Dressing the Part: 9/4/13

Happy Autumn, Already Pretty readers! Do you have questions about back-to-school-wear, dressing for the Jewish holidays, what costumes are appropriate or in- for Halloween, or other autumnal style conundrums? Then join me today at noon EST for an online chat about social dilemmas of all styles.

Here’s what I’ve been musing about this month:

A friend of mine was accosted by a woman in the subway who informed her that “Jesus wouldn’t approve of your neckline.” This got me thinking about what the Bible actually does say about dressing and grooming, which led to this post:

… [T]he Biblical version of modesty is about more than keeping your women in gunny sacks. It’s about dressing in a way that allows society to function as smoothly as possible. It’s about clothing etiquette. The Torah reflects some of the earliest efforts to set down rules for how to live successfully in groups–something humans must do, but find extraordinarily difficult to do. There are not many direct commandments about clothing or grooming, but the topic makes its way into many Biblical narratives, so you can pick up a definite point of view. Looking at it from that angle, here’s my own, not-approved-by-any-religious-authority-whatsoever version of a Biblical dress code:

1. Don’t dress like something you’re not. This raises modern hackles at first, because one of the few clear-cut clothing commandments is that women shouldn’t dress like men. There are also long, detailed descriptions of priestly garments that are mandatory for priests and obviously forbidden for anyone else. All very Bronze Age! But if the particulars are no longer on-point, the principle is. Clothing often reflects social roles, and it’s inappropriate to dress for a role that isn’t yours. At a wedding, don’t be more glamorous than the bride. If you’re the teacher, don’t dress like your students. If you’re the keynote speaker, don’t blend into the wallpaper.

2. Dressing up shows respect. According to the Bible, the first thing people did after becoming morally conscious was to put some clothes on, already, and the impulse, if not always the fig leaves, stuck. Esther dressed up before pleading her people’s case to the king. Jews wear our nicest clothes on Rosh Hashanah to show our respect for God.

3. But don’t dress to incite envy. Envy, much more than lust, is the emotion that modesty codes are designed to control. A community can’t function if its members are constantly competing for status, measuring themselves against each other. So you don’t dress in a way that looks like you’re competing for status, in ostentatious clothes that are better than anyone else can afford. You know, like Joseph with that amazing technicolor dreamcoat that got him sold into slavery. Look what happens to people who dress too fancy!

Speaking of Rosh Hashanah, check out my sweet new threads & kicks for the new year, courtesy of Boden & Zappos:

boden riviera shirt dress

Boden Riviera Shirt Dress | Softspots Salude

I plan to accessorize these with big freshwater pearls and wear my hair in a 1940’s-style snood.

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And speaking of the 1940s, I’ve been using this retro-style cigarette case to hold my iPhone and my job ID and subway cards for … well, obviously some time past its natural life span. I picked it up years ago in a Chinatown tsotchke shop for $2 and it’s worked well enough that I’ve never remembered to get a better one. As you can see, it’s pretty sad-looking by now.


No one ever makes fun of it, though. Instead, I’ve had several people enthusiastically exclaim, “That’s so cool! Was that your grandmother’s cigarette case?”

People need a story. If I were generally a scrubby person, my scrubby phone case wouldn’t need explanation. I’m not, so it does, and the story of a 40-something stylista sentimentally attached to one of her grandmother’s iconic life props is a pretty good story. It even has an interesting theme woven through it about the nature of addiction and technology and social behavior—in what way is granddaughter’s smartphone the 21st century equivalent of grandmother’s nicotine sticks?

Isn’t that a good story? It’s so good that it has spontaneously occurred to several people.

The only person who has ever said, “Get rid of that thing, it looks terrible and it’s probably all germy” is my mother, who is immune to the charm of the retro phone case.

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Finally, my 2009 answer to the question of white after Labor Day:

Hon, you can wear white — linen, shoes, whatever — any time it would make you look and feel fabulous, calendar be damned. I have seen women wear white peep-toe shoes with black tights in winter, and they looked terrific.

But maybe you don’t know what makes you look fabulous. Maybe you are like my dear husband, who I believe has some kind of sartorial learning disability. His skill in dressing himself is sufficient to keep him from dying of or being arrested for exposure, but that’s about it. Maybe, too, “fabulous” is a feeling you do not get from clothes. If Mr. Improbable were to say, “I feel good in this shirt,” he would not mean that the shirt enhanced his confidence. He would mean that the fabric was not scratchy.

Fashion is a realm in which my husband is neither terribly interested nor terribly competent. We all have these realms. And when you don’t care, when you don’t have gut instincts to follow, you don’t want to improvise. You want rules.

Many old rules have gone by the wayside, but just because you don’t have to follow them doesn’t mean you can’t. Apparently, it’s also now OK to serve red wine with fish and white wine with meat. But I don’t know squat about wine, so I do it the old way, because I don’t want to have to figure out how else I’m supposed to know what wine to serve. When you have the taste and style to improvise — with clothes, food, words, wine — feel free. And if you don’t, feel free to follow tradition. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s part of what tradition is there for.

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Already Pretty contributor Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct social-advice column in the Boston Globe. (Got a question? Send it in to missconduct@globe.com!) Robin has a PhD in research psychology and is married to Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

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7 Responses to “Dressing the Part: 9/4/13”

  1. bubu

    All of your biblical reasons seem to align perfectly with the dress code at my son’s school (on my mind because today was the first day, and they were all there back in their khaki pants and navy shirts). It tells the kid, each other and the world they are students, no one is better or worse than anyone else, and it shows respect for the teacher, school, and education itself. As you can see, I’m a fan of the school uniform (or dress code) for many reasons — not the least of which is that it also helps my son who, like Mr. Improbable, has no interest in or great talent for fashion, so likes having clear rules/guidelines about what to wear, and only has to ask “long sleeve or short sleeve” and he can do the rest himself.

  2. Nebraskim

    This is a wonderful post. I snorted at the “Jesus wouldn’t approve of your neckline” comment. I probably would have responded, “Judge not lest ye be judged by others. MYOB!”

    • Eleanorjane

      There are SO MANY appropriate Biblical quotes for putting that self-righteous cow in her place! Not that we should be using the Bible as a weapon, but if anyone dared to say anything like that to me, I don’t think I could resist!

  3. Gracey the Giant

    Wonderful, wonderful post. I enjoyed reading this immensely and agree with all of the points that were made. Made fabulously, in fact. Thank you so much for this!

  4. GingerR

    Excellent dress-code boil-down.

    I imagine Jesus liked a fine neckline about as much as any other man of his day. Something are timeless.