What Clothing Reveals About Character
- by Joy Barnett
The summer season is one of my favorite times of year for lots of reasons. It’s the time for flowers, flip-flops, fire-flies and friends. We enjoy vacations, camp meetings, and sweet iced tea on the porch. However, one thing I don’t like about the season is the dread I feel when I go out in public with my husband, knowing that I will be embarrassed and sometimes shocked by what people wear. (or don’t wear!!) With that in mind, I thought it would be a great time to re-evaluate what it is that our choice of attire really says about who we are - as ladies and as Christians.
We would be surprised to be served at a restaurant by a young lady wearing a nun’s habit, nor would we expect to see a bride getting ready for her special day by carefully selecting a student’s uniform to wear, and we certainly would be confused by an Amish-woman decked out in an Islamic burqa. Clothing communicates. It tells what we do, what we value, but most importantly, it reveals who we are. Scripture bears this out. Esther 5:1 finds Esther, in her divine appointment with destiny, putting on her magnificent royal robes in an attempt to find favor with the king. In Proverbs 7:10, a woman with wicked intentions is identified as a harlot by her clothing. And in Genesis 38:14, Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, sets aside the garments that showed she was newly widowed and in mourning. All of these ladies were identified by what they wore.
So, how did it all start? John Piper has some excellent resources regarding the theology of clothing. As he explains, clothing was not part of God’s original plan for man. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were shamelessly naked and pure before each other and before God. The Fall began our relationship with clothing. Their shame and vulnerability was a natural consequence of innocence lost. When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened after their sin, they were immediately ashamed, and they attempted to fix their own problem by covering themselves and then hiding. Instead of running to God with their failure and trusting that He would have a perfect way of dealing with them, they revealed their new depravity by independently “doing it their way.” God rejected both their clothing, and their attitude. The first drops of blood were shed to provide appropriate clothing, foreshadowing the day when sin would be permanently dealt with by the blood of Christ. In clothing them, God was saying, “You are not pure like you once were, but I will cover your shame temporarily and one day, take it upon Myself, making you what you should be.” It is startling to realize that one of the humiliations that the blessed Son of God endured was being cruelly stripped of His clothing, and hanging naked for all the world to see, reversing what our first parents had done. Because He willingly bore the shame of being literally unclothed, we can be perfectly spiritually clothed and made pure in His righteousness! (Galatians 3:27) So, God ordained clothing to witness to mankind’s past and present shame, but also our future final redemption.
By implication, then, returning to nakedness is rebelling against God Himself and spitting in the face of Christ‘s sacrifice. Clothing does not just conceal our bodies, it is also a confession of our own brokenness. Indecency and public nudity denies the moral reality of man‘s Fall. Although it wasn’t God’s original intent; clothing is what God put into place to help us deal with the vulnerability man brought upon himself as a result of sin. God calls us to modesty, not just for propriety’s sake, but also to say about ourselves what He says about us.
On one hand, by dressing inadequately, sinful man throws off the God-given sense of modesty and natural delicacy given to us since sin entered the world, flaunting the human body to more and more shocking extremes. On the other hand, clothing can become an obsession, an idol, a tool used to manipulate and gain power over others. To these people, God requires a return, not to nudity, because it is impossible since the Fall to return to pure and sinless nudity. Instead, God’s call to these people is simplicity. (I Timothy 2:9-10) Clothing was not meant to be a means of calling unwonted attention to ourselves. Just as indecency is an abuse of a God-ordained system, extravagance is as well.
The overarching purpose of man is to glorify God. (I Peter 4:11, I Corinthians 10:31) This includes ALL of life, every component. So, naturally, a big part of that, especially for women, is our attire. In a very real sense, every morning when we dress, we perform an act of worship! So, besides the most basic principles of clothing as an invention that God ordained, as we have already discussed, how can we better fulfill our purpose in glorifying God when we stand before our closet in the morning? Are we aware of the messages we send with the clothes we choose? Just as a flight attendant wouldn’t wear a chef’s outfit for lots of reasons, a Christian doesn’t wear some things. A person whose one aim in life is to glorify God will be concerned that his or her appearance will not be incongruous with that purpose.
We can communicate all kinds of things with our wardrobe, and it doesn’t take long to determine what motivates people in their choices. Some dress only for comfort, no matter what it looks like. Others for personal color and style preference, to “fit in,” with their friends or with current fashion trends. You can tell someone’s general attitude toward character qualities like neatness, and self-control, simply by observing how they’re dressed and groomed. Others dress solely to gain the attention of the opposite sex. Even some who follow the letter of the law and are modest by the rule-book, can come across as provocative and sensuous. Still others dress to “show off,” in a materialistic way. They use clothing as a status symbol, with a “look at me,” kind of attitude that tries to impress others. Also, increasingly in the world we live in, some dress in ways that blur the lines of gender distinction - something God abominates. Finally, we can dress to reflect a submission to the authority of God, an enjoyment of who He created us to be, honoring our fellow-man, and appropriately expressing our God-given personality and taste. Keep in mind that we are not saved by any outward tradition. Only the blood Jesus can do that. However, with a heart full of love that allows Him to transform everything about us, we can give evidence that our intention is to please Him in every area, including how we dress.
Attire that glorifies God starts with attitude - a sincere desire that holiness be reflected in every area of life. Here is a list of questions that is helpful in evaluating where our attitudes are:
- Do I have a humble view of myself and a high view of God?
- Do I know God’s Word and take obeying it seriously?
- What is my attitude about money/possessions?
- Do I avoid promoting myself?
- Am I grieved at the thought of causing someone to sin?
- Am I reserved in my speech?
- Do I always have to be the center of attention?
- Am I appropriate in my behavior?
- Am I appropriately reserved in my dress?
Because Biblical directives regarding clothing are, for the most part, implicit, rather than explicit, we are to have an attitude of charity as we “work out our own salvation,” and allow others to do the same. The Holy Spirit is faithful to lead willing believers into “all truth.” God’s intention was not that clothes be a source of bondage. They are not to be the means by which we measure one another’s level of salvation. On the other hand, they are not to cause people to think about what’s underneath them. Neither are they to be a tool of manipulation that seeks to empower the person wearing them. As John Piper expresses it, clothes are meant to draw attention to what’s NOT underneath them - a submissive heart that comes under God’s authority, a radiant face that often experiences God’s presence, willing arms and hands for joyful service, and feet that run quickly to share the Good News.
Resources: Dressing Modestly: An Attitude of the Heart, Elizabeth George. Feminine by Design: the God-Fashioned Woman, John D. Garr. Free to be Modest, Nancy Leigh DeMoss. The Look: Does God Really Care What I Wear?, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, “The Purpose of Clothing,” John Piper. “Staying Married is Not about Staying in Love,“ John Piper. - www.desiringgod.org. “Modesty, Clothing and God,” - www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com
(this article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of The Ladies' Companion)