On Dress, Divinity, and Dumbfounding

I've never been one to dress up. I generally wear jeans just about everywhere. So I'm known for casual attire.

Incidentally, this makes "dressing up" a real pain in the neck, socially speaking. For example, Jana likes to shop at Goodwill stores. Recently she's been picking up a cool tie here and there. Mainly retro ties from the 60s and 70s that you just don't see anymore. So I've started wearing these ties to work once in a while. And when I do all day long it's "Hey! Look who dressed up! Look who is wearing a tie! What's the big occasion?!"

It makes for a very long day.

The point is, if I'm wearing a tie it's a big deal.

When I became the Department Chair seven years ago, selling my soul to the Principalities and Powers, my casual dress became a point of commentary. Mainly the issues had to do with something called "professionalism."

What does professionalism mean when it comes to workplace dress? Why are jeans not "professional" but pants/slacks/trousers are?

To be clear, in this discussion I'm setting aside clothing that is dirty, damaged, or immodest. What I'm talking about is this hierarchy of clothing where the suit and tie sit at the top and jeans sit somewhere at the bottom.

That there is a hierarchy here seems diagnostic to me. In Unclean I talk about Richard Shweder's idea that human moral psychology has three main domains: Community, autonomy, and divinity. A summary of the sorts of moral infractions and values from each domain (quotes from here):

Community: "based on moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy and interdependency, which is designed to help individuals achieve dignity by virtue of their role and position in a society."

Autonomy: "based on moral concepts such as harm, rights and justice, which is designed to protect individuals in pursuit of the gratification of their wants."

Divinity: "based on moral concepts such as natural order, sacred order, sanctity, sin and pollution, which is designed to maintain the integrity of the spiritual side of human nature."
Looking at Shweder's domains it seems to me that questions about professional/appropriate attire are involved with the divinity domain. That is, is our dress commensurate with the "sacredness" or "level" of the situation, either the workplace or church? Here dress is a form of showing respect and meeting expectations of dignity and decorum.

So a lack of "professionalism" is a divinity violation. This is why we call casual attire dressing "down." With extreme forms of casualness we even say we are "slumming it." There is a sacred hierarchy at work here, with goodness and sacredness high on this dimension and the profane, base and vulgar low on the dimension.

That clothing is regulated by a divinity ethic isn't surprising. Clothing itself is a way we elevate ourselves above the animals. Clothing is trying to elevate and lift us up above the bestial. Consequently, feelings of sacred elevation become associated with clothing with various attire choices moving us up or down this dimension. Closer to the angels or toward the animals.

This is why, it seems, clothing can be so contentious in faith communities. Clothing has a sacred aspect to it and, thus, people fight over what is "appropriate" for communal worship.

But here's the problem with all this. As I go on to discuss in Unclean the divinity dimension is a source of what the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "moral dumbfounding." Dumbfounding occurs when normative judgments have an "I know it when I see it" aspect. That is, the judgment is driven by subjective feelings rather than objective, empirical, and publicly available criteria. Thus trouble emerges when sensibilities differ. With only feelings to guide us how are we to adjudicate between different judgments about what is or is not appropriate?

You can't. You're stuck, communally speaking. If people have different sensibilities there's not a whole lot you can do. One group sees X as "inappropriate." Others disagree. And since the differences here are not matters of fact there's nothing available, objectively speaking, to convince the other side.

Which brings me back to the issue of professionalism.

When someone says "Jeans are not professional" what are they saying? At root, they are simply expressing a subjective judgment about what they think is a divinity violation. But as we've just noted, divinity violations are often in the eye of the beholder. To be sure, these judgment don't emerge out of thin air. There is tradition and norms, what people typically wear in any given situation or context. However, these norms drift and change over time. Moreover, not everyone agrees with the majority view. For example, a younger generation with different subjective feelings about what is or is not professional might come into conflict with the feelings of an older generation.

And who is to adjudicate between the two groups? If there is no objective reason why jeans or shorts at church are inappropriate then all we are left with are our feelings.

So what am I saying? I'm saying that professionalism and propriety are subjective rather than objective states of affairs. That these are "eye of the beholder" judgments, I "know it when I see it" judgments. Which means that, at the end of the day, we're just going to have to agree to disagree about what is or is not professional or appropriate dress in either the workplace or at church. It's a dumbfounding issue. People are going to disagree with each other and there is little we can do about that, no consensus in our future. We're just going to have to learn to live with each other.

Vive la différence.

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56 thoughts on “On Dress, Divinity, and Dumbfounding”

  1. When I worked for InterVarsity, my standard dress was jeans and t-shirt (with long hair and full beard). When my oldest was about eight, he saw me getting ready to speak at a church for fundraising. "What's that?", he said pointing at my tie.

    Now that I'm in the "professional" world, I am always at least business casual. My wife never knew me in my former life. Recently, she bought me some jeans because I didn't have any that fit. "I feel like you never relax on the weekends!", she said. Oh, and of course, my beard is trimmed and I don't have as much hair to worry about anymore. ;-)

  2. I am not a fan of professionalism for a couple different reasons, one of which concerns dress and was analyzed thoroughly and thoughtfully in this post. The other has the same motif, but is applied within the context of relationships. It is similar, I presume, to some of Beck's push-back concerning the present generalized perspective on love and boundaries held by many if not most psychologists. 

