Christianity and Appearance
Throughout the experience of thinking about clothing and appearance, I’ve wondered what, if any, significance or meaning such possibly vain pursuits have for a Christian. Doesn’t the Bible condemn vanity? Didn’t Solomon write that all is vanity? Shouldn’t the spiritually-minded person keep her mind on “the things above, not on the things of this earth?”
Yes. And yet, Jesus said that God Himself arrays the lilies in the field. God clothed Adam and Eve. In symbolic and mythological terms, I can see that in some way, God himself must have an interest in what we wear, either literally or figuratively–or both. After all, in Genesis 3:21 one reads, “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.”
The Lord is not the only one with an interest in appearances, though. People base first and often subsequent opinions on appearances; in fact, judging by what is presented is entirely human. In 1 Samuel 16, the Bible tells the story of how David was chosen to be king of Israel. The Lord told the prophet Samuel to go visit Jesse the Bethlehemite and his family, because among Jesse’s sons would be the future king of Israel. As Samuel regarded Jesse’s strong, strapping sons, assuming by their appearances that the future king would be this big strapping son, or that one;
But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart. (King James Version).
Another Biblical view of appearance is found in 1 Peter 3:3-5, where Paul advises women,
Let not your adornment be merely external–braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. (New American Standard Bible).
In the past, I’ve attended churches where they interpreted this verse to mean that women ought not to wear jewelry or dress nicely at all, but rather should simply become good and virtuous women. Having spent the first few years of my new-found faith in such a church, I’ve felt understandably conflicted from time-to-time over the issue of appearance and spirituality.
My readings and practice of Buddhist teachings over the past few years have also informed the way I’ve lived. As a westerner and Christian, immersing myself in this eastern mindset has been enlightening, to say the least. One of the many tenets of Buddhist thinking that transformed me is the idea of our inter-dependence. Certainly, this is one of the basic teachings of Christianity, too; but somehow, having grown up in our egocentric, individualistic American culture made this doctrine unclear to me. I’ve needed to have my world view expanded and clarified, and Buddhism has helped me with that.
Last month, I listened to Act Two of an episode of my favorite podcast, This American Life, about Cambodia’s reliance on American contracts in the garment industry. Much of the nation of Cambodia relies on contracts with Gap and other American clothing stores for its livelihood. The deeply moving and startling interviews with Cambodians were life-changing, and I’ll never be able to buy or wear a pair of Levi jeans without thinking about the families in another part of the world who have been fed through my consumption.
The global interdependence illustrated by the episode reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in The Devil Wears Prada. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall the scene from Andy’s second day of work, in which her boss, fashion editor Miranda Priestly, and a covey of fashionistas are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit to be featured in the magazine. Andy sniggers because she thinks the belts look just alike:
Miranda Priestly: Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. . . Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.
Miranda Priestly: [With disdain.} This… “stuff”? Oh, OK, I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t now is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns.
And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.
However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of “stuff.”
I just love that last paragraph.
Some months ago after watching an odd little film, I pondered some questions that included “To what does my bounty oblige me?” Today, I think about my stewardship of my resources. We live in an ecological age, the age of green; our children are taught in school from the earliest ages about care of the environment, and about how people have taken the earth’s resources for granted. We buy organic and we’re concerned about the world’s pollution and toxins and how they affect our health, and the health of our children.
I pray regularly for help being a good steward of my personal wealth; but I never really thought about how my personal resources include not only my body and abilities, but also what I put on my body. I had not considered that If I invest in one good skirt, for example, I can avoid buying two or three less worthy skirts down the road. If I go to the tailor with the unused, oversized clothing in my closet, I can save money and avoid buying new clothing by creating a garment that fits. As well, my attention to my wardrobe helps feed the Vietnamese family that runs the alteration shop, just as the clients of our family business put food on our table.
We are inter-dependent, all.