|John T. Molloy wrote the highly popular Dress for Success over45 years ago and its message still resonates. Here is an excerpt from a review written by someone who read it decades ago.“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.”
Clothing is a much-discussed topic in classical Jewish writings; this week’s Torah portion describes at length the attire of the Kohanim (“priests”) when they attended to their service. Moses was commanded to “make holy garments for Aaron, your brother, for honor and beauty” (Ex. 28:2).
The primary function of their clothing was to bring honor and beauty to their service. Ramban (1194-1270) suggests that theirs was distinctive, which is a feature of royal garments. Clothing is a means of promoting a certain distinct attitude or atmosphere. Clothes can help to achieve a goal but are not a goal unto themselves.
In You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You, Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner explains that clothing is an outward manifestation of our inner turmoil. “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?”Just as the uniform of the Kohanim projected honor and beauty, what we wear projects our values and attitude towards our surroundings. The importance of clothing is not restricted to Temple service, it represents how we choose to project ourselves to the world. Although one should not be judged by what (s)he wears, it would be naïve to think that we aren’t. The teenager who wore a pinstripe suit realized this immediately when he walked out in public. His clothes revealed the message he was trying to convey.
This idea seems so simple, yet I am amazed at the number of extremely intelligent and articulate millennials I encounter who have no idea how to dress for an interview or, in general, to wear something appropriate for an occasion. A fraternity I know saw the need to address this problem by giving the 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?” Just as it would be bizarre for a bride or groom to show up to their wedding wearing t-shirt and sweatpants claiming, (s)he will accept me for who I am, so too if going to shul is something meaningful to you, then you will dress the part when you are going to G-d’s house to speak with Him.Another occasion to wear dignified clothing is Shabbat; it’s a way of honoring the day. One’s clothes should not only be clean, they should be nicer than weekday clothes. The verse even alludes to it by stating “And you shall honor it [the Sabbath].” “Honor,” says the Talmud, is a reference to respectable clothing-this applies even if one will be spending Shabbat at home alone.
Sometimes how we dress is not a statement of who we are but who we want to be. Close your eyes for 5 seconds and ask yourself, how do I want people to view me; am I dressing according to that vision? 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. Good Shabbos