    The issue is that professionalism sets it's own defined and distinct boundaries between selves. This in and of itself is an issue and I would agree with Dr. Beck in his book Unclean that it can be probably a stumbling block to really loving, sacrificing for, and helping one another. But I also think it sets up an unnecessary hierarchy, relationally speaking. (I'd like to mention that normally I am a big fan of hierarchy as opposed to pure equality. A perspective enriched by a reading of C.S. Lewis' cultural critiques.) I think this particular relational hierarchy is unnecessary because it is counter to the very objective of the relationship that is attempting to be formed. In order to share space with someone you have to share the same free space to be and and do, to share life together to understand another better, common space, common experiences, and common speech. This sharing space freely can only take place when two people meet each other with an equal footing. What professionalism tends to do is two things: It elevates the perspective and approach of the "professional" and can further relegate the perspective and approach of the counselee. There are contexts, I think, when this hierarchic perspective and approach are right and good. But I do not think this sort of power play has any place within the context of a relationship built upon the idea of helping one another. This hierarchic approach to counseling in general is so saturated with professionalism that it reeks with the infrahumanization of those who seek help. The professionalism of counselors is, to put it rashly, putting razor blades in their candy; the very thing that they attempt to give has a hidden and negative edge that ends up doing harm. Besides, what people really need are good friends, not good counselors.

  3. In the animal kingdom, especially the birds, it is the male of the species who gets to "dress up".  It's all about attracting a mate.  In human society, it seems that it is the females who have the greater need for more formal attire -- both for themselves, and also for their mates.  How many times have we heard -- "You're going to ____  wearing THAT?  Not with me!"  *sigh*

    I grew up wearing jeans, long hair, and a beard.  In 1967 I was pulled over on the NJ Turnpike by the Highway Patrol and my car was searched.  I was on my way to an Open Air Campaigners meeting in Newark.  After finding nothing amiss, the officer was about to go when I politely asked -- "Why did you pull me over?"  His terse response -- "You'll understand once you try to get your first real job". 

    I have kept the beard, now have less hair, and as a retiree am almost always in jeans again.  I had to wear a tie at work for 35 years, but the women were allowed to dress less formally.  A double standard which always rankled.  I complained from time-to-time, but grudgingly accepted the noose since there were RARE occasions when we actually did meet with our clients unexpectedly in person.  At the end of the year that I retired, they finally did away with the requirement of ties for the men.  The story of my life.

    OK ladies, you may pile on.    ;-P

  4. When I attended a CMA Bible college in the early 80's (I was never CMA it was near by) and they disallowed jeans, I merely changed their name to indigo blue cotton pants. I was never questioned. Oh- and the president instituting that rule went on to pastor a mega church where he eventually was outed for having a long time affair with his secretary.....At least in the secular world the specs are the same size ;-)

  5. I feel like you are just touching the tip of the iceberg here Richard. This is a fascinating issue for me. I teach postgraduates in London on the Bar Exam, which 2 years changed its formal qualification title from 'Bar Vocational Course' to 'Bar Professional Training Course'. Apparently, 'Professional' is sexier than 'Vocational'. 

    For me, the male 'business' attire and the supposed professionalism it represents is centred on the twin concepts of Power and Conformity. When I began lecturing in 2010, all the male staff wore business suits. It was an unspoken norm, and I think for many men represents an easy way to conform whilst also projecting power and authority. After 9 months I started to change things up, and having had no-one call me up on matters, I have now 'dressed down' to jacket and chinos and *shock* no tie. What is interesting is that after a couple of months of this I began to see other members of staff tentatively dress down from time to time. Once the conformity was broken, it seemed to release other to 'follow'. Perhaps an irony in itself; liberated from a strict conformity into a looser or more ambiguous one?
    The issue of power still remains though. On a course such as this, there appears to be a need for a strict dividing line, represented at least in part by dress code. As the purveyors of somewhat expensive and esoteric legal knowledge, the staff are supposed to embody the power of the law. The business suit is a short-cut to representing this, at least in part. After all, everyone knows that lawyers wear suits. When I lecture or conduct tutorials in more casual attire but have a student in attendance wearing a business suit, it feels like the power dynamic is skewed. My authority is at least partially questioned by our very sartorial status. For the on-looker it is certainly counter-intuitive. So in short, I would be fascinated to know what psychological insights you might be able to bring to bear on Conformity and Power within dress and divinity...

  6. Let's start a jeans revolution, so the next generation believes it to be the highest form of dress. Of course, I'm not sure what really goes below jeans, so casual Fridays may get a little weird...

  7. Below jeans I prefer New Balance sneakers. 

    Oh, wait.......I see.  At Woodstock, the next down the line were cut-off jeans.  Below that was underwear.  Last (and least), was nothing.

    There is no way to maintain a power hierarchy with nudists, at least not with clothing.

  8. Stephen, so much wisdom in your insights.  Thank you for sharing these thoughts.  Professional dress as an outward symbol of relational hierarchy...  You nailed it!  Whenever the conscious goal is to stand above someone in status, it probably serves more as a "stumbling block to really loving, sacrificing for, and helping one another."  A powerful truth.

    Years ago when I worked in a mid-size corporation, image was of utmost importance.  The majority of my colleagues were, like me, young and upwardly mobile "professionals."  At that time in my life -- and it is embarrassing for me to look back on and admit now -- I spent a huge amount of money and time cultivating my "professional" image.  Power suits, shoes for every day of the month, hair, nails, makeup, tanning.  Oh God.  It is a crime how much of my income I wasted on that stuff.  I felt that I had to do it in order to compete.  Toward the end of my 10+ year career at that corporation, Fridays were designated "business casual" day.  We got to wear jeans!  But, you can bet that I wore the finest designer jeans my salary could buy.

