I went shopping last week for a new pair of summer sandals.
Given that most of my summer footwear consists of a band of cheap fabric glued to a piece of cheap plastic found in the discount bin of a discount store, my shoes never last more than one season. I decided to be an adult, to buy forward-thinking, environmentally friendly footwear. Something, if not sexy, sustainable. New shoes for my newly deepening spiritual path.
Yes, like Cher or Liberace, I believe that every great performance requires a dazzling costume change. Whenever I’ve gone through something, be it depression or punk rock or love or a French Film festival, I get the urge to turn over a new leaf. To burst like autumn in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I’ve been known to wear saris and t-shirts with Goddesses and a Sanskrit medallion or two. There was a brief period a while ago where I attempted to rock a bindi. One of my friends lovingly told me that I looked ridiculous. Like a late-90s pop star.
My experiments in spiritual fashion have led me to wear a hideously unattractive pair of flannel clogs and a dashiki. On the search for comfortable, fairly-traded, funky, get-your-Kirtan-on garbs, I’ve ended up looking like an extra from Love, American Style. Like my elementary school art teacher who admitted that she played Joni Mitchell records for her plants while she was at work.
It may seem that even wanting to reflect my spirituality through clothing is a dauntingly superficial thing to do. Yoga encourages non-attachment, non-hoarding; yoga allows us to see past the surface of the material world and get to the core universal truths. Patanjali didn’t include a skinny jean sutra in his book, and I don’t recall the Buddha saying anything about a bias cut.
Fashion and spirituality, though, have been inexorably bound together throughout history.
In most cultures, religion dictated your daily wardrobe all the way down to your knickers. For thousands of years, and in every corner of the world, people showed who and how they worshiped by what they wore.
Almost all the ancient religious texts mention something about clothes. In the Qur’an, guidelines were given for maintaining the modesty and dignity of the female body. This led to the burqa. The Torah advises women to keep their hair covered. There is also a stern warning against drag, saying The Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
The New Testament advises women to dress modestly, and keep the hair understated. It should be your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. Religious doctrine was fairly specific about what people, especially women, could and (more often) couldn’t wear. Those who crafted the texts and built the temples certainly knew that clothing has tremendous power.
Whether the skirts and bonnets of Amish women, or the well-turned out pencil skirts at the Episcopalian service, worship seems to demand some kind of display. Catholics certainly understood this, and have always made sure that the higher-ups dress in the kind of splendor an Oscar-nominated actress can only dream of. The last Pope had a handmade pair of red Prada loafers—only one of the many wardrobe perks that comes with being Pontiff. Hats of gold and ruby encrusted scepters are as immodest as it gets, but some scriptural rules had to be broken. For the men at least.
Pagan religions have tended toward the more organic, loose-fitting garments that reflect a lot more comfort with the female body. The idea was to accentuate the natural beauty of men and women. All you really had to do was find the right limbs for your hair, stones for your jewelry, and fabric or pelt for your dress. The clothing communicated a respect for the elements, and a mystical appreciation for the world as it was. Where many religions chose to bind and hide the human body, pagans chose to celebrate it as divine unto itself.
Buddhists, Hindus, Christians—they all have clothing and accessories that visually represent their spiritual beliefs. These outward gestures also tell the world, I am this. You don’t have to ask a man in an orange robe with malas on his wrists if he’s Buddhist. You don’t have to ask the woman wearing the crucifix if she believes in God. These are symbols of an inward experience; something that most of us have trouble talking about with the world. We may not want to tell our co-workers that we have committed to the yogic path. Like sex and politics, spirituality can be a tricky thing to address on your 30 minute lunch break. Wearing a mala is a hint, a pinkie toe in the water. If people want to know more, they can ask. It is announcing some transformation going on within you without saying a word.
It’s also a way to find others like you. There’s a woman I always see at the grocery store who has an ever-changing stock of Sanskrit t-shirts. She has long brown hair that she rigs up with a pencil to create a tangled but confidently stylish bun. I have never spoken to this woman, but I imagine that she is a yogini/writer judging solely on her outfit. I liked her without ever speaking to her. She seems to be one of my tribe. It’s certainly only the cover of the book, but makes me feel connected nevertheless.
I grew up with two ministers as parents, and I have vivid memories of sneaking into their closet when they were gone. I’d take my mother’s white robe off its hanger and carefully shimmy into it. I’d tie the green, rope belt around my waist. And then, effortlessly, I’d morph into Sara Lovelace, child preacher. My pulpit was a coffee table, my Bible was a AAA guidebook of the Mid-Atlantic region. The wine was my mother’s tart organic cranberry juice. The outfit made it all seem very real, though I was never able to turn water into a malted milkshake.
Clothes are also a way of becoming the person you hope to be.
The aspirational business suit of a college graduate on her first job interview. The leather jacket on the soccer mom who wants to ride a motorcycle but wants, even more, to be alive to take care of her children. On first dates we dress like we are the sexiest, most stylish, most confident women alive. Even if we spent the previous night feeling like an old bag with an expanding muffin top. It’s purely window dressing for the soul, but somehow these clothes make us feel like what we want to be—what we already, in fact, are.
When Jesus was crucified, the Romans put a crown of thorns atop his head in ridicule. The crown, which was the ultimate symbol of power and divine right, was used as a way to mock Jesus. To tell all those that saw him on his excruciating path to the top of the mountain that this was a king of fools. That he was the opposite of powerful—a dunce, a poor man’s prophet. More than the pain of the actual thorns, it was the indignity of the headpiece that the Romans appreciated.
Clearly, making fun of or misunderstanding someone else’s spiritual or religious clothing is a very bad idea. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the Islamic burqa, with some describing it as a prison-like robe with a tiny slit for the eyes. It’s seen as a garment of female oppression. However, many Muslim women feel that the burqa gives them some freedom from being sexualized and exploited. They feel that it allows them to be themselves without the pressure of having to look a certain way—sexy, hip, rich, or poor. I talked to a Mennonite friend once, who said that the long denim skirts, sensible shoes, and bonnets made her life simpler. I feel bad for most women. There is so much pressure placed on how they look. She felt her uniform gave her a bit more time to spend on her relationships with her family, friends, and God.
This is why it’s important to not judge a book by its cover—to speak to the person and find out how they worship and what their faith means to them. To take the visual cues they provide for you and open up a conversation. The woman who works at my neighborhood 7-11 and I have become warm acquaintances because she saw my mala and wanted to know more. All that yoga you do; you’re so disciplined, aren’t you?
We both laugh as I push a chocolate bar and Diet Coke across the counter. Not today.
Until we get back into the garden, until we reach that formless state of bliss, we will remain clothed. We must dally in the sticky business of possessing and presenting. Let’s see it not only as an opportunity to explore and appreciate others’ traditions and beliefs, but also to bond with our true selves—what we want to be, what we already are. Let your Black Flag t-shirt be your priestly robes. Let your tie-dyed do-rag be your papal tiara. Let’s play a little adult dress-up, lose ourselves to our own lovely imaginations, and let the world become our temple. Namaste.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta