September 24, 2013 by lucieromarin
One day, when I should have been working, I typed ‘Hutterite’ into Amazon to see what would happen. I found – amongst other things – what looked like a self-published detective series featuring Hutterites. The first novel was entitled, ‘Blood on Her Bonnet,’ and I thought, Oi! Hutterites don’t wear bonnets! They wear polka-dotted scarves! Then I thought, Lucy, you know way too much about head-coverings.
Clothing is a fascinating topic, especially as it relates to culture. The trouble is that the subject gets hijacked at both ends: at one end, there’s the fashion industry telling us to change our entire wardrobes every season, so we can have sweat-shop labour and landfill; at the other end, there are feminists and misogynists making judgmental remarks about other people’s minds or morals based upon their choices of dress, causing fights where there should be conversations.
The topic is also muddied by the internet. See, anyone with a few fingers and a laptop can publish his opinions online, and this enables subcultures to emerge where once there were only a handful of unconnected eccentrics about whom nobody cared. Three women in ankle-length denim skirts is shrug-worthy, and excites nobody. Three websites praising the wearing of ankle-length denim skirts is a subculture, and excites equal amounts of ire and praise, and sometimes books about about gender issues.
One reader noted that Protestants do tend to fill the denim-jumper stereotype more often than Catholics do. They’ve also such a proliferation of dress-related books, sites, blogs, and home-businesses that it makes the occasional Catholic sermon and/or flame war about modesty look positively slack. Even during the flurry of activism that was the nineteen-nineties, in the City of Activism that was Sydney, the occasional attempt among Catholic women to form some kind of group or movement related to dress invariably came to nothing. Why?
I think it’s because there was so much else to care about. It’s easy to attribute some of the extreme Protestant opinions about dress to misogyny alone, but I don’t think that’s correct. Where there’s no Sacred Liturgy to sustain or restore; no universal Church to rebuild in the wake of modernism; no hierarchy left except that in the home (and so, no bishops to fight with/complain about); no convents or monasteries to visit and refill; no ash on your forehead, no crucifix around your neck…what’s left to engage with, but clothing?
Intra-cultural issues are just as interesting as their inter-cultural counterparts, and they always remind me that the most subtle-yet-important nuances of dress-culture are invisible to those for whom clothing has never signified community. People look at hijabi and niqabi Muslimahs alike, exclaiming, “Ack! Muslims!” – never guessing that a rift exists between the two, and that the niqabi might look down on her hijabi sisters almost as much as she looks down on the infidel. Catholics have their own equivalent: the collared-and-cassocked priest makes a loud, clear statement to his collared-and-black-suited counterpart, while, to the outside, all that can be seen is that both are conservative enough to wear the clerical collar, and the outsider, missing the rest of the story, says only, “Ack! Priests!”
Am I the only person who thinks this kind of thing is fun? It’s like bird-watching. It’s like reading code – which is why it pays not to judge people too quickly, or you’ll miss all the interesting things their clothes have to tell you.
The practice of a dress-code can be fun, too, and it will never be comprehensible to those who think that any kind of mandated dress must be oppressive. It certainly can be oppressive – anyone who has ever suffered scruples can testify to this – but to say that it must always be so is like saying that a sonnet must be an oppressive kind of poem because it has rules.
This is true even of people who belong to what I wouldn’t hesitate to call cults. I grew up near a community of Plymouth Brethren, so I thought I had them very neatly categorised, no further thoughts about them necessary. A few months ago, though, I got the shock of my life; I was visiting a very cool Japanese stationery store and turned around to see an EB mother and her two daughters there…and the girls were funky. (I don’t mean American ‘funky’ – I mean Australian ‘funky’ which means something like ‘cool’, but more edgy.) They were following the rules – long straight skirt…long hair…headcovering (one of them had gone for the headband-and-flower look, which seems to have entered the EB repertoire in the past decade)…but some combination of colour, style, and attitude…well, all I can say is that they were funky Plymouth Brethren, and I never in a million years thought I’d see such a thing.
Hmmmm. I see that I’ve written over seven hundred words, and have said precisely nothing, other than that clothing is interesting and that different cultures do things differently, which everyone knew already. So I’ll end by saying that the next post will be far more organised, and will be about clothing and virtue, and why anyone bothers making clothing a virtue-issue at all. It will be full of Thomism and definitions and things, so that should make up for this directionless series of thoughts about garb-spotting!