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Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

My mother used to tell us kids, “You might not be able to wear the most expensive new clothes, but you can always be neat and clean.”

I recently was reminded of her mantra when I saw a photo posted on a local history Facebook page that I follow. It featured photos of a man and a woman in the 1940s who were walking along the sidewalk of the main shopping district of my hometown. The man is wearing a suit, a tie, a hat, polished shoes, and an overcoat. The lady is wearing a pretty dress, gloves, dress shoes, a hat, and even a coat with a fur stole. And the people in the background are similarly dressed; these two people were not exceptions. That was the norm in that time.

Those photos sparked a host of follow-up comments from readers who were contrasting those days, when people “dressed up” for even mundane tasks such as shopping downtown on a Saturday, with the current atmosphere of slovenliness. The vast majority of readers who responded longed for a return to “the good old days.”

I have always been impressed when I see photos of spectators at baseball games during the 1920s through the 1950s, a time when males wore suits and hats (or at least sport coats or vests). One is hard pressed to find anyone in the crowds who is not so dressed.

I recall my mother and father “dressing up” to go shopping on Saturday mornings in Knoxville. Mother was always impeccably dressed, and Daddy always wore a sport coat and a tie. (In winter, he might even wear a hat, and in summer, he might “slip” and not wear the tie, but the sport coat was inviolable.) My parents were especially particular about our appearance when we went to church, not because they were trying to impress anyone with what we wore but because they knew that we were entering the presence of God Himself for worship. We weren’t going to play. Sunday was a day when we were to look different from the world around us because we were about the King’s business. We weren’t dressed weirdly, but we were neat, clean, and dressed appropriately for the occasion. Only after church did we change into “play clothes.”

Performers today, instead of “dressing up” (suits, evening gowns, etc.) as they once did, dress haphazardly and bizarrely. Remember when the Beatles first hit the big time wearing suits and ties? The only bizarre thing about their appearance was their long hair. Contrast that with how today’s performers look. The more bizarre and outlandish their appearance the better, it seems.

Having been a classroom teacher for nineteen years, I observed that students typically performed better, both behaviorally and academically, when their schools had a strict dress code. Although many schools are adopting student uniforms primarily to avoid shaming students who can’t afford the most fashionable clothing or to eliminate gang symbolism in dress, they also see improvements in academic performance and conduct when their students “dress up” for school.

I also remember being ashamed whenever I had to wear jeans with a hole in the knee when I went to work with Daddy, a self-employed brick mason. People today wear to church clothing that I was ashamed to be seen wearing to work! In many churches, even the preachers dress more slovenly than blue-collar workers with dirty jobs! You struggle to find any difference.

Remember the legendary IBM corporate image as conveyed in their representatives’ dress? IBM’s sales people always wore dark suits, blue shirts, and color-coordinated ties. Those “reps” were the public image of the corporation, and the bosses wanted them to “look the part.”

But rather than merely pining for the “good old days,” I suddenly realized the application of the words that Mordecai spoke to Esther in the Old Testament: “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Working from home as I do, I could write or edit in my pajamas if I wanted to. Who would know if I was wearing a ragged sweatshirt and jeans with a hole in the knee?

But I’ve noticed that, like the school students I once taught, the way I dress affects my thinking, my attitudes, my behavior, and, I sincerely believe, the quality of my work. Rather than being pulled along by and fitting in with the slovenliness of today’s fashions, why shouldn’t I continue to “dress up” and thereby demonstrate the difference between “that world” and the world I represent as a Christian? We believers are, after all, corporate representatives, ambassadors of the King of Kings on this earth. And we should look the part.

Dare to be different–in a good way, not in slovenliness. If you profess to be a believer, remember Who it is that you represent, and look the part.

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