CONCERNING ORNAMENTAL DRESS
Thick ties. Thin ties. Leisure suits. Bellbottoms. The tides of fashion are fickle, indeed. What seems stylish today will seem ridiculous tomorrow. In spite of its capricious nature (or, perhaps because of it), fashion remains a very powerful force in our world. Lured by the promise of beauty and admiration, we adjust the height of our hemlines. We add shoulder pads or we remove them. We may insist upon primary colors. We may insist upon pastels. In any case, we give our clothes a great deal of attention. Throughout our history, Friends have been suspicious of this. As Barclay himself points out, "clothes came originally from the fall." Barclay goes on to criticize anyone who would place an undue emphasis "on that which is the fruit of his iniquity, and the consequence of sin."
Barclay insists on a more utilitarian view of clothing. We should employ clothes to keep us warm and to "cover our nakedness." Period.
According to Barclay, striving after anything beyond these basic needs amounts to vanity. In particular, we must guard against items of clothing that are strictly ornamental. Since they serve no apparent purpose, I imagine Barclay would advocate against the use of neckties (yeah!). While shoes are practical, high heels are not. While a jacket is practical in cold weather, wearing a suit coat in July (complete with shoulder pads and ornamental buttons) is not. And of course, jewelry is ornamental by definition.
In the 17th Century (when Barclay was writing his Apology), the demands of fashion were even more extravagant than they are today. Barclay lived in the heart of the Baroque era, when gaudy embellishment was simply the norm. During this period, both men and women wore powdered wigs. Those with the means to do so wore an abundance of lace. It was an age when people decorated the decorations.
Perhaps today, the issue of ornamental dress is less urgent. While we might shy away from it ourselves, I doubt many of us would consider gaudy jewelry a compelling moral issue. In fact, Barclay's concern for practical apparel may seem quaint to our modern ears. This is the stuff of "Miss Manners" and grainy, black and white films from the 1950's. What is the real harm in wearing tie-dyed t-shirts? Or earrings? Or nylons? Is a little superfluity such a bad thing?
Yet consider what the fashion industry has done to us. Adbusters (a media and corporate watchdog) reports: "According to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, 150,000 women suffer from these maladies every year." What does it say about us as a culture -- that we want to wear shoulder pads and neckties and stiletto heels?
If the people of God fail to address the way we relate to our clothes, then the conversation will be dictated by Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani. Who are we as human beings? How should we think about ourselves and our bodies? These are exactly the questions that should provoke a response from the Church.
Certainly, it is unhelpful for the church to dictate any particular boundary. It isn't really our job to say "Wedding rings are permissible, but necklaces are to be condemned." It isn't really our job to say, "Shoulder pads up to 1/2 inch thick are permissible, but anything over that is to be condemned." That sort of legalism is just a trap. Instead, the Church should be asking questions: "Do you really need to hop on every fashion bandwagon that comes along? In a world where some people go barefoot, how many pairs of shoes should you own? In a world where some people go hungry, how much should you spend on jewelry?"
Barclay himself recognizes the need for flexibility. He writes, "We shall not say that all persons are to be clothed alike." Barclay even believes the wealthy should be free to enjoy a finer cut of cloth. But this is where Barclay will not compromise: we must reject the human impulse to exceed "what their condition can bear or their country easily afford." We must be on guard against vanity and all selfishness. For in our selfishness, we will trample upon others for the sake of ourselves.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Have you ever felt compelled to wear something you didn't want to wear? When does this practice become idolatry (letting something other than God have authority over our lives)?
2. Eventually, Friends came to demand drab and simple clothing. Margaret Fell (another early Friend) called this demand, "A right poor gospel." How much freedom should we have for self-expression? What might we say to Barclay about the joys of colorful apparel or jewelry?
3. Besides the obsession with body weight (mentioned in the article), the fashion industry has also brought us sweatshops. How can the Church respond effectively to these concerns?
Continue to Proposition Fifteen (pt. 3)