On Walden Pond: "No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes."

After the opening reflections in Chapter One of Walden Thoreau moves on to some of my favorite material in the book. Specifically, Thoreau begins reflecting on simplicity as it relates to issues such as clothing, housing, furniture, luxuries, food, travel, and work.

Let's start with Thoreau's discussion of clothing. Some of my favorite quotes from Walden are on this subject:

As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.
No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience...I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this;--who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon.
It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes. Could you, in such a case, tell surely of any company of civilized men, which belonged to the most respected class?
I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes...
We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.
I think we need a theology of clothing. There is too little theological discussion on this topic. Which is one reason why I enjoy Thoreau's extended mediation on this subject.

As I've noted before, past shame clothing was the first symptom of the Fall. I think that is noteworthy. There is something about clothing that embodies what is wrong with the world. As Thoreau notes, clothing appeals to our vanity, our need to conform and our desire to signal our superior social status. Thoreau was right, we worship fashion. Clothing is a Principality and Power in our world. A false god. An idol. We see this clearly in the book of James:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Given all this, I find it shocking that we don't talk more about this subject. Why, I ask, are all of us dressed up on Sunday morning? Have we not read the warning of St. James? Isn't it clear that someone coming into our service with holes in their clothing would feel awkward among us? And why do we own so many fashionable and expensive cloths? What spiritual illness sits behind our craving for fashion?

Do we ever wonder about WWJW? What would Jesus wear?

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

28 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: "No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes."”

  1. ...or...clothing is a grace that covers falleness. Symptomatic, yes, but not to be confused with the falleness itself. It also is an aspect of cultural and personal expression which has many good qualities. It can also be a reflection of character, of which we should be accepting of many more shades than we do.

    Do we worship to excess? As a culture, certainly. But my church for one is a place where I wore shorts through the summer (and it's even a Presbyterian Church).

  2. Perhaps clothing is a primary expression of our preoccupation with the superficial? I'm thinking also of all the new ways that are invented every day to increase our superficiality ... to cover our grays, whiten our teeth, suck out our fat, shrink our veins, change our eye color, tighten up our skin, thicken our thinning hair (even eyelashes) ... ooh, I'm on a roll ... 

    As for clothing itself, I must confess that I am an inherent slob. Probably a reaction to having a mom who was excessively concerned with appearances. When I say that I'm not referring to hygiene (whew!) but rather to the clothing aspect. If only they knew, people could estimate my self-confidence by observing my dress --- dress and confidence being inversely proportional to one another. 

    After writing the preceding paragraphs, I realize that clothing and appearance is such a complex issue for me that I couldn't possibly address it fully here. I can't tease apart (for myself) the desire for other people's approval from the inherent boost that looking my best gives me. What is really inherent about it, and what is just an internalized sense of what is expected of me? And further, if I can't figure it out for myself, how do I root out the unfair judgments of others based on appearance? I think there is ample evidence that deciding a certain prejudice is morally wrong does not make it go away --- it tends instead to go underground, continuing, out of our awareness, to influence our responses. 

  3. What does it say about us that the wearers of torn and tattered clothing are more likely to be casually dressed Westerners, seeking authenticity in expensive designer imitations of the clothes of labourers (ripped jeans, etc.)? Mending and making do is great, but nowadays most patches are worn out of pretension. All of the third world Christians that I know from Africa and Asia, often living in conditions of incredible poverty, dress immaculately for church in their Sunday best. They know that coming before the throne of the living God is something that calls for us to dress for the occasion to the degree that we are able (without ostentation, or despising those who lack). The laid back indifference of the casual wear in many churches probably says a lot about our hearts, and the way that we view worship.

    Regarding the James passage: clothing becomes dangerous when it becomes a means for self-glorification, ostentation, and exercising lordship over the poor, in a manner that creates divisions within the body of Christ. However, clothing is also a way of reflecting the glory of others, rather than flaunting our own glory. When one meets royalty, one dresses in a respectful and non-ostentatious manner. One's clothing is to reflect the importance of someone other than yourself, and so you are discouraged from using it as a means of discrimination. As you are dressing for the king or queen, it is their assessment of your dress that is crucial, not your neighbour's. As Christ our king accepts the poor man in his poor dress just as completely as he accepts you, there is no ground for favouritism. However, this does not absolve us of our duty to dress in a manner befitting the activity of worship (in recognition of God's glory, but not deflecting attention from it).

