Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Clothes and stuff

Emerging Women posted an interesting picture today with a sweet little chat about it (including where the original photo came from and all, too). I think there's probably a lot more going on in the photo than just "what you wear," and I think Paul's words on women's dress is also a bit more complicated, but I love what blogger Sonja says about how our clothes should set a tone of "hospitality and welcoming."

So the deep, dark truth is that this is an issue I struggle with. I am not a person of natural fashionable grace, even though I love pretty things. (To tell the truth, I'd love to wear only clothes from Anthropologie and J.Crew, if only my wallet and social sweatshop/priorities conscience would allow it.) Nor am I one of those people who can step into a thrift shop and paw through racks of weird smelling clothes to create fabulous outfits. I'm much more likely to swing by the clearance rack at Target on my way toward the $2 boxes of store-brand cereal. (I'm also excited about a new sewing machine, just ordered with hoarded Christmas money, that will return me to my heritage of hand-crafted clothes. That's an aesthetic and ethic I can get behind.)

But returning to the topic at hand, I'm usually too distracted to even notice what I'm wearing, but I want it to be, you know, attractive. I'd even like for it to be somehow representative of me, for it to contribute to first-impressions and my sense of self, because in our culture, clothing is a way we get to express and even form ourselves, a sort of self-fashioning. Right? I have this fear of appearing "home-schoolish" (in the bad way, because there's also a very good way) -- Josh loves to tell people that this was his first impression of me in college. I also have this fear of making the really bad choices that I made in high school, like wearing my father's castoff white dress shirts because I thought they looked "crisp" and "simple" and "writerly" (in the meantime, even the midwest had already gotten over that early-'90s grunge look). What I really looked like was a 15-year-old uncomfortable with her body and unsure how to tell her mom that she was through with always criticizing the clothes of "her generation."

These days I find myself dressing for a variety of people and groups: a husband who likes to raise his eyebrows at anything he deems too "conservative" or "mom-like"; a group of grad school classmates who admittedly range widly in style but somehow always manage to look like our pittance stipends gives them more spending money; students, who seem to need a bit more formality on my part to remind them that I'm not their older sister; a church community that values thrifting, scarves, and carved wooden earrings (the last one was an exaggeration); and, of course, myself, wishing for some sort of wardrobe between Anne Shirley and Annie Dillard.

But the point--the point!--is that none of this is the point. I'm pretty sure few people actually care what I'm wearing. I'm pretty sure I don't really care what other people are wearing. The point is, am I welcoming? Do I fit in fairly well with my context? Does my clothing relect my values? Where does my focus lie? Am I trying to play this complicated semiotic game with my wardrobe? Am I subscribing uncritically to a culture of endless consumption, trend-following, and focus on distraction, self-consciousness, and surfaces? Or am I busy living and loving and practicing a life of hospitality (characterized, according to one of my Bible study friends last week, by a radical practice of making space in my life for other people rather than trying to entertain them), and wearing clothes that somehow reflect this goal?

To clarify: I don't think the answer is to ignore what I'm wearing. God created us with aesthetic sensibilities (change as they might), with bodies, with a capacity to appreciate the sensuous. It would be ridiculous to try to live in my mind or expect others to "see who I really am inside": I am the same person "inside" and "outside." I believe that human beings are supposed to have bodies (exemplified, most powerfully, in the bodily resurrection of Christ and the promise of an embodied future), and I believe that God is pleased by our appreciation of beauty. The answer, I think, is not in finding a happy medium, but in holding the paradox at once. This means a constant negotiation between my own preference and aesthetic (formed by cultural norms, no doubt, along with more individual quirks), the realities of my financial situation and my sense of ethical responsibility, and love for my community/ies.


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