7 Go [then,] eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. 8 Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. – Ecc 9:7-9 NASB
I recently went to a sale at a Bridal store that was going out of business, where you could buy a full tuxedo for $9!!! NINE DOLLARS FOR A TUX! I got the pants, the coat, the shirt, a vest, a cummerbund, a matching bowtie, everything but the shoes for nine flipping dollars. I bought three different kinds. I even bought extra vests and cummerbunds and ties of different colors and styles. It was an amazing deal.Mind you, up to this point, I have always been a total schlub. I have always dressed extremely carelessly. So I had no idea whatsoever how to wear a tux. I did not know that you aren’t supposed to wear a vest and a cummerbund at the same time. I did not know about pocket squares. I am embarrassed to say that as a 55 year old man, I did not know anything because I have never thought it was important. So I went to the interwebs to discover what I should do with my flashy tuxedos, where I discovered my new hero Sven, the guy who started Gentleman’s Gazette. He has a million youtube videos on men’s fashion, including my first taste of his crack – the one on how to wear a tuxedo. I found that I had wasted $5 on all those cummerbunds, but I was fascinated by the jazz drum beat that goes on beneath his little talks on how to match socks to your outfit. He has encyclopedic knowledge of the history of ties and ascots, and of the proper ways through history to wear vests and of the different kinds of fabric and shirts and how to wear the right shoes and socks. He even has a whole series on fountain pens, which is a secret devotion for me. So I was hooked! I wanted to try it.
It so happens that the next week, Black Friday came up, and Betty (God bless her!) and I went down to Seattle, stopping at every Goodwill and thrift shop along the way. I’m not a small man, so it is not easy to find stuff in my size. But Goodwill was having a 50% off sale at all of its stores for everything in the store. So I went crazy!!! The downtown Seattle Goodwill is like a city all by itself. It is almost overwhelming! But I ended up with almost an entire new wardrobe. I’ve since bought some coats and shirts and such at some other places, but I was on the road to dapperhood.
Monday I showed up at my IT job where schlubdom is a virtual religion, wearing a navy blue blazer (which fits perfectly) with a white dress shirt and tie with dress slacks. I have to say, I looked good. It was an actual topic at our standup project meeting. “OK, now for the elephant in the room – what are you wearing?” I’ve dressed similarly (but rarely the same way twice) every day since. Now I often wear ascots, ties, and I even have a charcoal gray morning coat with tails. I love that. I know 20 different ways to tie a scarf. I’m so hooked. It’s a lot of fun.
As a consequence I have started to root around the crazy underworld of men’s fashion blogs. It’s mostly pure unadulterated law: Never wear white socks. Never wear sports jerseys. Always wear this with that. Use these color combinations. That kind of thing. Many of them conflict of course. But some blogs are more philosophical. There is one guy who says there are three different kinds of men – Rugged, Refined, and Rakish. So you should dress to fit your man-type. It’s actually very interesting in a way. He says that how you dress is a display of power. If I’m a rugged man, my attire needs to be sufficiently superior in ruggedness that others will be forced to acknowledge my leadership as a rugged person. If I’m a rakish man, I have to dress such that I am snubbing conventions, and that I am creative and counterculture in the correct stylish way to prove that I am acceptably bohemian. I’m thinking, what have I gotten myself into?! But this got me to thinking: why am I actually doing this? If it isn’t a power display, then what is it? Is it a power display? I haven’t really thought of it in these terms, but do others around me view it through the lens of a power dynamic?
Dressing Under Grace
On reflection, we have two opposing ideas. We either dress in a way that reflects that we are already ultimately approved (Ecclesiastes 9:7) or we dress in order to gain approval (the power dynamic). Let’s look in a little more detail at what this power dynamic means:
Your ultimate goal in improving your wardrobe is should not be to improve your visual appeal but your visual power. That’s not to say that visual appeal doesn’t matter, just that it’s not as important as power.
For women visual appeal > visual power
For men visual power > visual appeal
Both men and women will arguably be better off with an element of both, but the priorities are different.
This corresponds with the balance between Danger and Play in that, a man who communicates Danger in his look is really communicating power. However, a masculine man who communicates Play is also communicating power.
I think there is some truth to this. I have actually walked into a restaurant near my workplace dressed less well and have been refused a table (“you can sit at the bar – tables are reserved for larger parties”) whereas when I went again dressed in a well-fitted coat, dress shirt, tie, dress slacks, etc. I was immediately given a table. So perhaps that’s a factor. I think people do take you more seriously if you are dressed well.
However, Ecclesiastes shows us a different dynamic altogether. We dress well as celebration and enjoyment, because God has already approved our works (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8). We either do what we do, including dress, as a way to gain or maintain approval, or we do what we do because we are already approved. Belief either way reaches its tendrils into every thought and aspect of our lives. Frankly, no one is going to have the inward sense that they are definitively approved unless they are assured that it is God who approves them. Unless a person is assured that God has definitively established their justification, they are always going to be fishing for justification. Everything down to their clothing is a power grab, to say that “I am like God and I have the wisdom and I know how to make this right.” It is, in other words, all work – a way to seize significance from the uncaring judgement of the indifferent universe. But under grace, it is all play. I wear what I wear and I do what I do because of a very great salvation. I am beloved and those around me are beloved. I do not need to convey my own importance to those around me because I have the inner sense that I am already important enough in the eyes of God that He would die for me. And I have the same assurance for everyone around me – “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). What I am freed to declare with my attire is that this day is the day that the Lord has made. This day with my friends and my co-workers and those I meet is important. Everything is a divine appointment and I want to dress for it. This time is important.
There is a whole new dynamic to all this under the gospel. I am thinking about it all, not from a works perspective, but from an aesthetic perspective. (See this post: thereforenow.com/2011/06/coercion-and-true-virtue/.) Under grace I am thinking about what is fun, but at a deeper level, I am thinking about what communicates love and acceptance to those around me. I have come to the conclusion that dressing as a schlub is a snub to others – it says that I don’t really care about this time or about you. Now I realize that I want to say that my presence with others is intentional and I count them as very important. On the other hand, I want to try to be tasteful out of respect for the other person’s aesthetic norms – I want there to be a certain humility to the way I dress. Most of all, I want the stage to be set so that the message I bear, the message of grace and abundant eternal love from God, is born with humility and joy and playfulness and a certain authority. So while I may not need this power play, the person I’m with may still be in that dynamic, and I use their own weakness to possibly persuade them that they are beloved.
Do I do any of this perfectly, or even well? Maybe and maybe not. I’m at least trying. But I will confess, that is where my head is at when I consider what to wear for the day.