  4. Doesn't C S Lewis say something about how it's clothing that marks us out as individuals, so when we get naked we become less ourselves as individuals and more ourselves as representatives of humankind in general, or Male and Female in general (I'm pretty sure it's in the context of a discussion about sex). 

    I'd like to speak up in defence of clothing: you're right that there are all sorts of issues about social status and fashion that make it problematic, and it's also the case that in Western society it's very difficult to buy clothes (or anything else) that aren't bound up with terribly unjust systems of production. But clothes can also be a form of creativity, of joy: they can be something that celebrates beauty, imagination, and the human form. I love wearing nice clothes, and I love seeing other people wearing beautiful or interesting clothes. I love snuggling up in a cosy jumper on a cold day. I love being able to walk for miles and miles because I'm wearing sensible shoes or playing sport without getting uncomfortable or injured because I'm wearing impractical clothes. Isn't there at least something worth valuing in all of that?

  5. In the comments so far we're already we're sketching out a really good theological treatise on this topic. Clothing touches on sin, justice, social life, worship, and the Incarnational aspects of creativity and beauty. How to balance it all? I think a good theological analysis could help with some of these questions and issues.

  6. "...The new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband..." (Rev 21:2)

    The church - in its perfected state - is beautifully dressed.  The question there is always what is the dress.  The traditional answer is the righteousness of her groom. 

    Being part of a liturgical tradition I've got the garb -" the fat guy in the dress" on Sunday morning.   And each of those items: stole, alb/cassock, pectoral, etc always had its symbolic referent, but just as often I'm sure they have been used to say look at me or signal rank.  Just a thought, but clothes, even fancy clothes, like a wedding dress, can have an appropriate time and place.  Like all of God's good creation, what use is it put to?  Do I use it appropriately for my vocation, or do I abuse it and use it out of place?  Do I cover my shame, or do I adorn myself with gladness for someone else?  Is clothing me centered, or other centered? 

  7. That's an interesting question I'd not considered. What would it mean, theologically and practically, to dress for others?

  8. I suppose it might have been clothing that sent me screaming and running from the church in 1968.  The ad nauseum lectures about "putting on the whole armor of God" (breastplate of righteousness, blah blah blah).

    Subsequently, during the 1970's I flirted with Nudism.  Even the hypocritical hippies, however, maintained a dress code.  However, I never again thought much about my clothes.  Since I retired six years ago I haven't bought anything except shoes, socks, and underwear.  Recently I had to be fitted for a tux for our daughter's wedding next week.  When I made a comment to the clerk that I'd rather visit the dentist than try on clothes, she "awwwded" and felt sorry for me, explaining that "it's nice to dress up".  I really have never understood it.

  9. For most of my life my criteria for choosing clothes were:

    1. Is it functional e.g. waterproof, hard-wearing, lightweight etc as necessary?
    2. Is it a bargain?

    Style and colour didn't come into it.

    Then, at a certain point in my life (MID-LIFE CRISIS) a couple of years back, I started to experiment (with often disasterous consequences) with different colours and styles.  In the end, my long-suffering and wise wife sent me on a colour consultation (seriously left field for a UK man) and bought me a book on the subject.

    To my surprise, this new knowledge and confidence (ignore the picture left) resulted in me dressing for others rather than myself.  When I was due to see an anxious teenage single mum, I would know how to dress less formally in colours that inculcated a sense of trust and warmth; when I had a board meeting, I had the know-how to strike a balance between formal and non-competitive.

    No doubt there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in all this - I dress in warm, trustworthy colours, so I act in a warm, trustworthy manner, so others respond to me with greater warmth and trust.  But don't knock placebo effects - one of the most under-researched and valued psychological effects in the literature in my opinion.

    I think for me, clothes are like money, power, the internet...they are not instrinsically good or bad things but have the capacity to be used for either.  The breakthrough moment for me was realising that I could express the love of Christ when I got dressed in the morning.

  10. And I remember being asked in my conservative, Baptist church if I would have a NEW dress to wear in the fashion show at the annual Mother/Daughter tea!

    Now that I'm retired I'm dedicated to wearing out what remains in my closet.

