“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
-Mark Twain

A few years ago, I wrote about a George Will column which had annoyed an awful lot of people.  Will noted that the present tendency of people to wear blue jeans to every single setting and event was not good. People weren’t very happy with my article either, because I agreed with George Will.

Today the jean is a symbol of one’s lack of pretension, of being the everyman, of not thinking you’re better than someone else. It is a flag of the regular guy. Sort of like buying a 4 wheel drive rig and using it only in town “in case it rains.” The extra lights on top, rollbar, and winch are for show, not use. And that’s what jeans have become: show, not use. Someone working at an office doesn’t need durable, easily cleaned fabric tough enough to handle crawling in a mine shaft or running a tractor.

My concern isn’t some moral or ethical principle that jeans are bad.  Clothing is morally indifferent, they  have no ethical significance.  They’re just draperies, and like all material things are right and wrong only in how we as humans use them.  Wearing a scarf isn’t bad, but using one to cover your face while you rob a bank is.

However, they are part of a principle called “appropriateness” which is essentially lost in modern culture.  In fact it is more than lost, it has gone from proper behavior to being ignored to finally being held in contempt.  Like modesty, appropriate behavior has become a concept held in derision.
Appropriate behavior and dress is simply doing what properly and best fits the situation.  Its not appropriate to make out with your beloved in a church service, for example.  Its not appropriate to defaecate on a police car.
Yet this basic, obvious principle is hated by many for a few simple reasons.  First, it restricts behavior without immediate, direct, and obvious personal benefit or penalty.  What I mean is this: people only like to do things based on what they gain or what they’ll lose materially and immediately.  In modern society this tendency has become very pronounced by the rejection of absolute, objective authority and ethics.
If there is an overarching and consistent set of rules and principles all should follow, then the following of them becomes the purpose and guide for your behavior.  If you reject that idea, then all that is left is what you gain or lose in any instance.  Since eventual or long-term benefit and loss is abstract and may never even come to pass, people tend to reject that.
So if you say that something is inappropriate, the response is “what do I lose?  What do I gain?”  Dressing or acting inappropriately only has any real punishment or penalty in life when you’re a child – if your parents have any sense of discipline.  Conversely, it can have great benefit, because people may look up to you or admire you because you’re a ‘rebel’ or because you have ‘style’.
Second, people reject and despise the concept of the appropriate because they wish to be young eternally.  This too is connected to a loss of absolute values shared by society; if there’s nothing beyond this life or any spiritual significance to behavior, then all that matters is physical, immediate, and personal.  Something that gets in the way of me having fun, being happy, or doing what I want is then not just frustrating, but bad and people reject it.
Third, people claim a violation of their liberty.  Saying “well that’s inappropriate” is usually met with “its  a free country!  You’re not the boss of me!” or something along those lines.  The appeal is to liberty, the freedom to do anything that someone desires to do.
And its true, freedom does allow you to do stupid, self-destructive, or inappropriate things.  You’re free to smoke, sleep around, eat lousy food, and so on.  However, that doesn’t mean its wise to do all those things.
In other words, you are free to do what is inappropriate, but shouldn’t do it anyway.  The mere fact of liberty doesn’t negate the responsibility we have toward others and the reality of proper behavior.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought to.  Wisdom shapes our liberty so that we enjoy it properly and constructively rather than simply for personal gain and pleasure.
So this attitude toward dressing appropriately plays out in society on a very broad and all-too-common manner.  I remember not all that many years ago when a woman would slit her throat rather than be caught in public wearing sweats or her hair uncombed.  I remember it wasn’t particularly that distant in the past when showing your underwear was humiliating and shameful.  I remember a few years ago when having stains and rips in your clothing was something people looked down on and tried to repair.
Now I go shopping and the stuff people used to mock Wal*Mart for containing is common everywhere.  I’m frankly amazed that women go out dressed as slovenly and unattractively as they do.  its as if they rolled out of bed, dragged something from the hamper and shook out the dust, then threw it on, sometimes even backward.  Its as if they simply do not care what anyone thinks or how it reflects on them.
There is a section of modern society which understands this concept of appropriateness much better than most, one which upholds this principle and admires it in the face of modern cultural values.  And that section is in the military.
Although not a universal truth, it is generally easier to tell when someone has been in the military by how they dress, act, and care for their life.  They tend to be much more organized, polite, and act more appropriately in general, if not always.  A military man will have a more organized, neat sock drawer than a civilian.  A military man will tend to treat people with respect, particularly authority, more than a civilian.
In the military, the principle of appropriate dress is especially profound.  A soldier can look horrible in the battlefield; unshaven, unbathed, clothes covered with mud and blood, hair grimy and uncared for.  In combat, in the battle, this is appropriate just like a farmer wearing jeans with dirt up to his elbows.  Yet take that soldier to a formal event or to see someone important and they are massively transformed.  Now he’s wearing crisp clothing, is almost painfully shaved, brushed, and combed, and wears a special uniform for special events that is particularly neat and impressive looking.
The soldier understands the concept of dressing appropriately.  He does so because he knows that the right clothing and behavior for the right time is what is supposed to be done, even if it is personally inconvenient.  He does so because he knows that it shows respect for the people around him to act in a manner congruent with where he is and with whom he is dealing.  And most of all, he does so because he knows how it reflects on him, his fellow soldiers, his branch of the military, and his nation.
The soldier understands that how he looks and acts tells people much about who he is, what matters to him, and what his group is like.  Fair or not, what you look like informs people far more about what you are and who you are than how you behave or talk.  If you look like a thug and act like a gentleman, people think “polite thug” not “casually dressed gentleman.”
If you dress like trash, people will tend to figure you are trash, fair or not.  If you dress out of what is proper for a situation, people will think differently of you as well. If you wear a tuxedo camping or a prom dress to garden, people might think you’re insane, or at least ridiculously gaudy.  If you wear torn, muddy jeans and your favorite 25 year old tee shirt with obscenities on it to see your girlfriend’s parents, you won’t make a very positive impression.  If you wear sagging sweat pants and have your hair combed like you used a blender to the store, people figure you have no self esteem and care nothing for anyone around you.
One of the worst offenders these days in the dressing appropriately column are Christians, or at least people who claim to be.  Go to church some day, if you don’t regularly.  What do you expect to see?  Women wearing nice dresses, guys in suits, or at least semi formal attire, right?  Wrong.  Expect to see miniskirts and shorts and sweats, expect to see leggings and low cut tops, crop tops even.  Expect to see people dressed like they do pretty much everywhere else – except Easter, where the ladies tend to dress really nice.  Guys tend to dress however, every day.
Why does this matter?  Well remember what I said about the soldier, above?  The way his clothing matches the setting and situation?  Christians should realize that how they dress shows people what they think about their setting and situation, too.  Christians should realize that what they wear shows the world things about their group.  Christians need to understand that what they wear to church tells everyone something about church, and God, and faith.
Wearing special clothing to special events or to meet special people indicates respect, honor, and dignity.  It indicates that you understand this is something very important and meaningful rather than the usual day-to-day activity.  If you dress for church like its a backyard barbecue, then you demonstrate to everyone there that this means no more to you than a bunch of buddies playing pick up football in the park.  That its not important, not special, and not meaningful.  And the world sees this and figures you don’t have any particular respect for worship or God if your one day a week service is just another get together with buddies in your tee shirt and shorts.

