I have this conceit that my views on life, my politics, my social conscience, philosophy and so on are radical and progressive. That doesn’t appear to be how others see me, and I fear, the others are right. There is a saying that you can judge a man by the company he keeps and the clothes he wears. If that is so, then though I am always keep good company, judged by my preferred raiment, I’m far from the vanguard when it comes breaking new ground, rather stuck on the conservative wing.
For example, I don’t go with the recent trend for men to dress smartly in suit and shirt, but with the shirt open at the neck and no tie. That’s neither one thing or the other in my mind; not smart and not really casual either. Mind you, I have been known to sit on the beach in a deck chair with no jacket on, shirt open at the neck, socks and shoes off, and trousers rolled up to the knees. Still having a protective covering of hair, there is no need for the knotted handkerchief on my head. Then at the seaside, anything goes. There you are allowed to undress in public, albeit under a towel.
What an important part clothes play in our lives. They do quite contradictory things at one and the same time. They both hide us from prying eyes, and reveal us to the world. They protect us from the elements, whilst making us vulnerable to the critical opinions of neighbours. We are judged by our attire, as we judge others in the same way. Garments enrich our lives whilst emptying our purses. Since Eve persuaded Adam to take the apple, the clothing industry has expanded in leaps and bounds, seeking to satisfy human desires.
Yes, clothes may be our protection from the outside world. Sometimes it is literally protective clothing, or armour, so we may be saved from harm. And how ugly and menacing such clothing can look, be it armour, riot clothing, diving helmet or space suits. But more often it is a kind of figurative shield that comes between us and the rest of the world. In this case the clothes are meant, not merely to cover our nakedness, but in order that the real person shall not be too closely observed and judged.
Uniform, or the clothes of office, may do this. G.K. Chesterton wrote a series of detective stories, the Father Brown stories. In one of these, I recall, witnesses swore nobody had approached the premises where a crime had been committed. It turned out that someone had, in full view of every-one. It was the postman. But because the postman in his uniform was so much a part of the everyday scene, those who had seen him, had sub-consciously ignored him.
The priest in his vestments, the judge in his robes, the policeman in his uniform, become anonymous beings. Uniform can become a cloak of invisibility. Yes, we may dress so that the world shall not observe the real “we” too closely. Some will welcome, either through shyness, or because of the nature of the job, or because we are up to no good, being able to merge into the background. We may not want the world to know our real thoughts or character.
Alternatively, we may want to flaunt ourselves, to be noticed, to show the world what grand, important people we are. At times this is a harmless peccadillo. We are going to a party, or some special occasion, perhaps. Only men go to a dinner party dressed like all the other men; ladies go to great pains to ensure that no other woman is dressed as they are, and are upset if they fail. They each examine the dress worn by the other women, and conclude that Ann is pleasingly modest, Bess brazen, Clara wore that dress last time, Daisy really has no taste, Ethel is too daring for her own good, and Freda is old sheep trying to ape young lamb.
Another fact about clothes, or about other people’s clothes, is that we form an assessment of his or her character by the clothes he or she is wearing. Wasn’t it the late Jack Warner who used to recite a monologue in the Music Halls, titled “Brown Boots”? As I remember, it was about a man who wore brown boots to a funeral instead of the expected black, and was therefore judged as lacking in respect. In truth, he was one of the sincerest of mourners, with sorrow in his heart. Michael Foot whilst Prime Minister was greatly criticised for wearing the wrong kind of jacket to a Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph.
There are conventions to be observed. Turn up for an interview for many a job with a multi-coloured hairstyle, patched jeans and a slogan-covered t-shirt, and the interviewer will likely come to certain conclusions before a word is spoken. At the very least, the conclusion will be reached that this person is likely to make a rather unconventional Bishop, funeral director or Cabinet Minister. At worse the candidate will be rejected regardless of any qualifications he might have gained.
Of course there are conclusions that may be rightly drawn from external appearance. He who is ignorant of, indifferent to, or aggressively against, conventions of dress or appearance, may show the same characteristics with regard to other aspects of social behaviour.