  11. Lately, I've been stuck while musing over Substitutionary Atonement, no remission of sins without the shedding of blood, etc.., my question being ... is God really the One Who's bloodthirsty?  The first recorded animal sacrifice was for Adam/Eve's sake, now suddenly  "realizing" they were "naked" (their being naked didn't seem to be an issue with God before the fall).  Their compulsive, desperate, makeshift veggie-wear didn't cut it.  But who had an issue with that - God or the now neurotic first couple?   Going back to one of your very recent posts about killing, the first documented murder - Cain and Abel .. what was that over ... the COMPARATIVE quality of their sacrifice to God (animal vs. fruit/vegetables).  This raises another tangential question - did God introduce or provoke concepts of competition, partiality, the Malthusian race for access/favor to/from God  - (another subject).  All is to say - there's something here about clothing.  The NT indicates white garments ONLY at the party,  provided exlusively by Jesus' perfect righteousness.   So does "clothing" matter to God now???   There's definitely something here ... I'll think about this while buying my $299 pair of Kobe Bryant Nike shoes  - lol.
    Gary Y.

  12. I shop the clearance racks, and learned the timing for seasonal sell-offs when we need something like athletic shoes, winter gear or swimwear. I don't have to accommodate the fashionista mentality in our family, but it tickles me the way my boys get excited over a package of new socks ... 

  13. Substitutionary Atonement doesn't teach God is bloodthirsty. In one sense God wasn't pleased in the death of His Son. God is not a sadist. He's not bloodthirsty. Sin, in and of itself, and the suffering of the innocent, is abhorrent to God. However, when God took into account the universality of things, the death of of Christ was seen by the Father as a wonderful way to demonstrate His righteousness and save sinners. This is what God was pleased about in allowing the murder of His Son. The Father's joy was in what the Son accomplished in dying and in the depth of love the Son had for the Father's glory. When Jesus died He glorified His Father's name and He atoned for the sins of sinners.
    So, in one sense God was grieved when He allowed evil men to murder His Son. In another sense He was pleased. The only Reason the atoning work of the Son pleased the Father was that He knew that by His Son's bruises and shed blood you and I would be healed and covered in His righteousness by being washed in the blood. God's not some raving lunatic who delights in the sheding of innocent blood in and of itself.

  14. This is a very interesting piece. I have always been what my employer calls a 'sartorial refusenik'. My general dislike of 'fashion' and expectation have at times been difficult for me to explain to others. 

    But I think, ultimately, that I feel uncomfortable in any environment with a strict dress code because I associate clothing such as suits with wealth and the exclusion of the poor. I have 2 degrees and a professional job, but I come from a rather different environment, and I've never felt wholly comfortable around people who dress up. I do wear a suit etc. to work, but I always feel like I am torn between two worlds. I disagree that it makes us look professional and as though we take others seriously; I think it looks like pompous one-up-man-ship.

  15. Hello Cole,
    What you're saying is what many, many traditionalist Christians seem to say, yet on the other side of their mouth have no problem declaring the prospect that 97% of humanity will burn alive for eternity - "God is love" but "God is just".
    From reading your initial posts, even you seemed to have no problem with the notion that many will "choose" eternal condemnation. Therefore, the idea of blood sacrifice being a requirement for divine appeasment, eternal conscious tormenting punishment for many  - this bloodthirsty/vindictive theology originated from somewhere - where ... who???  What did you or I do so "right"  to presume that we are a part of the 3% of sinners (out of the 100% of sinners) who are "saved"??? Getting back to the subject of the post (and my fault - I APOLOGIZE for bringing up Substitutionary Atonement), since blood sacrifice seems to be such a colossal and required center piece of our theology, I'm simply inquiring about the very first recorded killing of an animal - the purpose of that event/decision seemed to be ... to provide  more durable "CLOTHING" for our now neurotic/self-conscious first couple. 

    Gary Y.

  16. Awesome Patricia!   And just to get carried away a bit, who knew the fashion police in early Genesis would be the instigators of all of our doctrinal/theological dysfunctionality?

    Gary Y. 

  17. I'm not sure how long people will suffer under God's justice in hell. You have a false view of Substitutionary Atonement. If you are going to talk about it then you should at least understand what it is about. I thank Jesus for removing God's wrath from my vision at the cross. By His grace I can now see and savor Divine Beauty in the face of Jesus Christ.  Because I have placed my trust in Christ I am also covered in the robes of His righteousness. When the Father looks at me what He sees is the beautiful righteousness of His Son.

    Isaiah 61:10

    I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

    Romans 3:22

    This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

    I can now approach God with boldness. Christ has done for me what I cannot do for myself.

