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No Better than a Flower?

“As long as there are cold and nakedness in the land around you, so long can there be no question at all but that splendor of dress is a crime.” John Ruskin

Does clothing make the man, or woman?  Should it?


I’m really not a clothes-horse.  As long as something fits, doesn’t itch and isn’t a colour I abhor (like orange), I’ll wear it.  I REALLY hate clothes shopping, so I’ll probably wear it till it falls apart.  But even I have to admit that there are times when what I wear matters – sometimes it affects my mood or my confidence; sometimes it affects the way people relate to me.  I wouldn’t go to a job interview in jeans or shorts. I wouldn’t wear an evening gown to a picnic.  And it’s a fact of life that we judge and are judged by how we look, and clothing is a big part of that.


For some people, however, it goes deeper than that. What they wear defines them to both the world and to themselves.  For some it might simply be that they can project more confidence if they have a really snappy suit or well-cut dress.  Others, though, wouldn’t be caught dead in anything less than designer labels. And at the extreme end are the poor souls for whom acquiring clothes become an end in itself.  For everyone over 40 the name Imelda Marcos is a by-word for extravagance and over-indulgence.  (2,700 pairs of shoes smacks of something severely pathological.)


A year or so ago, I was visiting my sister-in-law’s church in Australia and a lovely young American preacher was visiting and took the sermon.  He did not look like a traditional preacher – he had a beard, long blond dreadlocks, and was dressed in what looked like old-time army fatigues – but he spoke with such passion, and compassion, of the people to whom he ministered, among whom he would have looked fairly conservative.


He told us that the summer after he finished college, he and a couple of friends decided they wanted to do something altruistic and one of them suggested that they “go work with Mother Teresa”. So he picked up the phone and somehow managed to get a connection to her mission in India.  A voice answered and he asked for Mother Teresa. The voice replied that she WAS Mother Teresa, and asked what she could do for him.  He ended up spending three years working with her and told us one short story that illustrated her beautifully. He said she had terrible feet – that she had suffered with her feet for much of her life. And the reason was that when donations of shoes came into the mission, and she needed a new pair, she would always choose the worst pair for herself so that others could have the good shoes.


The question Ruskin asks at the beginning of this commentary is, can we justify spending money on clothing, when there is so much suffering and poverty around us in the world.  For me that’s not too hard, because I hardly spend any money on clothes anyway.  But can I extrapolate that to include items that a cold and hungry person would consider a luxury?  Can I pass by a homeless person on the way into Starbucks for my grande caramel latte?  Can I justify trips to Borders (my personal weakness) when I know there are thousands of girls and women in the world who are illiterate? 


I will confess to you – if I were rich I’d be tempted to spend my money not on designer clothes but on very expensive tickets to the opera, on leather bound volumes of classic 19th century literature, on vacations to European cities to buy art and antiques.  These are the things that would define me.  For you it might be a new car every year, a big house, exotic vacations, the best schools for your children, or perhaps a high-powered, demanding job.  The things that other people will see and judge us by.


Now I’m not saying we should all live severe and austere lives, depriving ourselves of all luxuries and the things that make life a little easier.  All I’m saying is that perhaps we should look at the things that we feel define us and ask ourselves whether we could be spending our money, time, energy on something better.  After all, Jesus himself said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.”

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