Do the Clothes Make the Man: The Formality-Informality Debate

I appreciated very much Ben’s kind words and his comment from yesterday about seeing very dressed up people living disastrous lives. This is certainly the case for many people in our world. The clothes–and beyond this, one’s outward appearance–often do not tell the story. Many people–this clearly is not a single-sex issue–are hurting and discombobulated who appear to be quite happy and whole.

I think that there are two errors we can make in this debate. First, we can follow past generations and equate dressing up with personal holiness and moral goodness. Two, we can follow this generation and equate dressing up with stifling, heart-killing, conformity-inducing behavior. Both of these approaches are flawed, in my humble opinion. How about a middle way that looks something like this: we recognize that one’s clothing style does not necessarily reflect one’s holiness. We remind ourselves that image can be manipulated and that clothes are a part of image. At the same time, we also recognize that it is often good to give honor to an event. It is good to dress up for certain things because our clothes can connote respect for the occasion. Our generation tells us this is ridiculous. I think this generational thinking is off-base. While we do not need to think that our style of dress directly correlates to our morality, we also do not need to think that our style of dress has nothing to do with it. Both sides can make their own mistake. Much better, I think, to maturely understand that it is good to conform to certain societal patterns, that it is good to show respect for certain institutions and events, even as we recognize that clothing is an external adornment, not internal compass.

If the Lord gives me children, I want to raise them to understand that it is good to respect social convention, and that it is no great thing to rebel against it simply to rebel, or simply because “the clothes don’t make the man.” I want them to show respect for others and for events by dressing up for more solemn occasions. I don’t want this to go overboard, but I do want it to happen. At the same time, I will work to show them that clothing is not exactly correlated with holiness and that society often goes way overboard in assessing one’s character by one’s clothing. In this way, I hope to avoid both mistakes–a slovenly, rebellious comportment on one hand, and an uptight, over-serious demeanor on the other. As with most things, this issue requires balanced thinking. Neither the older generation nor the younger generation has it all right. The older says, helpfully, to the young, “respect tradition,” while the younger says, helpfully, to the old, “don’t exalt it.” We need to hear both of these sides and work out how we carry ourselves accordingly.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Do the Clothes Make the Man: The Formality-Informality Debate

  1. Paul Cable

    Owen-
    Thanks for the follow-up post. The first one got me thinking and, because I think slowly, the second one helped me along.

    We should dress in a way that does not bring attention to our dress, but to the gospel. That sounds trite, but if I walk into my hometown church in a t-shirt and get into the pulpit and preach the gospel, it would be much, much less well recieved than if I were wearing a suit. However, there are churches where wearing a suit would create a similar situation. Conformity is mature and necessary when it enables the focus to be where it belongs. Reductio ad absurdum, but I think the principle applies to everday situations, too.

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