection of traditional values. But the dress of rebellion also kindled a new conformity, a new peer pressure.
Clothing has become a broader and more expressive tool of identity. Clothes, especially T-shirts, have become billboards silently advertising popular sports and sports heroes, humor, disenchantment, aggressiveness, morality—or a lack of it—and commercial products. Or they can shock. Consider a recent Newsweek headline: “Brutality as a Teen Fashion Statement.” The article quotes a 21-year-old speaking about his T-shirt: “I wear it because it tells people what state of mind I am in. I don’t take mess from anybody and don’t want to be bothered.”
What is paraded on chests and backs may vary from one person to another. Yet conformity—to a group identity or to the prevailing spirit of rebellion, me-ism, wantonness, or violence—is evident. One designer shoots holes through clothes to his customers’ specifications. “They can choose handgun holes, rifle holes, or machine-gun holes,” he says. “It’s just a fashion statement.”
What Does Fashion Express?
“Generally clothes are a way of identifying yourself with a particular tribe in society,” says Jane de Teliga, a fashion curator at the Powerhouse Museum, in Sydney, Australia. She adds: “You choose the tribe you wish to be identified with and dress accordingly.” Dr. Dianna Kenny, a psychology lecturer at Sydney University, stated that as a means of classifying people, clothing is as important as religion, wealth, employment, ethnicity, education, and home address. According to Jet magazine, racial tension at one nearly all-white school in the United States “erupted over White school girls wearing braids, baggy clothes, and other ‘hip-hop’ fashions because they are linked to Blacks.”
Tribalism is also evident in some subcultures, such as the music scene: “In many cases,” says Maclean’s magazine, “the clothing matches musical tastes: reggae fans wear the bright colors and caps of Jamaica, while those favoring grunge rock sport ski tuques and plaid shirts.” But whichever variety, the thrown-on, dressed-down, waiflike look of poverty, dubbed grunge, can cost a bundle.
What Is Happening to Dress Codes?
“Everything is the opposite of what you might think,” says columnist Woody Hochswender. “Men’s fashion, once governed by strict codes, has gotten increasingly unruly . . . Everything should look as if thrown on with a pitchfork.” This trend, however, may in some settings betray a couldn’t-care-less attitude. Or it may evince a lack of self-respect or a lack of respect for others.
In an article on students’ perception of teachers, the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills explains that “although the teacher wearing jeans was seen as bringing fun into the classroom, his opinions were given the least respect and he was most frequently chosen as the teacher who does not seem to know anything.” The same journal comments that “a female teacher dressed in jeans was seen as fun, approachable, not especially knowledgeable, commanding limited respect, not looking like a teacher, and generally preferable.”
Meanwhile, in the business world, we have yet another fashion statement: power dressing. In recent years more women have wanted to climb the corporate ladder. “I dress to attack,” says Marie, an executive for a publishing house. “I want to stand out. I want to sell myself as something that looks fantastic,” she adds. Marie is honest in revealing that her focus is on herself.
Popular fashions inevitably find their way into the churches too. Some of the more fashion conscious have even used their church to show off their latest outfits. Yet, today, the clergy, while decked out in their flowing robes, often look down from the pulpit upon a congregation clad in jeans and sneakers or in faddish garb.
Why This Obsession With Self and Identity?
Faddish dress—especially among the young—psychologists say, is an aspect of egocentrism, in that it expresses the desire for an audience. They describe it as “the chronic tendency on the part of the adolescent to see the self as the object of others’ attention.” In effect, he or she is saying: “I think you are as obsessed with me as I am about myself.”—American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
Philosophies that put man at center stage and discount God as irrelevant have also oiled the thinking (often peddled by commerce) that you, the individual, are the most important person in the universe. The trouble is, there are now nearly six billion of these ‘most important’ persons. Millions in Christendom’s religions have also crumbled under this materialistic onslaught, striving for “the good life, here and now.” (Compare 2 Timothy 3:1-5.) Add to this the erosion of the family unit and genuine love, and it comes as no surprise that many, youths in particular, are grasping at anything for a sense of identity and security.