    When my daughter was born and I made the decision to quit my job and stay at home full-time with her, my "working" wardrobe changed significantly, as you might imagine.  For one thing, comfortable clothing was a practical necessity.  For another, my disposable income was drastically reduced!  At the time, my husband made less money (including benefits) than I had made.  Gradually, I learned to humble myself and abandon my high-priced go-to "better" department stores and specialty shops, and shop at Wal-mart for my clothing needs.  Then, I discovered the joy and satisfaction of shopping at Goodwill!  Yay, Jana!!  Any woman who is a fan of thrift shops is the kind of woman with whom I would hit it off instantly.  :-)  I buy most of my clothing at Goodwill or the local Mission Mart nowadays.  I'm not ashamed, either, to admit where I got something, whenever I receive a compliment for an article of clothing or outfit.  I look at it as also being ecologically responsible -- re-using and re-cycling and all that.

    Finally, Stephen, your reference to the counseling relationship.  When my son died and I was nearly incapacitated with grief, I sought (at the "encouragement" of my manager, which could not be refused, because I would have refused it had I been able) professional help.  I think I must have "interviewed" about 3 counselors (licensed clinical psychologists) who didn't make the cut with me before finding my full-fledged psychiatrist (because I know that my colleagues felt pretty certain that only heavy medication was going to help me).  At our "interview" appointment, when I judged whether I could work with him or not, I'm sure in hindsight that his casual attire and long hair pulled back in a ponytail had the effect of putting me at ease.  He was a quiet man, and not in a condescending way as is the stereotype of psychiatrists (only asking leading questions and taking copious notes!!)  When he interjected a thought, it was usually very profoundly insightful and valuable help to me.  Anyhoo, I saw him for about a year, once a week, and mostly just talked through my feelings with someone who did not have an agenda, except to help me.  I paid $90/hour for it, but well worth it.  At our final appointment, I said, "Thank you, Dr. K.  You know what I admire most about you?  You march to your own drummer."  His affirmation to me in response?  "You are doing it, too, Susan!"  Oh good!!

  9. Thank you for your transparency, Susan.  Goodwill is awesome! I once got a three-piece suit for $4, and it is the best fitting suit I've ever had! 

    I hope I did not come across as insinuating that counseling and counselors are evil or wrong. They can be a very helpful support that we need when God starts refining our characters through the fires of life! 

    To clarify, I'm coming from a perspective that would prefer to have the Church (which in my eyes includes Christian Universities as well) more so training people to be good friends, good people, rather than good counselors. I realize those don't have to be mutually exclusive at all, but there is a distinction I think. The ideal is a world where our friends are so good, so like Christ, that counselors become entirely unnecessary. I realize that this is definitely not how the world is today, but I would like to keep us cognizant that the reality of professional counseling as it is today might not be a part of the kingdom of God; that its existence is dependent upon sin and a fallen world. Perhaps it is one of those good things of this world that is not eternal, like marriage, or charity. 

    I often get the feeling that today, many people think that the best way to help others to become a counselor. For just one example, look at the rise of Clinical Psychology programs in Christian universities. It seems to me that that sort of logic is as foolhardy as suggesting that in order to be a spiritual leader, one has to become a pastor. I want us to continually move towards the ideal of "good friends not good counselors." So I don't advocate for the disqualification of all pastors, nor do I advocate for the disqualification of all counselors.

    Being a father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, or simply a good friend are just as important, if not more so than being a counselor or pastor; each has its intrinsic professional, vocational, or relational walls that become stumbling blocks to love. Yet, family and friendship ties tend to be a stronger relational glue than professional and vocational ties which means the wounds and healing of family and friends are both deeper.

  10. In my 5 years working in campus ministry, I would get the same "Look who dressed up today!" simply by wearing a collared shirt :)  Made for long days indeed :)

  11. I think opinions on dress should be viewed with the hero system lens from your other post series. I agree with Stephen that mandating dressing up, and making judgements based on dress, constitutes a form relational hierarchy. That, to my mind, points directly to world view defense. In the post above, I therefore disagree with the following conclusion:

    "You can't. You're stuck, communally speaking. If people have different sensibilities there's not a whole lot you can do."

    Abandoning your worldview and the comfort that it gives you in the face of death is what you can do. This, as Rich avers in the other series, is the way of Christ. Love and submission. If you coworker gives you shit about not dressing up, then dress up, which totally, totally sucks. But it might bring you closer to living life like Jesus, and it might bring you closer to living each moment in his presence.

  12. Stephen, I love these further points you've made.  I would just say that there are times when, as much as the desire to help and care is sincerely intended, sometimes a person's needs are beyond the ability to adequately address in a pastoral fellowship.  Many of my colleagues were faith-filled Christians with a genuine heart for helping and healing relationally.  They feared for my well-being, I know, and felt helpless and inadequate, after a point, to give me what I needed.  Too, in a work setting, it's almost impossible to completely set aside all bias and agenda.  They were most wise and loving in "strongly recommending" professional help at that time.  I'm not ashamed that I was the recipient of professional care during that time.  I would hope that if I ever were in that dark place again, I would swallow all pride and seek out holistic care.

    All that said, and on the other hand, I wholeheartedly agree that Christian love should be about all of us coming alongside others in their suffering, in a caring, helping, healing manner.  Our fears of inadequacy and confronting "death" in all its forms holds us back very often, I think, in reaching out that way.  Stephen, have you read any of Henri Nouwen's writing on the subject of "presence with others, from the acknowledged humble position of 'wounded healers' ourselves?"  I adore Henri Nouwen.  Such a loving example of Christlike sacrificial love and presence toward and with others, who are spiritually bankrupt and unable to give back.  From what I have learned through my dark night(s) and spiritual struggles, I attempt to live out, with intentionality, a merciful, caring, solidarity-in-suffering presence.  To whom much has been given, much is expected.  I take that truth to heart, though I know I am an imperfect vessel of love to others...

