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The gift of garb

Clothes are much more than a covering for our skin

The gift of garb

(Dori OConnell/iStock)

For every species except ours, fashion is scales, fur, and feathers, typically in one size and color. It’s what all the marmosets are wearing this eon, and the latest in bicolor chameleon scales—all the rage forever. Chihuahua-wear is Chihuahua-wear, and I suppose the little doggies are perfectly comfortable with that.

But humans have a choice, and for us clothing is both glory and shame. Nudity is theoretical, ideological, and (strangely) not natural. Even the most primitive bushman wears something, if only a rag about the middle or a collar of shells. Even in the technical absence of clothes, such as at a strip club or a porn shoot, the human mind is cutting and tailoring an attitude to wear. In only three situations is nakedness perfectly natural: birth and early childhood, sex (sometimes), and judgment.

People wear clothes because they have to, but also because they want to. Clothes are not just for covering, but also for projecting, interpreting, expressing, communicating, and sometimes for hiding.

Like most everyday phenomena, wearing clothes turns out to be weirder and more perplexing than we think. It was first an act of desperation, as Adam and Eve frantically grabbed leaves off the trees to cover themselves. The leaves were laughably temporary, so the Lord provided animal skins—a gracious concession, as many astute commentators have pointed out: borrowed righteousness owed to the sacrifice of an innocent creature.

Clothes are not just for covering, but also for projecting, interpreting, expressing, communicating, and sometimes for hiding.

But soon enough, clothes became much more than covering. In the Bible they serve as booty (Achan hid them in his tent), reward (Naaman offered them to Elisha), symbol (Hezekiah and the king of Nineveh exchanged their finery for sackcloth), and moral obligation (don’t take the poor man’s cloak, says the Law). The labor that went into producing a garment made it valuable: Jesus’ executioners considered even his unremarkable tunic worth gambling for.

Throughout almost all of history clothes have signaled status and position. Color was dictated by necessity (dyes were expensive) and even by law: During Shakespeare’s time, for example, the poor were restricted to “sad colors,” while tradesmen could indulge in a little more variety, but not much—the full spectrum was reserved for the rich. In the early 19th century, though, something remarkable happened: Textile manufacturing became the first triumph of the Industrial Revolution, and clothing gradually transitioned from a valuable commodity to a very cheap one.

Today clothes pile up on garage sale tables, clearance racks, the collection bin behind Goodwill, and our closets, where we spend the day after New Year’s wondering what to get rid of. As we take abundant food for granted, so we do abundant garb—the only consumer item, to my knowledge, whose value depends chiefly on the trendiness of the retailer.

We’ll never go back to the garden; clothes are here to stay. They are a necessity, but also (as in the beginning) a gift. The age of abundant clothing allows us the luxury of telling the world who we are by how we dress. But Christians also have the obligation—and privilege—to tell the world whose we are. Most discussions about “modesty” concern what not to wear, but what to wear deserves thought as well. The heart of modesty is consideration for others (and incidentally, the male of the species should be aware that excessive sloppiness can be as inconsiderate as suggestiveness). Color, style, appropriateness, and flattering lines complement the wearer, but might they also praise our Maker?

Near the end of That Hideous Strength, the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, some of the female characters are trying on gowns for a special occasion. Each finds the perfect dress—for the others. No one chooses her own, and the wardrobe contains no mirrors for self-admiration. Each woman’s pleasure comes from pleasing the rest, and He who shaped each woman is also pleased.

That’s how it will be someday: Our bridegroom has chosen the perfect outfit for us to wear to our wedding. It’s a robe of righteousness—no longer borrowed, but our very own.

Email jcheaney@wng.org