10 January 2016

The Ethics of Dress

Many Bothans died to make this man's wig.
Many Bothans died to bring us this wig.

When morals and clothing come up together in religious circles, the connection usually has to do with debates over modesty (which seem to be restricted in scope, peculiarly, to women's clothing).  "How many times should women lash themselves for exposing an ankle to the weak eyes of a man?"  Etc.

That's not what I want to talk about.  Instead I'd like to talk about an ethical dimension of clothing which is a little bit more amusing and less commonly addressed: the nature of the relationship between the dignity of one's dress and one's personal moral integrity.

In college, when I converted to Catholicism, I had the good fortune of converting in the context of a social group made up of some really odd (and very helpful) conservative Catholics.  This group of people was united by membership in a loosely aligned set of organizations.  Almost all were members of Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), the campus pro-life group.  Most were members of a conservative political debating society called the Tory Party, which revered Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, and professed a sort of aesthetic paleo-conservatism interested in the importance of manners and "pleasing illusions".  Many attended the Dominican-run local parish, St. Mary's, in preference to the liberal campus Catholic chapel, St. Thomas More.  And, finally, a number were intermittent members of a nightly rosary group.  All in all there were a couple of dozen people in this little network.

In any small group united by ideas, peculiar interests and emphases shared among any sizeable subset of the group tend to be incorporated into the broad mindset and culture of the group, sometimes in a way disproportionate to the representation of those ideas in any similar group with a larger population (intellectual founder's effect).  One of the amusing ways this happened with the conservative Catholic circle at Yale, in my day, was in the infusion of a vaguely Burkean aestheticism into the group, courtesy of the internal habits and emphases of the Tory Party and its members.  And because for these young people the moral and political order were intimately tied to manners and aesthetics, the cultivation of a 'conservative' personal style was quietly raised to the level of quasi-morality.

This is where things get fun.  My personal mindset at that time was minimalistic when it came to clothing.  Modesty, simplicity, and restraint were good, and an intentional poverty of style was also good.  (All of this came in large part as a result of the fact that I hated thinking about and shopping for clothes.)  For much of college I wore plain t-shirts, increasingly worn-out khaki pants, and sandals with white athletic socks.

So, in retrospect, both my personal habits and my inchoate moral ideas about clothing were challenged as I became a member of the conservative Catholic set at Yale.  Due to a severe case of late-onset social conformism, I failed to objectively appreciate the difference between my own way of being and that of the people I was spending time with, and therefore failed as well to appreciate the value of my established habits.  Concerned about the matter, I had conversations on more than one occasion with friends about whether dressing "well" was a moral issue.  The consensus reply was "yes".

Of course, dressing "well" is not a moral issue — especially not if we understand "good dress" to be defined by conformity to a conservative stereotype or a set of aesthetic norms based on arbitrary class standards accepted a couple of generations ago.  Clothing oneself according to haute bourgeois ideals (or refusing to do so) does not make one a better or worse person.  Wearing a tie and "presenting oneself well" do not have any bearing on moral integrity.

After departing from college, the aestheticism of that set lost its influence on a number of us, and some of its silly pretensions can now be seen as silly.  But having had the experience of belonging to a group where a certain type of clothing was broadly accepted as being morally superior to other types of clothing, not because of modesty but because of its conformity to a cultural type, it becomes easier to see echoes of that same way of thinking elsewhere in society.  There are all sorts of little sayings hovering around the topic: "dress how you want to be addressed" implies that personal dignity is a function of one's outward appearance, rather than one's actual behavior.  Conservative Catholics (even of non-traditionalist stripes) periodically lament the lack of "formal attire" among congregants at Mass.  Granted there's something to the lament, just as there's something to the idea that hygiene and clothing can indirectly reflect a person's self-image.  But the idea is worth questioning.

So here's a closing question: supposing the concept of "formal attire" were abolished completely, along with class stereotypes about "dressing well", so that class signaling could no longer sneak into the domain of morals by way of clothing, and arbitrary, inherited stylistic norms no longer held sway.  In this case, what would matter about one's clothes?  And what bearing would dress have (and be thought to have) on one's moral integrity?