However, those concerned about their dress and their standing before God naturally ask: To what extent should I conform to changing dress codes? How do I know if my clothing is appropriate? Does it give out confusing or even wrong signals about me?
Am I Dressed Appropriately?
What we wear is essentially a matter of personal choice. Our individual tastes vary, as do our financial resources. And customs vary from place to place, from country to country, and from one climatic region to another. But whatever your situation, bear in mind this principle: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, Revised Standard Version) In other words, dress for the occasion. And second, “be modest in walking with your God.”—Micah 6:8.
That does not mean dressing prudishly but, rather, in a way that is “well-arranged” and that reflects “soundness of mind.” (1 Timothy 2:9, 10) Often, this simply means showing restraint, a quality the magazine Working Woman links to good taste and elegance. As a good rule of thumb, never allow your clothes to enter the room first, to overwhelm others. Working Woman says: “Dress . . . so that people can look past your clothes and see your merits as an individual.”
The journal Perceptual and Motor Skills says: “A body of literature examining the role of clothing in impression formation and nonverbal communication indicates that clothing is an important cue used in making initial judgements of others.” In this vein a woman in her 40’s, who previously reveled in her power to attract by the way she dressed, says: “It created enormous problems for me because it blurred the line between the professional and the private. There were always business contacts wanting to take me out to dinner.” A female accountant, describing a contrasting style, relates: “I’ve watched how men behave towards women who dress down, or dress in a very severe masculine style. They are assumed to be aggressive females who go for the jugular and they are given a harder time by men.”
A young girl named Jeffie found that she was giving out confusing signals when she had her hair cut in a faddish style. “I just thought it looked ‘different,’” she recalls. “But people started asking me, ‘Are you really one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?’ and that was embarrassing.” Jeffie had to ask herself some hard questions. Indeed, is it not true that “out of the abundance of the heart” not only our mouth but also our dress and grooming speak? (Matthew 12:34) What does your dress reveal—a heart intent on drawing attention to the Creator or to yourself?
Dress With “Soundness of Mind”
Consider, too, the effect your clothes have on you. Power dressing and overdressing may inflate your ego, slovenly dress might reinforce negative thoughts you have about yourself, and T-shirts advertising your favorite movie or sports star or some other hero might nudge you toward hero worship—idolatry. Yes, your clothes talk to others—and tell them about you.
What are your clothes saying about you if you dress to kill or dress to thrill? Are you reinforcing personality traits that you should in fact be struggling to overcome? Moreover, what kind of person are you trying to attract? The counsel recorded at Romans 12:3 can help us conquer egocentricity, vanity, and negative thinking. There the apostle Paul advises us “not to think more of [ourselves] than it is necessary to think; but to think so as to have a sound mind.” Having “a sound mind” means being sensible.
This is especially important for those in positions of responsibility and trust. Their example has a powerful influence on others. Naturally, those reaching out for privileges of service in the Christian congregation and their Christian wives would likewise display in their dress and grooming a modest and respectful attitude. Never would we want to be like the man Jesus singled out in his illustration of the marriage feast: “When the king came in to inspect the guests he caught sight there of a man not clothed with a marriage garment.” Upon learning that this man had no valid reason for wearing such disrespectful attire, “the king said to his servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and throw him out.’”—Matthew 22:11-13.
Thus, it is important that parents by word and example cultivate in their children wholesome attitudes toward, and good taste in, clothing. This may mean that parents need to be firm at times as they reason with their son or daughter. But how encouraging it is when we receive unsolicited commendation for the high standard of dress and conduct of our young ones and of ourselves!
Yes, Jehovah’s servants have been set free from vanity, expensive fads, and an obsession with self. They have divine principles, not the spirit of the world, to guide them. (1 Corinthians 2:12) If you live by these principles, choosing your clothes should not be too difficult. Moreover, like a well-chosen frame on a picture, your clothes will neither smother your personality nor insult it. And the more you try to be like God, the more you will foster a spiritual beauty that goes far beyond the limits of your wardrobe.