  18. Indeed, true, Gary. Upon their screwiness, much theological head-banging and gender bullying has been declared "scriptural." I think they both owe every one of us subsequent human beings an apology.

  19. Hello Cole,
    I thought (for years) I understood Substituionary Atonement.  So you're right - I now don't understand SA and if you read my first post carefully, I am inquiring/musing about it - so yes, I don't understand what I'm talking about - I'm just asking rhetorical questions.   However, I will aggressively and unapologetically shove back against the condemning, pharisaical, dogmatic, exclusive spirit in which many describe SA. And that presentation has made God out to be the One Who's bloodthirsty - there's no getting around that.  Reading your more recent posts, it appears you're becoming more open and your responses here have a more graceful tone (than the usual presentation) concerning SA, so I gotta give you props for that. 

    Gary Y.

  20. Isaiah 53:10The Lord was pleased to bruise Him,He has put Him to grief...How could it please God to bruise His Son?  God's emotions are infinitely complex. We cannot fully understand the infinite complexity of God's emotional life. He feels everything at once. In one sense God wasn't pleased in the death of His Son. God is not a sadist. He's not bloodthirsty. Sin, in and of itself, and the suffering of the innocent, is abhorrent to God. However, when God took into account the universality of things, the death of of Christ was seen by the Father as a wonderful way to demonstrate His righteousness and save sinners. This is what God was pleased about in allowing the murder of His Son. The Father's joy was in what the Son accomplished in dying and in the depth of love the Son had for the Father's glory. When Jesus died He glorified His Father's name and He atoned for the sins of sinners.So, in one sense God was grieved when He allowed evil men to murder His Son. In another sense He was pleased. The only Reason the atoning work of the Son pleased the Father was that He knew that by His Son's bruises and shed blood you and I would be healed and covered in His righteousness by being washed in the blood. God's not some raving lunatic who delights in the sheding of innocent blood in and of itself. It's not like He smiles at seeing blood for the sake of seeing blood. You've let your views of Substitutionary Atonement become influenced by the corrupt.

  21. I always interpreted the clothing we wear to church as a kind of tribal identification. You've got your reserved middle-class homemakers in pink jackets with religious pins on the lapel. . . elders and lawmakers in fine wool power suits. . . anti-secular survivalists in denim jumpers with Winnie-the-Pooh appliques. At my husband's church, you've got the clergy in their robes and the dedicated brothers and sisters in a different set of identifying clothing. We dress so that all you have to do is look at somebody and know just how holy they are and what their role is in the Kingdom of God.
    I used to dress up for church but found that it puts my focus in the wrong direction, so I stopped. My husband's priest thinks that failing to dress up shows a lack of respect for God. Whether your clothing is dressy or casual, frumpy or sharp, modest or revealing, somebody is always ready swear on the Bible that God is displeased with your wardrobe.
    Whoever writes this book needs to do research for a chapter comparing and contrasting the mainline Christian view on garb with the nudist Christian view.

  22. Hi Cole

    Richard's post from last year http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/06/george-macdonald-justice-hell-and.html might help explain where some of the folks on this blog are coming from on atonement etc.

    Best wishes


  23. The most thought-through theology of clothing and the body I've ever read comes from Rev. Victoria Weinstein (aka "Peacebang") and her "Beauty Tips for Ministers,"

  24. My friend John H, who blogs at Confessing Evangelical (http://www.confessingevangelical.com/), requested to post my earlier comments on a theology of clothing on his blog. He has posted my original comments and a link to some significantly expanded thoughts on the subject here: http://www.confessingevangelical.com/?p=3461.

  25. I wonder if the "choice" to dress up is perhaps one based on status.  I mean, the CEO of a company may appear in jeans and a t shirt and that is great, but most of his underlings dare not do so.  We can have casual churches and may emphasize simplicity, partly because it is the right thing to do but partly because we crave simplicity and to not be judged based on our appearance.  My impression of the historically African American churches is different; it seems that for women and men who served as domestics and in low status jobs, getting dressed up on Sunday was a way to assert their inherent dignity and was an act of rebellion against a racist and classist society. 

    All that said, I don't think we need to be encouraging our "professional religious" to eshew fashion, they are already doing it way too well.  Perhaps some version of "be in the world but not of the world" should apply a little bit, since in order to attract people to whom clothes and appearance matter we need to at least look cool and well groomed and on purpose in our distinctive anti-materialistic, anti-fashion addiction way. 

Leave a Reply