    Your words in response to this post have been a blessing to me this morning.  ~Peace, friend.~

  13. Nice post. You might be interested in visiting www.beautytipsforministers.com for a theological conversation on the subject. One thing that you haven't acknowledged is the practical matter of getting hired and staying employed. The subjective feelings of the older generation matter when newbies are trying to get a job. For me, the issue of aesthetics is paramount. How does beauty play into all of this? 

  14. Hi Susan, I'm so sorry for your loss of your son, and the grief and sorrows you have been through. Thank you for sharing such personal stories from your life and history. You are such a blessing here.   

     I'm a fan of our local Salvation Army thrift store here, but it makes my husband nervous for me to go there by myself. Like you, I'm a stay-at-home mom who left a career long ago. I find it's difficult to relate to women (and men too) who are "high maintenance" in terms of appearance. I have little in common with the "recreational shopper" mentality. Bling isn't my thing.

    In the airline industry, clothing as image is a big deal. It used to be that non-revenue travellers (employees and their families) had to abide by a very strict dress code, because you're "representing the company." It meant absolutely no denim, even in skirts, no tennis shoes, ties for men, and only dresses or skirts for women. It has relaxed somewhat in that women can now wear dress pants, and I've even  seen some in torn denim and flip-flops, but enforcement of code is left up to individuals in charge of boarding each flight. It just depends on who's checking you in, and that can vary by airport, or flight, or shift. If you test it, there's a possibility, when there'a a layover, of not being approved for the connecting flight. 

  15. I've read a couple of Nouwen's books, The Wounded Healer being one of them! So I agree, his writing, experience and contribution has been very helpful to me as well. Have you read "Reaching Out?" It is my favorite of his thus far. 

    I also really like the point you made about "a person's needs are beyond the ability to adequately address in a pastoral fellowship," and I would go further in stating that I think a person's needs go further than any sort of fellowship but with the Father, Son, and Spirit. I have a dear friend in student development who encourages students by suggesting that if they want to become a better student, or have better friendships, etc, to invest in their relation to god. His answer is of course quite simplistic, but it certainly drives the point home (and I'm sure his advice doesn't just stop there). Nothing is adequate, nothing satisfies but god, the wellspring of life. It is one of the hardest tasks but it can also be one of the most intimate and simplest things you can do. 

    That same student development friend introduced me to George MacDonald or GMac as we like to call him. As I read through his fiction and non-fiction, GMac has been helping me significantly to understand just how to be obedient in the simple and small tasks that God gives us. So much of our instinct is to be big, powerful, important, and popular, and so much of our culture affirms and perpetuates this sort of approach. Yes, even our Christian culture. It is entirely invigorating and refreshing to relearn that I can be obedient to God's will in the simplest of things with the people right next to me. I don't need to create programs or theologies, blogs or social networks, a career or an empire. And when you strip all those things away, what matters most is your character - who you are and how to treat people.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.  I greatly appreciate your being so open and vulnerable to sharing your struggles and hashing theoretical and psychological conceptions out with me.

  16. So, Richard, on the days you wear a tie do you also apply make-up? Because it's a really BIG deal where you live (well, for us women folk). At least you don't get the double-whammy of being looked at judgementally or pitifully for wearing jeans/denim sans make-up. :) 

  17. Wouldn't dressing up fall under the community domain since it's an issue of hierarchy (if you're to be in an important role you should dress importantly) and duty (if you're serious about this job you will put more effort into your dress)?

    I understand why you're saying that if falls under divinity since it violates the "natural order", pollution of the position, etc. Seems to me that they're semantically the same except that one has spiritual importance to the individual and the other merely has social importance. 

    I do think that when one is put in a position of influence such as a dept. head that operating from a relational perspective is more productive assuming that everyone is very cooperative and community-minded, but I can also see how somebody would want to emphasize their position in the hierarchy through something like clothes if they're in a competitive environment like the upper management of a Corporation where you need people to do things but those people under you wouldn't mind you out of the picture so they could have a chance at your spot.

  18. To wear jeans as the standard would mean those not wearing jeans would become the low members on the status totem.

    I prefer to go a different route. The non-obvious route. It works well almost every time and recommended by the Lord Himself.

    "There is no problem so big that it cannot be run away from." ~ Snoopy the Dog

  19. I was just checking this website http://andygiger.com/science/beye/beyegallery.html today and I was thinking how ugly people look from a bee's point of view. So when I read the last paragraph about the "eye of the beholder" judgements, I just started laughing.

  20. Drew, you are being very brave. My husband and his colleagues from the UK were seconded to a big corporation in Dallas for a few years and they all went to work looking very smart in their formal business suits -- mostly black, white shirts, dark ties, the usual for UK business consultants. But then they became very confused by the Conformity and Power structure. The daily dress amongst all their American counterparts tended to be 'business casual'. It made for awkward rides in lifts (elevators) because until they got to know the faces that belonged to the names of the folks on the org charts they did not know who the CEO, partners, etc. were. The 'business casual' threw their balance off. They went to some 'team bonding' luncheons or afternoons where they had to go bowling (NOT the bowls club!), drive go carts and other activities, and they were the only ones with ties to loosen (my husband felt strange to take the thing off). They all had to rethink their wardrobes and learn how to dress in the business casual style, as they had never had to before. When the CEO invited a few of them to his lake house for the weekend they did not know how to dress because was this lake house like a country house or closer to a caravan? (It was more like the latter,) The other thing that really threw them off was the ride their American clients came to work in. Surely the top tier would be in limos or Jags, or the sales team would have something comparable to the Ford Mondeo? Nope. It might be more like a Chevy or Ford double cab pickup truck (tanks!) with a rifle rack hanging in the back and a bunch of tools or hay bale remnants in the bed.