But frequently we go too far. Society easily divides itself by social divisions. Some forty years ago I was secretary to the Sheffield District Sunday School Association, now defunct, and had access to the old minute books. Over a century ago debates were held at meetings of the Association in this area. One subject of debate sticks in my memory. “Should the children of the Sunday School mix with the children of members of the Congregation?” I expect you could tell them apart from the clothes they wore. I have forgotten the conclusion of the debate, but the fact that it was held at all is astonishing to our ears today.
We no longer sing the verse of “All things bright and beautiful” which goes
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The attitude which allowed such sentiments to be widely accepted have not disappeared. Dress is but one aspect, albeit a crucially important one, in dividing society into layers.
Jesus, I remind you, was harshly criticised by the hierarchy of his time as one who consorted with the poor and with sinners. The critics – Scribes, Priests, Pharisees – all members of the establishment of the day, were well dressed in the acceptable clothing the time. No doubt the poor were ill clad, and maybe the sinners dressed outrageously. Today Jesus would possibly turn up at the synagogue in a t-shirt and jeans.
Fashions change. Once showing braces was the mark of the “working class”. Then they became part of the uniform of the “skinhead”. Later red braces were an essential part of the dress of the so-called Yuppie as he sat in front of his computer screen playing the financial markets of the world.
Skirt lengths go up and down as fashion dictates, colours are “in” or “out” from year to year, and the world will judge you according to the extent to which you conform or not to fashion’s whims. Only if you have achieved what the world deems “success” are you able to ignore criticism of your taste in fashion, or devise your own standards.
“Clothes make the man,” goes an old saying (and presumably the woman as well). What nonsense this is! Clothes are an important aspect of life. But the real character of the individual is independent of the external covering.
The real man or woman lies within the outer shell. The Judge, the Policeman, the Priest, the Civil Servant and the rest may put on the uniform of office. The clothes may make them anonymous, grand, insignificant or intimidating. But who, or what, they are will not be determined by the clothes they wear. If the Judge is foolish, harsh or self-opinionated, the robes of office will not disguise it. The arrogant or the brutish policeman, if such he be, will not be rendered humane by his uniform. Nor will the hypocritical priest become saintly by donning clerical garb.
Solomon, we read, was a King, richly attired. But his epitaph is not about his clothing, but of his wisdom. Men and women may be renowned for a short time on the tastefulness, or extravagance, of their dress. But such renown, if there be any, is as temporary as the fashions of the moment. What abides is the old value of tolerance and compassion, of kindliness and understanding, of forgiveness and gentleness. Faith, hope and charity are real eternal values, preached Paul.
Nothing is wrong with dressing up. Sunday best is not inappropriate wear for coming to church and worshipping God. But Sunday best is but the outer shell. It is not the real me. The real me dwells beneath the outer covering: not put on or discarded according to the calendar, or by what the fashion houses of the world dictate as appropriate. The real me is the one who practises, or fails to practice, what the everlasting laws of God, which are eternal, demand. What is worn on the catwalk is here in the morning and gone as night falls. How neighbour regards and acts to neighbour, abides.
The judgements made on others purely from the clothes they wear can at best be silly, at worst, dangerously prejudiced. But then, aren’t we ever prone to judge others, as Jesus pointed out a long time ago.
And clothing isn’t the only unreliable indicator. Race, colour, language, class, accent, the church or mosque attended, the street where one lives along with many other outward signs are unimportant compared with everyday actions. After all, the Samaritan was a foreigner. Certainly his skin was swarthy; and goodness only knows where he got that raiment from he had donned. It made him look like an Arab. Perhaps he was one. Yet he is remembered for tending the wounded Jew.
I was grateful for the care the hospital doctor displayed towards me a short while ago. He was reassuring, skilled and courteous. His skin was dark. I think his country of origin was probably India. Maybe he was a Hindu. He treated me, a white Christian, with compassion, as I am sure he did all his patients of whatever sect or creed.
The receptionist in hospital uniform smiled at me as she made a new appointment, and I remembered afterwards the smile and cannot recall the colour of the uniform she wore. I smiled back and like to think she ignored the rather grubby stain I had not noticed down the front of my tie.
C.J. ROSLING 24 June 1990
Fulwood 24 June 1992
Mexborough 22 July 1992
Chesterfield 29 July 1992
Hucklow 2 Jan 1993: 11 October 1998
Hucklow 14 May 2006