Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What to Wear?

A FRANCISCAN FRIAR told a story of being accosted on a subway by a woman, who berated Catholic clergy and religious for wearing habits, which, she said, was Medieval and outdated.

He replied, "How did you know that I am a priest?"
You gotta wear something, especially if you live in a place like Saint Louis that has a climate that changes almost hourly. Unless, of course, you want to be miserable.

The fact that you must wear something leads to the question of "what ought I wear?" — and the word "ought" tells us that this might be a moral as well as a practical problem.

When we think of morality and dress, perhaps it is natural to think of modesty first, although morality is far broader than that. We all know all about the problem of modesty, and I'll discuss it later.

Two Theories

There are two popular theories on dress, and both of them are wrong. At one extreme is our culture: it is claimed that everyone must decide for themselves what to wear (even children), and in Europe especially that even goes to the extreme of wearing nothing at all in public. The other extreme was found in Communist countries, where uniforms were plentiful: in the old Soviet Union, approximately a third of the adult population wore uniforms, while in China, everyone wore the Mao Suit, which was the inspiration of the awful 1970s Leisure Suit. What made it worse is that the Communist uniforms tended to be poorly designed, ill-fitting, and very ugly. Typical American clothing is often ugly too: but instead of a uniform ugliness, we have a diverse ugliness. These two theories are just opposite errors, while the golden mean of virtuous dressing is somewhere in the middle: a proper measure of freedom mixed with prudent and rational standards.

I can think of two reasons for our current American ugliness of clothing. Clothing is nowadays so inexpensive that dressing is no longer a major investment that has to be taken seriously. Also, the knowledge of objective standards of beauty has been widely forgotten and replaced with the notion that beauty is merely changing fashion, or is only in the eye of the beholder.

But it's Cheap!

Inexpensive manufactured clothing is a blessing to the poor and for everyone else who has more important things to do with their time and money. In the West, at least, there is such a surplus of clothing that very few people are by necessity forced to wear rags. This surplus has spread to even remote parts of the world: they wear Nike t-shirts in the jungle, too.

But the benefit for the majority is often merely quantity, where having a large clothing collection is an end in itself. Consider this trend: homes built before the middle of the 20th century had few (if any) and always small closets; clothing closets have increased in size over the decades, and now, new master-bedroom suites almost always have walk-in closets. These were once built only for the wealthy. Having far more than you need is clearly a moral problem.

Since clothing tends to be inexpensive, it often isn't a major purchase, especially with daily wear. Consumers don't have to be particularly careful with purchasing clothing, since mistakes have so little relative economic and time impact. It may not even be worthwhile to return a bad purchase. Clothing is often not economical to maintain, either. Clothing repair is custom, manual work, and so tends to be more expensive than just replacement.

The modern utilitarian aspects of clothing purchase then leads to a mentality that clothing is not particularly important, and more critically, what is worn is not important. If you worked, say, three hours to earn the money to buy a pair of shoes, and spent about 15 minutes purchasing those shoes, then from a strictly economic view, those shoes are nearly irrelevant. If those shoes are bad, you purchase a new pair, with similar minimal economic impact.

Men's formal wear, however, tends to be more expensive, and hence is still usually a major purchase. You get a lot for the extra money: even off-the-rack suits are usually thoroughly designed to be alterable in size and are designed with extra reinforcement to decrease wear. They are also made to allow maintenance. This attention to detail was the norm in times past for most clothing.

As I mentioned, inexpensive clothing is a blessing for the poor, but we must consider the social justice aspects of this: are clothing workers kept in near-slave conditions, and are these factories filled because of policies that drive peasants from their ancestral lands? These questions are thought to be important because of globalization, but the problems are not at all new. The poor workers are no longer living in a neighborhood a few blocks away, but they are now living on another continent, where we cannot see their predicament. See No Evil.

