catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 19 :: 2007.10.19 — 2007.11.02


Dressing up is hard to do

My husband often tells a story about the Halloween he dressed up as
Dick Tracy.  He was so excited in the days leading up to October
31—which says a lot for the odd boy who didn’t really care for
candy—looking forward to the snazzy suit and trench coat.  But
when it came time to put on the costume, he discovered it was just a
one-piece suit printed on cheap nylon fabric topped off with a molded
plastic hat.  Instant Tracy was little more than scratchy flame
retardant pajamas.

More and more, the Halloween streets are littered with instant
costumes, outfits purchased in a complete set for $14.99 intended to
represent Captain Jack Sparrow or a princess or Harry Potter or a
cheerleader.  They require little effort and possess a quality
that’s apparently intended to compost entirely in three weeks. 
This phenomenon seems like a loss to me, not only in terms of the
global market by perpetuating the flow of Cheap Plastic Crap, but in
terms of turning dress up into a commodified, sale-priced, once-a-year

This trend is not limited to Halloween.  There are very few places
or events anymore for which the social contract requires dressing
up.  Weddings, plays, funerals, the symphony—almost every special
event I attend permits a range of attire, from comfy jeans to
fancy dresses.  And I regret that there’s nowhere I can go anymore
where everyone in attendance has put a large amount of thought, effort
and care (not necessarily money) into his or her clothing.  In
fact, “casual” has almost become a social virtue in itself.

In large part, I’m sure my longing for a time when there were events
for which everyone dressed up is just nostalgia for the rose-colored
olden days.  Such nostalgia has only been engorged on the
opportunities my husband and I have had in the past few years to dress
up for the Carnegie Ball in Three Rivers, Michigan.  Learning how
to do pin curls for our 30s mafia outfits and studying Audrey Hepburn’s
make up for the 60s movie star costumes has given me new respect for
old(er) time elegance.  I do think, however, that beyond
nostalgia, this shift can be read as a shifting in the spirit of the
age.  We’ve both lost and gained as we’ve changed.

If it’s merely brand snobbery that we’re abandoning in a more casual
culture, that’s no great loss. But I don’t feel a sense of sadness on
account of missed opportunities to show off expensive clothing or
flaunt beauty competitively.  In fact, I think part of the problem
is that people in the U.S. and Canada are generally too wealthy; we’ve
lost our sense of dressing up for a special
occasion.  Why take the time to make an elegant dress for summer
weddings when one can just throw on one of several dresses from the Old
Navy clearance rack?  We’re so overwhelmed with stuff that we
can’t conceptualize bringing out the same special outfit year after
year for Christmas Eve. Instant pop cultural Halloween costumes are
widely available and so inexpensive that it’s not worth the time to
create something from scratch.  And suits and ties have come to
represent tailored prisons, as opposed to a gesture of respect and

I believe there’s also been a related shift in the way we spend our time.  When going out and socializing was the
primary form of leisure, there was simply more time to prepare and more
opportunity to informally research a more limited array of
options.  Today, our lives are saturated with options that fly by
so quickly, we’ve barely had time to invest in one style before it’s
outdated.  We’ve also heaped a giant portion of media experiences
on top of a requisite social schedule, so that the remaining obligatory
gatherings come to be associated with the burden of getting ready on a
serious time crunch.  Turning on the TV requires little effort and
no special attire; getting dressed up for a wedding is a chore. 
And going out to a dance or a play is more often than not just simply
out of the question.

At the same time, in dropping a good deal of pretense about dressing
up, we’ve gained a sense of diversity and tolerance—in theological
terms, hospitality.  How many of us haven’t encountered in some
form or another the idea that the church is unwelcoming to those who
aren’t properly dressed?  It’s such a prevalent story, in fact,
that one of the distinct marks of Christian outreach these days is a
pride in come-as-you-are-casual.  And why shouldn’t weddings and
funerals and everything in between be open to all people who wish to
celebrate or mourn or observe or honor or experience, regardless of
their attire?  Such openness creates room for all levels of
resources in the broad sense: levels of knowledge, of money, of
creativity, of time, of life experience.

I know such hospitality is biblical and good—the lilies of the field,
the sparrows in the sky, and the guests at the wedding banquet all tell
me so.  And so I don’t think the burden is on any community to be
more restrictive, but on us as individuals to be more
intentional.  We can honor global equity by having fewer items of
clothing in more ethical, well-made, classic styles.  We can honor
occasions and the people involved by creating space and time to prepare
without the tyranny of the immediate. And we can honor the image of God
in us by recognizing the creativity that beckons us to delight in
crafting an outfit that suits our bodies, the occasion and the
resources at hand, as well as a style that communicates our unique
identities.  Admittedly, there’s a fine line between vanity and
intentionality, but our best hope is that a sense of worship will
encompass all things, from sweat pants to silk ties, from the vows to
the tuxes, from head to toe.

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