"Ok, why are you dressed in shorts?" the businessman asked.
"Never mind," said the man: "you'll find out."
So down the streets of NYC they strolled, the man in his shorts and Hawaiian shirt, the businessman in his well-put-together outfit. The casually dressed man enjoyed his jaunt through NYC. The businessman? He was crawling with panhandlers, people with dying children and starving wives and pitiful backstories.
Understandably, the businessman was upset: "Why didn't you tell me how to dress?"
"Well" -- the man grinned back -- "you've got to learn your own lessons."
A couple days ago I published "Pretty Christian Women," how the current expectations on beauty -- for Christians, no less -- borders on the absurd. Several pointed out that I neglected to understand that clothes do matter, looks do matter, our testimonies are affected when professing women wear sweatpants and ponytails. This is my response:
When it comes to dress, appearance and externals, many of us go about with the businessman's approach: if I wear X, I get Y response. That sort of naivete ignores the fact that much of what we deem beautiful, classy and put-together is not found in an addendum to the canon (2 Mascara 10:1 or whatever): it is solely rooted in cultural expectations. Culture has leaked into every fiber of our Christian life -- made it almost impossible to get back to Christianity, period, instead of Christianity, Western style.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but Western expectations are hardly Biblical, and look awkward packaged in Christian terms.
The frustrating part of this discussion is that not only do we have to go back to Scripture, but we also have to unwrap Scripture from layers and layers of culture. We want to read the American dream, a Western paradigm, into the pages of Holy Writ -- and are offended and alarmed when somebody suggests that maybe what we deem important just isn't. Our preferences, upbringing and culture dictate what Scripture ought to be saying. It's mind-bending for me to try to grasp the nuances of my understanding of dress and appearance; and it gets worse when I'm trying to communicate my position. The shift is subtle but huge; it's freedom without license; it's loving others through dress and appearance in a brand new way.
Perhaps what bugs me the most is the dogmatic assertion that clothes do matter, looks are important, the outer does reflect the inner. Because of that assertion, certain articles of clothing get attached with certain meanings: you wear skinny jeans? You heathen. You wear a suit and tie? You wonderfully Biblical man, you. You wore flip flops to church? You rebel.
This is far too simplistic. Yes, clothes can matter, looks can be important and the outer sometimes reflect the inner. That looks like a quibble in syntax, but it's huge: the outer is not an infallible expression of the heart.
When you put on a jumper, you are not putting on modesty. You are wearing a jumper. When you put on jeans, you are not putting on laziness. You are wearing jeans. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. It is true that, perhaps, you put on that jumper with a heart full of submission to God and modesty -- maybe. How can I, a human who only sees your jumper, determine your godliness factor by pieces of cloth sewn together?
"We get that," advocates say. "We understand that the heart is more important, that you can dress great and have an ugly heart."
Gently, I fear many do not understand. If the problem of immodesty, laziness and disrespect starts in the heart, then logically we should go directly to the root of the problem -- the heart. Instead, we have checklists and tutorials on what's modest and what isn't, what article of clothing conveys what. There's always that disclaimer -- We understand that you can be great on the outside and lousy on the inside, BUT -- but it is usually tucked away somewhere toward the end and obscured by the twenty-five tips to looking like a more godly Christian woman.
Christians have placed ridiculous expectations on clothes to boost their righteousness -- and women especially rely on appearances to express their femininity. There has been a whole crusade to get women to wear skirts again, alleging that they will feel more feminine and godly -- and people will see them as more feminine and godly. Personally, I feel just as much a woman of God in my cupcake pajamas and college sweatshirt or when I wear black or when I run around without makeup in my capris. One can culturally look and feel more feminine -- pink, long hair, jewelry, flowing skirts -- but it has little to do with Biblical womanhood.
I was told that if I wore skirts, men would be more inclined to open doors for me. I wore skirts 24/7 for most of my life and doors loved slamming in my face. Any man who held the door open did so for the woman in pants ahead of me, too. I was also told that guys appreciated modestly-dressed women. Not really.
Which is fine, because I wasn't doing it for the attention in the first place. I did it because I believed God said so. This is another fact of life many Christians neglect: you have to be raised in the same social culture to understand what meaning to attach to what piece of clothing. We women dress modestly and respectably as a way to bless others -- when most couldn't care less. We wear pink because it's allegedly feminine: to others it's just a color, and that is why men wear it too. We dress up as a testimony to our faith, when only the insider Christians (in the appropriate circles) understand the depth of our sacrifice.
So often modestly dressed girls are labelled as frumpy and judgmental -- even in other Christian circles. That's why many are rallying against jumpers, sneakers with skirts, camo, and socks with sandals -- it gives us a "bad testimony." I say leave them alone and go check out the plank in your eye. Frumpy is not a mortal sin. Judgmentalism is not a jumper brand.
Julie, commenting on this post, nailed the true reasons many are tooting the "dress nicely" horn:
I honestly feel we are idiots as Christians. We are masking what we really think with these verses. Let's be honest for a minute. Who wants to be ugly? Who wants to be fat? We look down on that. Christians are becoming more one with culture. Put on a nice sweater instead of the tshirt. Don't let yourself go. That's what Jesus wants us to do. No! You want to feel better about yourself for being okay with cultural standards. You want to spend the money on that nice sweater, hair, make-up, and drive in your nice car to your beautiful church.Several of my favorite women in the world don't wear makeup or do much with their hair or wear anything besides t-shirts, jeans and shorts. They don't give off the impression of slobs, because they don't purposefully dress to turn people off. They give the impression that they're authentic and concerned about real things (like the people they allegedly should dress for) and have simple tastes. Their hearts are beautiful. They are beautiful. I love hanging around them -- partly because I feel like I don't have to match a vague beauty standard.
So that's the theoretical part. It's possible to reject the false, dogmatic correlation between inner and outer while still dressing to the nines -- because it's not about clothes. It's about the heart. Still, theoretical aside, we do live in a culture where looks are just about everything. Meanings are attached to clothes. What's a Christian to do?
I can't give you an exhaustive list for that. You have to make your own decisions based on your own circumstances and acquaintances and attitude. But ultimately, the goal is love -- if you purposefully wear something knowing it will offend others, that's overstepping your Christian freedom. Overspiritualizing aside, there's no reason why a Christian can't conform to a classy, socially adept look. I don't wear pjs to Perkins or a swimsuit to a job interview not because I'm such a righteous, loving Christian but because it's a social nightmare. I don't want to look bad. I want to dress appropriately, professionally -- again, not because of my Christianity but because of my humanity, my Americanism, my mother who raised me better than that. I don't need a spiritual reason to deal shrewdly with the world -- the social pressures and my own vanity take care of that.