An Alternative

As I child, I recall that many older and poorer women made their own clothing. This was a major effort, of course, but the results were often excellent: the clothing usually fit perfectly and was well-maintained. I remember that people of nearly all social classes, even the poor, dressed very well, and old photographs confirm this. Custom alteration of store-bought clothing was also standard. But the trend of increasing numbers of women working as salaried laborers eliminated this custom, and ironically, a large percentage of their take-home income is actually spent in quantity, if not quality, of clothing. Imagine if the diligence and time used to program a computer on a job were transfered to custom tailoring one's own clothing; the results may be more satisfying.

Spending money on quality clothing, that is easy to size-adjust, not likely to wear out quickly, and is easy to maintain, has benefits. The virtue of art that goes into the design and selection of quality clothing is not a moral virtue, but it is a virtue nonetheless, and so is a good, and ought to be encouraged. This, however, must be coupled with a natural moral virtue that is satisfied with what is actually needed. Clearly, if the trend was that everyone spent most of their income on closet-fulls of excellent, but unneeded clothing, that would also be worse than our current situation. A hundred pairs of shoes for one person does not seem moral under any circumstance.

(Shoes, due to their complexity of design and construction, normally cannot be made at home and must be purchased. But at one time, even fairly recently, it was normal for boys to not wear shoes most of the time, saving much expense. They developed thick calluses on their feet, which is a natural protection against harm: and as a boy, I knew that I had to avoid broken glass and rusty nails.)

I am discussing natural, and not heroic virtue here. Clearly a person could live with far less clothing than is commoly thought of as being needed, and could even purposefully wear cast-off rags. But this is a theological problem that goes far beyond the natural situation we are considering. Also, insisting that others live lives like the heroically virtuous is tyranny and is extremely uncharitable. We must be generous.

The Problem of Fashion

Changing fashion is a bane to someone who wants to moderate their clothing purchases, especially if they are buying clothing for highly insistent teenagers. There is just too much social pressure to remain at least somewhat up-to-date.

Changing fashion exists mainly to get people to buy new things that they really don't need, and the clothing industry is especially notorious for its changing dictates on style. I dare you to look at a really old photograph of yourself, wearing obsolete fashions. Don't you look ridiculous? (Or maybe not...isn't that a puzzle?) They got you to buy new clothing, because they changed the fashion! But if all the clothing factories shut down, and all clothing were made again at home by hand, this would not eliminate the problem of fashion, for certain people are natural trend setters who are then imitated. Fashions change, although perhaps slowly, even in traditional peasant villages. They even complained about the constant change in fashion in the Middle Ages.

One solution to the problem is to take the totalitarian approach, but that is most likely a damnable offense. Another solution is to do nothing, and just go along with the chaotic changes, but this has personal moral dangers.

I ought to mention that some changes are good. The virtue of science is the conformance of the intellect to reality, and of course even clothing, the oldest technology, can be improved. New materials can make a design lightweight yet sturdy, while new designs can solve practical problems better. Also, both can be used to make clothing look better. But while good in itself, this oftentimes just leads to more closet-fulls of unneeded clothing.

The Traditional Solution

We could instead take the more traditional approach, which would be both generous and not wasteful, and hence perhaps more moral. A greater formality in dress, spread throughout society, could perhaps moderate excess as well as lessen the influence of changing fashion. But having this formality defined on a local level would avoid tyranny and a bland, deadening uniformity. In other words, have a non-uniform uniformity.

School uniforms are a successful way to both moderate clothing spending on teenagers and also as a way to lessen the influence of cliques and competition. Critics of this solution decry the lock-step uniformity of this approach, and they are correct. The traditional approach is thus: each school has its own distinctive uniform. Each grade within the school has its own variations on the same uniform. Some students are rewarded for merit by having distinctive additions to their clothing, like officially sanctioned pins or badges. This distinctiveness gives meaning to the clothing, and helps build esprit de corps. Crucially, it gives students identity as belonging to a very specific place. This has so much force; consider the British custom of wearing the old school tie. These uniforms also tend not to change much over the years, giving a continuity of identity over time.