    As to Schweder's moral psychology domains Richard mentions, it would seem the domain that most describes the UK is the Community rather than the Divinity. Certainly here in England I have noticed we follow more of a code of uniform through each vocation than seems to be followed in the States. Volunteering even in the primary schools I noted the instructors 'uniforms' are more tailored and in dark colours. In the States primary teachers wear lots of vibrant colours and seem really creative in their dress and accessory choice. I tried that here and got lots of disparaging looks -- the head at one school made a comment about my 'highly colourful frock' (well, I was teaching a pre-GCSE music unit on calypso). I left that day in such disgrace! No, here we certainly know our place and I've almost learned where to fit flamboyance. 

    After getting used to American business casual my husband had to get re-acquainted with the dark business suit/shiny shoe drill here in the UK. Friday might be declared a 'business casual day' but he has been somewhat bemused that no one here seems to 'get it' -- their idea of casual is kinda scruffy Chav with a slept-in look. There's a whole lot of stuff between the tip of that iceberg and the eye of the beholder, eh?

    At least there is more common ground for men on both sides of the pond in that they don't have to wax their beards or moustaches to be taken seriously. :)

  21. Richard,

    As you know, I serve as a Chaplain to Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, and Coast Guard Veterans.  The categories of divinity and autonomy are determined through what (signification of rank; awards of merit and achievement) is on the uniform.  The uniform itself (signification of community and equality).  The variety of uniforms themselves serve functional purposes.  Dress uniforms are for social and honorary events.  There is a slight difference between officers' and enlisted's uniforms.  Combat uniforms are usually the same, regardless of rank and differ only as to combat geography and necessity.  Veterans themselves have enormous respect for the uniform, even when they no longer wear it.

    It seems to me that dressing down in church or work or public is the consensus uniform (rejecting bourgeois conformity and aping a romanticized bohemia and/or poverty, i.e. doing one's on thing and letting it all hang out) that has worked its way into the workplace, church, or public since the 1960s.  High fashion was co-opted, commercialized and democratized.  It is likely that the tremendous popularity of "Downton Abbey" likely represents a sociopsychological hunger for order, stability, elegance, clarity of purpose and (possibly) mystery that parallels the move in some evangelical and main-line denominations toward high church liturgy.  The same might be said for the camouflage "militarization" of certain lines of clothing.

    I'm not much on the objective-subjective dichotomy.  It is likely too subjective (if you get MY drift).


  22. Thanks, Patricia.  As I see it, the beautiful dynamic of this blog community flow from two "atmospheric" vibes:  One is of trust and safe sharing; the other, from that, an openness in sharing that ends up being synergistic and mutually healing.  I wish all church fellowship-communities were this way...

    I was "delivered" from my bondage to the powers and principalities of outer image as a status symbol so long ago now that it can feel frustrating for me at times to see others, especially in church culture, who are so invested in their appearance and "power" image.  But I am reminded through another recent conversation that it does tend to look easy for those of us who've conquered and forgotten what a struggle it was while we were in the throes of that particular slavery.  But I am like you Patricia, in that I can't relate very easily to people (women!) who are extremely caught up in that lifestyle.  Maybe there's a little (?) part of me too which is painfully reminded of my own embarrassing past when I rub up against this power image-status obsession nowadays.  Bling:  you made me smile.  Jewelry and diamonds -- I couldn't care less.

    Ironically, I have just returned from shopping with my children.  Teenage daughter needed a new dress for a formal social event tonight.  My 11-1/2 yr. old son has outgrown his shoes and pants half-way through the school year.  I don't harp at my kids too much about not caving to the "fashion police."  I know that it is really hard to feel part of their peer group if they don't to some extent dress similarly.

    My son grew into a men's shoe size.  Oy!  He is proud that, because he now wears a men's shoe size, it is indicative of his status as a "man."  I raised one eyebrow in a half-smiling expression and retorted, "Dude, I think men are grown from the bottom up.  The feet are first.  What's in your head and heart are still growing."  He's so proud of his great big leather high tops.  :-)  Thank you for your friendship, Patricia.  I treasure it.

  23. I so agree about Richard's blog, and I'm thankful for your friendship, too.  

    We also had some errands to run today, and while at Harbor Freight, which is pretty much just a tool store for those who work with their hands, there was one guy who stood out like a sore thumb: he was wearing a suit. He looked lost. Today's post was running through my mind when I saw him.

    I hope your daughter has a wonderful time at her formal tonight.

  24. A while back, I worked with a young, white seminarian (Episcopal) from an Ivy League school who thought it would be "empowering"  to visit a group of 75-year old African-American church women in order to "build community." He met them at their church (Baptist) where they had prepared a meal for him. He was wearing shorts and sandals and a t-shirt. It wasn't that they were judgmental about his appearance (they all had kids and grandkids, after all.)  But they were hurt. "I guess he thinks our church doesn't mean anything much," one told me.
    The idea that we dress for others might be contrary to our culture's ideas about individualism. But it can be kind of Gospel.