And ladies, there’s a line from Led Zeppelin’s song Hey, Hey What Can I Do that applies well:

On Sunday morning when we go down to church
See the menfolk standin’ in line 
Don’t say they come to pray to the Lord 
When my little girl, looks so fine

You might not think anything of that tight skirt slit to your hip or the top that gaps open, but even the most pious man is going to be distracted by a pretty girl in little clothing.  Think a little before you let your daughter go to church in that skirt up to her thighs, or the top so tight you can read the tag on her bra.  Give us guys a break, huh?

There is an exception to this pattern, though.  Black churches tend to be very formal on Sunday. Black folks dress up when they go to church, they wear the nicest stuff they own.  They dress to the nines, and it can be dazzling to see.  Even the poorest folk will have one really nice outfit they only wear to church and funerals, and they wear it well.  Yes, this can be a matter of pride and so on, but that’s another issue.  The fact is, when someone walks into a church and sees everyone dressed really well, that tells them something about what the people there think of the event.
Here is where civil libertarians will throw rocks at me and presume I want some massive government program or set of laws to dictate dress codes everywhere.  That my call for appropriate clothing means I think that people should be compelled to dress exactly how I say, by force of law.
And that says something about our tendency today to see government as the answer to all things.  If your first response to someone saying “That’s not right” is to presume they mean “and there should be a law” that means you still tend too much to see government as the primary solution to problems.
What I’m calling for is not law, but wisdom. As a people we need to regain an understanding that there’s more to life than what makes us happy and comfortable, what keeps us healthy so that we can then live life better.  It doesn’t take some angry old man or snooty prude to see that popular culture is in many ways getting a lot worse.  That trend cannot be fixed by laws or government, only by wisdom that starts at home and expresses its self appropriately and with dignity.
In a way, this is a sort of “broken windows” form of social structure.  For those who are unfamiliar, there’s an approach to law enforcement which Rudolph Giuliani showed to incredibly successful effect in New York City.  Basically the concept is that if you stop the little crimes, the big crimes are stopped as well.  That if you clean up an area from graffiti, vandalism, and other petty crimes, then the big crimes do not fester and develop there.  And it cleaned up Times Square in a matter of a few years.
A society which cannot govern its self on small things cannot trust its government for anything.  If we cannot through pressure, wisdom, and teaching form a society which handles its daily running then there’s no hope for good government of any kind.  The ability of a culture to handle its day-to-day life properly and wisely will shape every aspect of that culture, from top to bottom.  Schools, government, art, entertainment, children, elderly, pets, food, everything is influenced by this basic principle.  A good society needs far fewer laws than a bad one; as I’ve said many times, the more laws a society has, the greater a sign that they are lawless.

By repairing our culture, we repair our government.  The biggest flaw with libertarian, conservative, and leftist alike is that they all think we can fix it from the top down.  We cannot repair our government until we repair our homes and neighborhoods, our towns and counties, and states, our culture.  From that will flow better government.

And its the little stuff like dressing appropriately for the setting that will get it done.


  1. Eric Says:

    I’m all for appropriate dress, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with “appropriate” becoming a bit more casual than it has been in the past. Wearing your pajamas to church is embarrassing. Wearing slacks with a nice tucked in button-up shirt should be plenty good enough. I’d like to see ties go away altogether and never come back. They are the most ridiculous fashion idea ever invented.

    “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” -Thomas Jefferson

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