Certainly the most prominent use of non-uniform uniforms is in the Church and military. Both institutions, like all institutions, are hierarchical in structure, and some people have been granted decision-making authority. Obviously, when you have to cooperate with a large number of people, some of whom you may not know, it is extremely helpful if you can identify the role and affiliation of a person by his dress. You can tell at a glance if someone is in the Navy or Army; you can immediately tell the difference between a Dominican and Franciscan; likewise, you know who is a bishop and who is a general. The clothing has sign value.

Specific occupations also traditionally had distinctive dress, often related to practical considerations of the trade, but these were also due to long custom and the retention of sign value. Oh, you must be a firefighter. Or a priest. Or chef.

Good, traditional institutional dress could solve perhaps half of the problem of fashion: a good part of the week would no longer be subject to the whims of fashion, and many of the moral problems related to dressing would be similarly reduced. This would also promote solidarity within a trade or profession, and give give tradesmen and professionals a sense of identity, which is so much lacking these days.

Lowest-Common Denominator

However, there has been a general leveling and excessive standardization in institutional dress, as seen in the practical elimination of distinctive elements in standard clericals. In the military, this kind of dress-leveling is provably bad for morale: one nation (I think it was Canada) standardized all uniforms throughout their various branches of the military, so that the uniform of the Navy was identical to the Air Force and Army, which led to a minor revolt in the military. Also, U.S. Army members now seem to wear combat fatigues at all times: these may be practical, but not aesthetic (it is also now hard to tell if a group of army men are massing for an attack or just going out to lunch). The beret used to be symbolic of the Special Forces, and now it is generic, so, it too lost its sign value.

It is typical that the medical staff in hospitals all wear identical, uniform scrubs. Certainly you can identify staff this way, but distinctions are lost: who is a nurse, who is a doctor, who is a volunteer, and who is the chief of the staff? Traditionally, the uniforms worn in a hospital were specific to rank, function, and experience: you could tell at a glance who was in charge. Volunteers were called candy-stripers because of their distinctive red-and-white striped uniform. Doctors wore white lab coats. The head nurse wore an elaborate white dress uniform with lots of starch.

There is a certain sector of society that despises uniforms as being an attack against personal freedom, also, there is a different mindset that wants institutional wear to be as cheap and efficient as possible. When both of these groups coexist in an uneasy alliance (as we see in our mixed liberal government), I think it is inevitable that uniform dress becomes degraded by losing its sign value and its distinctiveness.

Modern de-formalization of clothing is thought to be democratic, but ultimately is just confusing. Imagine if all police offices wore street clothing: just whom would you trust? In the early 1970s, there was a trend where new courtrooms were made to look just like regular conference rooms, and judges abandoned their traditional, Medieval black robes. We are all just friends here, they would say, working towards a common solution—but one of your new "friends" had the right to kill you.

At one time, most business offices had a dress code, which included a suit and tie for men. Then a liberalization of clothing started, with "casual Fridays", where street clothes were allowed once a week, eventually leading to the near-total elimination of formal business dress. Almost immediately, problems occurred, particularly with modesty, cleanliness, and aesthetics, which led to new dress codes regulating casual wear. (No, she isn't a hooker and he isn't a homeless man, that's our front-lobby receptionist and lead computer systems programmer.) Ironically, these new dress codes were more elaborate than the old, so instead of being a liberalizing trend, dress became even more detailedly prescribed by authority. There was already a well-known solution to the problems of poor dress—standard semi-formal clothing—and it was abandoned; in its place people were told that they had to come up with their own solution while not breaking the new rules, which seems rather more difficult.

Objective Beauty

The problem of fashion could lead to two attitudes: beauty is seen as being only socially-constructed, and that people will slavishly follow the changing fashions of the elite without independent judgment.