  25. Thanks Deb- this is an interesting counterpoint indeed, and just goes to show how contextual the Power and Conformity structure can be. I have every sympathy with your husband's trial of trying to learn a whole new code in a very different cultural setting. The car dynamic throws a whole other spanner into the works. When I'm in court (let's not even start on the psychology of wearing a wig and gown!) I still enjoy a perverse thrill in driving there in a battered little Nissan Micra and seeing my opponents pull up in their gleaming Porsches and BMWs, eyeing up my terribly unprofessional car with no little disdain. It is all the more fun driving away afterwards having beaten them, but I do sometimes feel bad for the lay client who doubtless perceives my choice of vehicle to reflect some sort of lack of success or professionalism. I think I'll stop short of the rifle rack though... 

  26. Demi nds me of a little incident in the long ago when the little church at Roanoke, Texas, employed my services as song director and youth minister. The three "sacred times" we're assiduously observed, so I drove out from Demton to lead the songs for Wed. Evening
    Rather Meeting. Since it was "only" Wednesday, I came in my short sleeved white shirt with NO tie (clip-ons were big in the early 60's). After "services" our two wonderful elders, Brother Manere and Brother Nelson, discretely called me aside and gently admonished me to always wear a tie in church services. Their reasning? In he house of the Lord, the priests always wore their BEST (you know, robes, etc.) ergo., we should give respect to our assembly times, the "sacred" times which meant we always wear ties to church. I suppose this began about age twelve....no, because our two youth were teens, and they were casual. So I was of the priestly class as a leader. We were sort of in the holy place. There's the logic.

  27. Yes, I did what any 21-year old starving student who respected those who had the rule over him would have. You may rest assured my decision pleased the leadership and kept my truly beautiful relationship with that tiny speck of richly educative autonomy intact. They were my beloved elders; I truly respected them, and that was that.

    Nowadays, I still feel a little tinge of guilt when entering the portals without at least a sport coat drooping over my skinny frame. The "logic" of those kind and wonderful men rises up to remind me of the beauty and sacredness of that pungent moment.

  28. HA! I am SO glad I let you bring up the bar wig first. If this Torygraph article reads correctly you won't have to wear either wig or robe in the Supreme Court: 
    The ensuing comments show how difficult it will be to adopt this new 'dress code'.

    We are no longer in the Home Counties so where we now live we might just get away with a rifle rack in the back of the Range Rover. But you hang on to that Micra and keep the rifles at bay! I say it would be more fun to remain 'that brilliant (or cheeky) QC of mystery' as you drive away... Next time you win one go collect Giles Fraser for a pint and give him my best. You two would probably cheer each other up trading a few silk and collar stories.

  29. Sorry to intrude, I just wanted to say how much what you say resonates with me. Friendship and character are, indeed, of much greater value for love than preachianity and belief systems, which are the church's basic make-up. George MacDonald changed my theology as well. Blessings, Patricia

  30. I stongly suspect the ladies were being paid considerably less for doing the same work....so maybe you should let go of your hard feelings....

  31. Frankly, I disagree with the clear majority of people here that seem to think that one ought to dress as if comfort were the ONLY criteria (in that case, why shave or shower, either?). I wish we lived in an ideal, Edenic world where clothing were unnecessary, where people were judged solely by the content of their character. But we don't live in an ideal world, do we?

    Clothing has a long and storied history, and certain clothing will always be regarded as more "casual" than other clothing. I quite enjoy wearing the nicest clothing I can get away with for an occasion (e.g. a sportcoat to the coffeeshop/bookstore), not as a chance to show off or feel superior, but just because I like to indulge in elegant, rarefied things; I'm an aesthetics-lover, you might say. There is a lot of subjectivity in what clothing conveys to others, but it's not all up in the air. Why are trousers professional, but not jeans? Because trousers quite clearly have that refined, elegant appearance, crease and all. They have been regarded as such for hundreds of years now. You don't do your yardwork in them, not unless you want to ruin the nice things (ideally, they're made out of wool, after all). I like and wear jeans myself, especially fitted dark ones, but they have always and will always be at the bottom of the formality scale (right above PJs and sweats, which for some godawful reason are considered shopping attire). They originated as workwear. And their rough texture and non-austere coloration, including the patch pockets and metallic rivets, assure that they remain ideal for that purpose, even if they're stylish. This is the way of things. And frankly, I hate the attitude of my own generation that jeans and a hoodie are appropriate attire at all times, for all places. It's not, and it looks sloppy and crap in the first place. What about the flip side of the coin? What about spending good money and putting a decent amount of thought and effort to be pleasant for others? I'm sure there is quite a lot of good psychology to back up the merits of that, isn't there?

    End of rant. Bring it on, guys. Bring it on.

  32. I'm not going to jump on you. My point in writing the post was less an apology for jeans than some thoughts about how we tend to be stymied when sensibilities differ. I'm interested in the dumbfounding more than the dress.

  33. Richard, 

    I'm in a hurry but I wanted to say this.  Maybe more later.  "Dumbfounding" is another way of describing the reaction to someone who says "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."  When we say that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," we may say it for a variety of reasons.  Off hand, these come to my mind.  There may be more.  (1) To maximize (or minimize) the beholder or the view of the beholder.  (2) To justify novelty in art, fashion, or physical appearance.  (3) To establish a rationale for the individual as ultimate arbiter of social standards, i.e. individualism.  (4) To point out that each has a point of view.    (1), (2), and (3) are disingenuous.  (4) states what seems to be obvious but may not be.  The reality is that the beholder is part of the society and sub-culture in which he/she chooses to live.  Sensibility differences fall within given social ranges.  Wear an SS uniform to synagogue.  Girard's mimetic thinking is important here.  Humans imitate each other in their desires.  But if you go to class or chapel in drag, you will end up looking like a goat.


