Today, it’s easy for us to look at a monastic and note their distinctive dress. We forget that 1500 years ago when Benedict prescribed a simple tunic for his monks, it was not so strange. An early monk would have blended in with his surroundings much more so than he does today.
The Amish are similar. Their distinctive dress looks dated to us, but when they began, their dress was merely conservative. They drew on the fashion of the day and prescribed the conservative side of it for their members. This became enshrined as the way to dress, so now they are a few hundred years behind the times.
A few hundred years from now, should the Lord continue to forbear, will there be a religious community looking very dated in jeans? Will the contemporary church movement have ossified to the point where jeans and polo shirts are the distinctive dress? If Benedict were writing his rule today, would we see, hundreds of years from now, monks in sweatshirts? Carhartts? And why do we stick so closely to such dress once it is established in some areas, yet abandon it in others?
As a parent of teenagers, the question, “Why are you wearing that?” has been a frequent refrain, either because someone is not dressy enough or, just as frequently, overly dressy. Dressing oneself may never have been more complicated than in our current culture. Not that our clothes themselves are complex — the victorian era set the high-watermark in that regard — but the meaning ascribed to our clothing seems to be very complex. Even for the exact same articles of clothing.
It’s Labor Day and I have the day off. I am sitting at home in jeans, a t-shirt, and a flannel shirt. What does my outfit say? If asked why I am wearing this, I would have to point to comfort, accessibility (The jeans and flannel shirt were already sitting out.), and my likely activities for the day. I might go look for birds or I might putter in the garage.
Yesterday, being Sunday, I wore my clerical collar. If I chose to wear that today, I would get questions from my family, and not without reason. I don’t normally wear it during the week, since I’m usually in uniform. Our clothes set expectations, internally and to those around us.
We probably give too much thought to our clothes as a culture, but maybe not the proper thought. The advantage of a monk (or a soldier) is never having to ask, “What shall I wear today?” It is prescribed. Everyone else has a choice to make and, it seems, a statement to make as well.
The question becomes, are people properly interpreting our statements? Probably not. Not unless they know us well enough to have learned our dressing vocabulary. This should make us more generous in reading the statements others make with their clothes. As the Lord reminded Samuel when he was seeking to anoint his second king, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)