Few people will blaze their own fashion trail: rather, those who are social non-conformists will instead tend to conform to the specific fashion norms of a particular subculture. These often are people who reject objective morality, and instead see all moral acts as just changable social convention. Consider the standard uniforms of Punks, Lesbians, Rappers, and Goths: they all have sign value, for sure, (they can easily be identified as members of the group, at least by insiders), but they also tend to dress very unattractively. The main reason for chosing a particular item of dress or adornment is not beauty, but instead is conformance to a certain arbitrary standard. This is not a problem just with underground subcultures, but is also a problem with institutional uniforms, which seem to have gotten uglier over the decades.

Finding objective standards of beauty is difficult, and we must be careful to not confuse objectivity with subjective and relative values. The are all important and valid, but different. Certainly some objective factors of beauty are clear: certain color and pattern combinations clash. Others are generally objective, but relative to the wearer: sizing dress to fit the wearer is obvious. Dress ought to conform to the climate. Certain styles look better on a thin person, while others look better on someone large. Clothing color ought to coordinate with skin tone and hair color. The old standards of proportion, order, scale, self-similarity, harmony, and symmetry still apply and can be broken only at the real risk of becoming a fashion victim. Recognizing the objective factors of beauty, suitably modified for person and place, can help create a harmonious and beautiful society.


Ultimately, good dress ought to be truthful and not deceive. Dress ought to say something truthful about the person: who he is, what he does, and his level of responsibility. This is overwhelmingly a moral consideration. If you wish total freedom of dress, is this so that you can deceive others? Or yourself? Do you dress like a vampire because you really are a vampire? Or rock star? Or royalty? Truth conditions goodness: if you are a firefighter, your dress must be good dress for firefighting, and so truthful firefighters' clothing will be good for firefighting, and so will be recognized as being appropriate wear for a firefighter. And likewise, that clothing will be recognized as being not good and not truthful for someone who is not a firefighter. A prostitute, while plying her trade, ought to wear clothing that is good and true to her profession; while a young woman who is not a prostitute, but dresses like one, is sinning against the truth and may cause scandal. (Hey, I am not recommending this choice of professions, just making a point! Humor!)

Implementing the Tradition

I think that uniforms are good, but only if implemented and adapted on a local scale, with a wide generosity for variation.

Uniforms are only to be used when on the job or on-site. A generous measure of personal freedom of dress ought to be recognized for leisure-time.

If there is an objectively moral way to dress, then you can have wrong opinions about dress. Keeping decisions about uniforms local reduces the influence of mistakes. For example, a religious order that mandates a hideous habit may not get any vocations: the mistake was made, but its influence was limited. This locality also respects variations that may exist between cultures: Scottish military units may wear kilts; while others do not.

Uniforms ought to clearly reflect actual, meaningful differences in affiliation, experience, and authority, and not be arbitrary.

Clothing must be honest, and freedom of dress should not lead to untruthfulness. Someone who is not a member of a group ought not wear the uniform of the group. This is common sense: it is wrong to impersonate a police officer, and so you ought to get into trouble if you falsely dress like one.

Dress ought to have sign value, and ought to promote solidarity within a group, and provide a sense of identity to individuals in the group, and provide continuity with those who have gone before us.

Dress ought to be practical, beautiful, and appropriate. These are not conflicting demands.


Every culture accepts the morality of modesty, although their opinion of what is modest varies widely. But this variation is not as great as may be expected. Youth, nearly everywhere, attempt to dress immodestly; their parents almost universally object to this.

Americans seem to lack modesty, but I don't think that is true. Imagine, if you will, a woman entering a party, dressed highly immodestly. The reactions of the other women in the room are likely to be very negative, and the men react in a way that they know is probably wrong. This proves that our culture actually is modest, but that we (wrongly) value personal freedom above modesty. The main question is not whether or not we value modesty, but is rather how we value modesty compared with other values.

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