  34. I agree, Andrew. I certainly don't want to throw away elegant and formal dress all together. I enjoy dressing up as well! I've also noticed how much more focused and motivated I am when I do dress up a bit; I don't feel as motivated to change the world, or at the least get some work done, when I'm wearing sweatpants.

    What I typically take issue with is when people are treated differently because of their dress, when a relational hierarchy comes in to play. And to your point, I think some of that treatment may be appropriate to some degree. Though differing expectations about what is appropriate and when, and the dumbfounding correlated with reaching a resolution, are what is at issue I think.

    I appreciate the push back and I think it important to help steady our course. Thanks.

  35. Andrew, I think you have made a good point, too.  I've had a hard time in recent years with the 'hipster' version of Christianity.  On the one hand, I like not having a strict dress code for church.  I like the idea anyway of getting away from using dress as a way to position oneself as either more holy/pure, or of establishing one's socioeconomic status.  On the other hand, I think that 'hipster' Christianity has become a way of identifying the "cool" Christians.  Really?  A certain type of clothing, tattoos, all of that, has come to symbolize having the "right" attitude about God and others.  But again, it is looking to a form of dress as the identifier of heart matters.

    I guess we all have to examine our own motives and intent, and not assume that we can judge a book by its cover when it comes to others.  Judging being the real issue in terms of "dumbfounding."  In private schools, the rule is often uniforms for the student body.  In a lot of ways, I like the idea of uniforms as a way to level the playing field and sidestep the issue of clothing as a status symbol.  Outside the student body, however, the uniforms then separate and distinguish the group from the wider community.

    When I travel to India with my husband to visit his family, I have always adopted the dress of the culture.  Used to be saris for women, but now the more casual churidars (long tunic over loose-fitting tapered pants) or, as this outfit is known in the north of India, salwar-kameez.  In South India, where my husband's family is from, it is tropical rainforest hot all year-round.  Being able to wear shorts and a sleeveless tank would be a welcome wardrobe option in the sweltering, humid climate.  But, exposing that much skin is just not socially acceptable in India, and it would be disrespectful to my husband's family if I packed my shorts and tank top and had the audacity to wear that outfit!  When in Rome...just blend in, and appreciate the culture by honoring its norms and values.  You make some good, valid points Andrew.  Thanks for bringing this fact of the issue into the conversation.  :-)

  36. I actually think something different is at work than individual sensibilities here. After all, Richard is not walking around in a beautiful bridal dress because he happens to think it looks nice on him. Instead, he is choosing one script ("casual, cool") over another ("professional, possibly nerdy"). And, I might add, he pulls it off with a style that makes the fuddy duddies in slacks look not only less casual but also less cool.

    I guess this is "subjective" in the sense that everything's subjective--but the message is pretty straightforward. Richard's dress and the rest of his demeanor communicate, "I'm less interested in the fuddy duddies who think inside the box." The dress and demeanor of those who request professionalism of him communicate, "We want you to show more honor/ conformity for the fuddy duddies who think inside the box." All of this is done, not with unique or unusual clothing (no kilts or leiderhosen), but within a fairly narrow script.

    This code seems to me straightforward and not particularly dumbfounding. I'm confused by everything written on this board that seems to believe in personal individuality (jeans are about as pop-culture as it comes) and seem oblivious to cultural scripts. Am I missing something?

  37. Oh, and one more thing--for those interested in money, all I can say is that used suits are easy to find, but that good jeans (well-fitting, non-stained) are considerably more expensive, in my experience.

  38. Agreed.  What I was attempting to indicate was that "individualism" is in reality a social impossibility. As I suggested in a previous post here, I don't think it is about the individual communicating his individuality but about wearing the "uniform" of a sub-culture and and being a part of its frame of reference.  The cool and casual have their own boxes to think within.  It's the collision of the boxes. (Context is needed.  In private most of us choose the uniform of comfort where the fashion is function.  We don't wear shorts in the bleak landscape of the South Pole but dress functionally.)  A sophisticated counter-variant of this is theatre, crime, and spying with its costumes and disguises.  The ancient Greek theatre masks communicated comedy or tragedy.  "Dumbfounding" seems to take place at the margins of social certainty and produces humor, indignation, and bewilderment.  

  39. Well that's hardly a logical sentiment. "There are injustices in the world you didn't suffer. Stop talking about the bad things you experienced, unless it's worse than what I'm thinking of."

  40. jlh,

     1.) Trousers are not only for fuddy duddies. Baggy pleated ones, yes. Fitted and tapered trousers, on the other hand, are simply great looking whether or not you're being made to follow a dress code. Don't believe? Look up "J. Crew Ludlow fit".

    2.) I work in (and hope to get out of ASAP) a crap retail store. Seeing somebody dressed up (let's define that a s"wearing a tie") is an extreme rarity even on a Sunday, and yet the overwhelming vibe I get from the place is ZOMBIE. The mantra behind it all is "obey, consume, conform." My point, they don't need to dress up to be conformists. They do so just fine in extremely casualized dress.

    3.) If you can see dress codes only through the lens of "social construct that I can (pseudo-intellectually) criticize", I'm afraid you've crash landed on the wrong planet, my friend. I'm even saddened for you.

    4.) Men don't wear bridal dresses, you fucking tard.

    Good day, kind sir.

  41. Used suits (unlike odd jackets, mind you) are not easy to find in thrift stores, especially not when you factor size into your search. Maybe you're including eBay.

