Right out of college with a degree in finance, my sister landed a great job for a regional bank. It was obvious to all that she was on the fast track for an executive position, so before her first day had even officially begun, she received an unsolicited piece of advice from HR, “Always wear makeup and at least 3”-4” high heels whenever you are working.” While at first this may seem like a deeming imposition on her choice of clothing and style (to be sure, as someone who really does not like being told what to do, the knee-jerk response that went through my head upon hearing the story was not even remotely kind), there was a certain practicality behind the advice, which was subsequently expounded upon. My sister is 5’2”, “fun-sized” as she describes it, in the ballpark of 21-22 years old at the time, bi-racial, and entering into the wonderful world of finance and corporate lending, an industry traditionally dominated by white, middle-aged men. The high heels and makeup were meant to help her stand a little taller and look a little older, so she could look at these men eye-to-eye as she negotiated million dollar loans, so they would not just take her seriously, but ultimately view her as a peer. While I personally put little stock in obsessively following the latest fashion trends, it has become very clear to me that what you wear projects something very specific about who you are and what you are doing, and it can influence the way in which you act. I find myself agreeing with former New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham when he said, “Fashion is the armor to survive everyday life.”
It is helpful to me to think of what I wear as a uniform or armor, depending on the circumstances, and I have many of them when I venture into public. What I wear to the grocery store is different than what I wear to bed, both of which are different than what I wear to work, with slight variations for the more relaxed or more combative days. Regardless of how much we want to talk about “not judging a book by its cover,” we almost always do just that. Therefore, the clothes you choose communicate something to the people around you. There is something wrong about watching an attorney walking into a courtroom in sweatpants, just as there is about seeing a chef cooking in a 3-piece suit. How much confidence would you have in your attorney if he showed up to defend you in sweatpants? Even better, as a juror, to what extent have you already prejudged his credibility before he utters his first word? “There’s a weird conveyance of information…in what you wear. What you wear is how you’re going to think, and how you’re going to act,” according to Rev. Joel Hess on last week’s episode of Ringside.
The same reasoning can be applied to attending church. Many people have boundaries for the uniforms they are willing to wear in church. Growing up, in my family it was always “no jeans”. Entering into God’s house to hear His Word and receive His gifts was a special thing, so we wore special clothes to reflect that. Oftentimes, our pastors also wear special vestments for worship, which are different than everyone else’s. Is a pastor mandated to wear an alb and collar in order to deliver the gifts on Sunday morning? No, of course not. But, by choosing to wear some of those traditional garments, a pastor automatically identifies himself and has communicated with you before he’s even said a word. There is value in walking into a church and automatically identifying the man from which the Word will be proclaimed, and the gifts administered. It grounds and locates your experience for the entire worship service.
Beyond what we project to the outside world with our attire, our clothing choices affect our moods and actions as well. Many people have that power suit or lucky tie that gives them an extra boost of confidence, or that oversized sweater they burrow into when in need of a little comfort. Whenever I know I’m going to be dealing with a difficult customer, I always choose an extra high heel and a really bold, “battle-ready” lipstick to get me in the right mindset. Rev. Paul Koch took some time this week to walk us through his Sunday morning attire. In addition to a French cuff shirt, cufflinks, a vest, and pocket watch, “I wear a cassock and surplice…The process of actually getting dressed on a Sunday morning becomes almost a ritual in and of itself, and that’s good for me. On Sunday mornings when it’s time for me to get ready, it’s a process that helps me, in a kind of a meditative way, to get ready for the vocation I’m now going to go and carry out on behalf of these people. I like that what I wear for church isn’t what I wear any other time.”
The clothing you choose to wear is by no means the totality of who you are as a person. It may not even be an accurate reflection of who you are. However, it does have bearing on the way in which you are perceived, and in the mental state you are in when you engage with the world. As Miuccia Prada once said, “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language.”
This article is a brief examination of one of several topics discussed on this week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Paul Koch, and special guest Rev. James Hopkins, as they duke it out over the lack of comedy and the arts in our current cultural climate, how to do Christian education without ruining the faith of children, and more on pastoral fashion trends, on the latest full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “What to Wear to a Funeral.”
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