catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 17 :: 2005.09.23 — 2005.10.06


What are you wearing?

I dress up to go to work and dress down to go to church.

This is not the way I thought my life would be when I was growing
up: then, I assumed I would dress up to go to church, and dress down to
go to work. My father drove a truck for most of his life: his work
shirts and pants were infused with dirt and oil stains—I remember them
as having been rendered softer than other clothes by wear, and probably
the oil. Sunday mornings he put on a (clip-on) tie and shined shoes and
usually a suit jacket and busied himself in the back halls and
stairways of our old church, taking attendance in the Sunday school
classrooms, handing out the take-home papers, collecting offering
envelopes. My vision of what I'd wear as an adult, such as it was,
didn't wander far from this example.

Instead, when I go to church today, I wear jeans, usually the ones
with the cement stain on the left knee and a faded rectangle the size
and shape of my wallet on the right back pocket, and a short-sleeved
shirt, usually striped or plaid. I wear these clothes, as my father
wore his, out of certain convictions.

I'm pretty sure my father's convictions—it feels awkward to me to
speak for him—were that the clothes he wore to church brought glory to
God. It was the Christian's duty to give of his best to the Master, to
paraphrase a line from an old hymn, and the clothes he wore marked
Sunday morning as a time set apart for worship, for turning one's
attention from the thrum and dust of daily life to the glorious,
loving, sacrificing God of the universe.

My own convictions ideally have less to do with worship and more to
do with removing barriers. We go to a church that is supposed to be
seeker-focused or seeker-friendly, which in practical terms means a)
just about everybody wears casual clothes, and b) our band rocks.
Wearing jeans and a plaid shirt means, at least to me, that I'm
countering the notion that people have to get their lives in order and
put on a tie before they can come to God. God in his grace reaches out
to us while we are still sinners—we don't need to get cleaned up to
attract God to us. Like most good ideas, the notion that we honor and
give glory to God by putting on our best, most celebratory clothes has
been turned into meaningless ritual, another reason for the whitewashed
tombs at some churches to feel superior to other people, even seekers,
whose exteriors don't measure up. Worshipping God isn't a matter of
outward appearance but of spirit and truth—wearing jeans is a
statement of concern for and commitment to authenticity.

I don't think I've ever taught in jeans, though. Usually I wear
dress pants, chinos or khakis, mostly; shirts with button-down collars;
and on all but rare occasions, a tie. I dress up to teach more out of
habit than conviction: I taught my first college class when I was
twenty-three and, regularly told I looked like an eighteen-year-old,
and I hoped dressing more formally would help my freshman and sophomore
students take me more seriously, would serve as a visual metaphor for
the distance between my knowledge and authority and theirs. Today, the
thought of teaching in casual clothing strikes me as slightly
inappropriate, like flipping burgers without a hair net and a McDonalds

That's not all there is to it, of course. I like the feeling of
broadcloth and pinpoint oxfords, and I love ties with flashes of
brilliant reds and blues and yellows—I'd rather not wear
muddy-colored, muted ties that look like they've been inspired by swamp
water or the diaries of Kurt Cobain. I'm a little sad that a deep
purple shirt I've enjoyed wearing for at least the last five years is
starting to fray at the collar and cuffs; I still kind of miss a shirt
I wore when Emilie, my oldest daughter, was a baby, its color on the
cusp between fuchsia and violet. I'm offended by teachers who wear
sports coats, usually something tweedy, with a pale dress shirt, no
tie, and jeans—it seems like a play for the authority of dressing up
without the requisite commitment or rigor or color, the clothing
equivalent of an honorary doctorate. I'm just a bit envious when I walk
by the windows of stores that cater to African American men and see
suits in lemon custard, cream of tomato, kelly green, royal blue. Why
settle for humdrum when you have the choice to wear a celebration?

There's every reason to believe, after such an exhibition of
sartorial drooling, that my dressing up for work is an occasion for
vanity. It's not that I'm convinced this isn't true, but I'd add it's a
shabby sort of vanity, a rumpled,
tie-wearing-bear sort of vanity. I only know one way to tie a tie, and
don't even know the proper name for that technique—it's what my uncle
showed me during my senior year of high school. Is it vain to think
about separating myself from my students? Or would it be vanity instead
to think I could reach across the years and life experiences and
training that separates us and insist there's no difference between us?

What troubles me more than my pleasure in bright neckties is the
puritanical vanity that rises up in me on Sundays when somebody in a
suit and tie eyes me in a restaurant or grocery store, assuming, based
on my clothes, that I'm a church-avoiding heathen, scoffing at God's
grace. And of course the really sick part is that I'm doing the exact
same thing, reading suit-and-tie-guy's faith as merely cultural and
superficial and vacuous based on his clothing.

Add to this more-pious-and-down-to-earth-than-thou attitude my
concern that growing up without any occasions to wear dressy clothes is
going to give my children the strange impression that they can shuffle
through all of life's occasions in clothing suitable for yardwork. Ian,
my eight-year-old, is so used to wearing T-shirts that it's a struggle
to get him to take a half-step up to a polo shirt. "Buttons?!" he says
with outraged surprise. "A collar?!" It's like we've asked him to try
on a shirt made of scorpions. And Emilie, who's 13 now, has pretty much
devoted herself to T-shirts, too, although hers convey messages like,
"Please Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Ignoring You," "It's Funny When
Boys Try to Think," "Hug Me" (on a shirt featuring Elmo, the cutesy red
puppet from Sesame Street), and "Pandas Are Friends." Considering how
boy-crazy some of her friends are, I kind of appreciate the hostile
tone. On several days when the highs were in the mid-nineties, she wore
hooded sweatshirts to school—the air conditioning was turned too high
in her classrooms, she said, and she spent the entire day feeling
frozen. But one can't help wondering if she's going to grow up to be a
slob, or a stalker, or somebody with severe body image problems.

Despite the pitfalls of topsy-turvy vanity and radically casual
kids, we're not going to start looking for a church with a more upscale
dress code. Vicki says she had trouble worshipping at the last church
we attended because she'd spent all morning rushing around getting her
hair and face and clothes and children presentable and by the time she
sat down in the pew she was a nervous wreck. To be free of that burden,
I'm more than willing to battle my tendency to feel humbler-than-thou.
Nor am I likely to start wearing casual clothes to class. If my
students want to see me in a less formal setting, they can come to my
church—in class, I'm still trying to represent the dignity of my
profession and discipline, and I'm not sure I have the capacity to
communicate that in casual clothing. I still need the teaching uniform.

But some Wednesday night this fall, after I've dropped the kids off
at their classes at church and am sitting down in the worship service,
I'll glance down and notice I'm still wearing the tie I put on early
that morning and feel like a truck driver who's come into church with
his work stained clothes and wish I'd taken time to change. And then
I'll feel foolish and start to sing, knowing that my brothers and
sisters, and my God, accept me no matter what I wear.

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