  42. jlh,

    All apologies for the obvious hostility and profanity in #4. It's just that the issues of elected personal appearance and gender boundaries are both very touchy issues for me, and I'm very particular about them, so seeing you critique both at the same time was just...too fucking much. Not to mention I'm allergic to pseudo-intellectualism/pedantry, and (sorry to say) your comment gave off that kind of vibe. So, the perfect storm for me getting me pissed off on the Internet. :P

  43. What is interesting is how "cool" is also a location for dumbfounding. For example, any two students on campus can disagree significantly about what is or is not cool versus lame. And if they disagree they are pretty much stymied on reaching an agreement. Cool is a subjective judgment that can't be communally adjudicated when opinions differ.

  44. Fine. You can be as hostile as you like. Of course I was generalizing wildly--in Richard's context, jeans are cooler than some other obvious options that are more "professional" but express less personal style. I didn't mean to imply that jeans were the only way to be cool. Fitted and tapered I know nothing about--I'm a fuddy duddy. Of course you're right and there are lots of types of fuddy duddies, not just dressing-up ones.

    And I defer to your expertise on who wears bridal dresses (though not on whether I"m a fucking tard). Though I have seen an elder of a church serve communion wearing a lacy nightgown over his shorts and shirt. The reason? He was in a remote part of Africa and didn't have the same social scripts that we have. (Does noticing that, or putting it that way, make me a pseudo-intellectual or pedant?)

  45. It doesn't make you that, no. You know, cranky moods and the all-consuming need for me to feel that I have a corner on my internet opponents. The same old story. In fact, it's food for thought that you pointed that out. Believe it or not, until WWII and the Nazis' stigmatization of the color, pink was considered a MASCULINE color, worn by men, boys, even military. And men in many points at history, even today in some parts, wear something that more closely resembles gown than pants. Subjectivity, right?

  46.  Your suspicions are wrong, at least concerning my workplace.  Compensation is based on time, grade, and competence, at least at my level, so gender did not come into play.  Sorry.

  47. Interesting. What I see in those situations is not "subjective judgment" but representatives of two mini-social groups, each wanting some sort of power to be the normative arbiter of coolness. I rarely see the disagreements end in mere detente--I see one person (against his/ her will) labeled as "lame" because he/she loses, at least in that particular social group. But maybe I'm cynical about this process because I was always "lame"--a judgment that seemed to me neither artistic nor subjective, but driven by the social power-plays.

  48. I guess I just don't like the language of "subjectivity," which makes it sound that it's rather random whether we decide men wear pink/ gowns or not. On this showing it's a "coincidence" that all men in some ages/ times wear pink, and so few in other ages/ times don't. I prefer to think of it as social scripts, because I feel I can see the scripts changing. 

    Shoot, I can even see who has power to change the script (and who doesn't). If a well-known masculine actor starts wearing pink, or sarongs, then he (and his imitators) are cool and manly. If the chairman of the Fed began wearing pink, or sarongs, he would be the subject of nonstop mockery for his lameness and probably wouldn't keep his job.

    None of this seems "subjective"--certainly not random, individual preference--to me.

  49. I see what you're talking about. But if we bring power into it we're not getting at, precisely, the dynamic I'm trying to illustrate. For example, I'm not talking about school kids bullying others on the playground, with "cool" kids on one side and "nerds" on the other. That happens but that's not an example of dumbfounding. I'm talking about two equally powerful groups, friends even, who have different opinions about what is cool or not. In that situation, how are the friends to decide who is right or wrong about what is cool or not? That's an example of dumbfounding.

  50. Richard,

    A number of years ago, I taught at a charter school which required uniforms.  Initially the kids and a few of the parents murmured about the dress code and violations.  But I noticed an interesting phenomenon.  When kids took off their uniforms and met at their "sacred place" (the local mall) in their different personal, "cool" garb, dumbfounding did not occur.  Goths still remained friends with their grunge and preppy and gangsta classmates with dress not mattering at all.  Likewise with Veterans.  Implication for the church: if we wear Christ as our uniform can and should we sisters and brothers be "cool" with one another?


  51. Hey Richard,

    Fabulous post.  I too am an inveterate jean-wearer (and I'm 63).  And none of that fashionable Calvin Klein or Versace stuff, but good old Wranglers and Levis.  As a minister and chaplain in the United Reformed Church (UK), so as not to cause needless offence when visiting some folk at home or in hospital, and on other "occasions", I'll wear slacks, jacket, and tie.  And when leading worship and preaching, I wear a suit and Genevan gown (the gown was a gift).  All things being equal, however, I'm always  in jeans. 

    But NEVER with a tie!  You refer to wearing a tie with jeans as "dressing up".  So is it a concession to professionalism?  Or a sop to the weaker professional brethren?  Or are you being fashionable in a dudish sort of way?  My wife, however, wouldn't call wearing a tie with jeans "dressing up" at all; on the contrary, she'd just call it dressing ugly.  Jeans and ties -- it just doesn't work.  Like stripes and plaid, or a tux with trainers.  But here's a radical thought:  like an anti-levitical mixing of fabrics?  So perhaps the jeans-and-tie thing is actually an abomination of a boundary-crossing, a prophetic cockshy at  a sartorial priestly code?

    On the other hand, perhapsthe explanation is much simpler, if more ignminous: you wear a tie with jeans because your wife says so -- the uxorious rather than the prophetic!  

  52. Oh, it's all due to Jana. Over the months the ties she bought began to pile up. And as the pile got bigger I felt guiltier and guiltier.

    But truth be told, the ties are really cool being so old and vintage. And the jeans have remained. It's a tie and vest with jeans from time to time.

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