During the Revolutionary War, the colonists wore camouflage to ambush the British but the British soldiers were easily spotted due to their bright red uniforms. So, too, with French soldiers at the beginning of WW I. The French army was wearing the stylish red pants and blue coats that had been their uniform for centuries. When the minister of defense attempted to change the uniforms, he was rebuffed with the assertion that “red trousers are France!” After many casualties, they finally changed their uniforms. The mistake wasn’t just their mode of dress, it was their attitude.
The mistake of these two armies is related to a key lesson that emerges from this week’s Torah reading, which describes at length the uniform the Kohanim(“priests”) wore during their service in the Temple. Moses is commanded to “make holy garments for Aaron, your brother, for honor and beauty” (Ex. 28:2).
It seems that the primary function of their clothing was to bring honor and beauty to their service. Ramban (1194-1270) suggests that the clothing the Kohanim wore was characteristic of royal garments. We see that clothing can be understood as a means of promoting a certain attitude or atmosphere. Clothes are a means to achieve a goal but are not the goal in and of themselves; this was the mistake of the armies who chose fashion over function for their uniforms. Instead of understanding the purpose of their clothing-to aid them in being effective soldiers-they placed value on style, which became the goal.
The importance of clothing is not restricted to Temple service, it represents how we project ourselves to those around us. Although one should not be judged by what (s)he wears, it would be naïve to think that we are not conveying a message to others by what we choose to wear. Just as the uniform of the Kohanimprojected honor and beauty, what we wear projects our values and attitude towards our surroundings. One’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner self and attitude. It took centuries-i.e. until the final quarter of the 20th century-before this this ancient lesson about the significance of clothing became public knowledge. In 1975 Dress for Success by John T. Molloy became a bestseller. Here is an excerpt from a review written by someone who read the book as a teenager.
“I read Dress for Success when I was a skinny, baby faced teenager. I was so impressed by the book’s research and conclusions that I bought a custom-made navy pinstripe “power suit,” and accessories to match. Then I conducted a social experiment.
Dressed to the nines, I walked around the downtown skyscrapers and looked for a summer job. I was shocked by the reactions of strangers, and later by people who knew me well.
I was accustomed to being “invisible.” Suddenly, people treated me with respect. When a less impeccably dressed septuagenarian walked up to a revolving door the same moment I did, he slowed down, and gestured that I go through first. I did. He treated me as if I were his superior. Yet I was still just a seventeen-year old kid.
On my way home, I met a neighbor who I had known for years. In the middle of the street he engaged me in conversation. He asked me about my ambitions, and how I intended to realize them. Although he had known me for years, he had never really talked to me before. But suddenly, he treated me as a respected peer.”
In You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You, Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner reveals that “most wardrobe mistakes have nothing to do with clothes but are almost always a symptom of a deeper issue.” Concerning women, “Do we stick to jeans or sweats because we’re comfortable with that and too apathetic to try something new? Are we showing just a little too much, and if so-why? Are we sharing clothes with our teenage daughters? Are we swathing ourselves in designer labels? She explains that clothing is an outward manifestation of inner turmoil.
This lesson about clothing seems so simple but I am amazed at how many extremely intelligent and articulate millennials I encounter have no idea how to dress for an interview or in general to wear something appropriate for an occasion. I know a fraternity that gives its “brothers” instruction on how to dress with a shirt, tie, and suit.
One of the areas of Jewish life that places a premium on dress is the synagogue. Some people say, “G-d will accept me for who I am; why does it matter how I dress?” If going to shul is something of important to you, then you will dress the part. It would be bizarre for a bride or groom to show up to their wedding wearing a t-shirt and shorts claiming, (s)he will accept me for who I am, not how I dress. It seems so obvious in certain areas of life but for not obvious when it comes to talking to G-d in His house. Another time Jews wear special clothing is on Shabbat, in honor of the day. One’s clothes should not only be clean, they should be nicer than weekday clothes. There’s even an allusion in the Torah about it; “And you shall honor it [the Sabbath].” The Talmud interprets “honor” as a reference to respectable clothing that will cause others to respect the one wearing them. This is the Sabbath dress code even if one will be spending Shabbat at home alone.
How we dress is a statement of who we are, or perhaps want to be. Who are you and how do you want to be perceived? There’s no one answer to this question but there’s a way to let people know-make sure you dress in a way that externally displays what’s going on in your mind and heart.
[Sources: Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Cover by Rabbi Chaim Poupko; Ramban Exodus 28:2; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 262:2 with Mishna Brurah]