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Wearing Narrative

Joy and Matthew Steem

"Pile of Clothing"  by bixentro on Flickr is licensed under  CC by 2.0

"Pile of Clothing" by bixentro on Flickr is licensed under CC by 2.0

The body interacts and changes places with apparel as we wear it, changing ruffle to ankle, in the vision of one motion. We let it affect the way we move, the way we interact, the way we shape affection, the means by which we negotiate other’s opinions of our social standing, the way we cognize our own body.
        —Daneen Wordrop, Emily Dickinson and the Labour of Clothing

As one who doesn’t typically pay a great deal of attention to the act of dressing, I have an ambiguous relationship with clothing. In fact, I often catch myself contemplating the necessity of clothing in negative terms, partly because over the years I have become increasingly aware of the class distinctions and identity communicating elements inherent in clothing choices. My mindset has been slowly changing though, in large part thanks to a generous benefactor of luxurious hand-me-downs.  

Oh the clothing is gorgeous, to be certain, but it’s not merely the beauty of the clothing that strikes me: it’s the gratification that enrobes me as I wear it. The knowledge of who it’s from plays a bigger part in my delight than where it was made or what brand it boasts. My mind drifts to what she might have been doing the last time she wore it; I think of her grace, her kindness, her ability to listen deeply to stories, and how she exudes the rare combination of both competence and compassion.

In the ideal exchange, there is a certain intimacy in wearing the clothes of another: an acceptance that exists both on the side of the giver and receiver. Unlike the limp and storyless state of being new clothes arrive in, hand-me-downs come with a built in narrative: will the receiver honor their narrative? While new clothes remind me of an unopened bottle of Perrier, hand-me-downs remind me of a homemade cup of chai tea.

In thinking of clothing, and how I inhabit my garments of the day, I am reminded of a statement Lauren F. Winner, in her book Wearing God, suggests about clothing. She points out that God clothes us with God’s very own self. And then it occurs to me what an intimate act that really is. When I think of the relational potential of hand-me-down clothing, I am amazed. When I think of the metaphor of being enwrapped by the very Person who is Love? My mind and heart begin to make fizzy noises. If wearing the clothing of someone I admire has such an effect on me, what might it mean to embrace being clothed in the loving tenderness, the very Person of God? I envision how my internal and external posture might change, the small adjustments I would make in how I carry myself, how my interactions with others would be influenced by the knowledge of whom I am covered in.

The experience has had another effect. I’ve begun to wonder how people might respond to wearing hand-me-downs from me? Might they imagine being snugly enfolded in courage, compassion, and mirth? Would putting on clothes infused by my temperament make them feel loved or enriched in any way? It’s something I’ll be thinking about as I go through my closets this season.