Do Clothes Make the Man?

You’ve heard this phrase before, I’m sure. For many, it expresses the very strong link people make between the way someone looks and their worth in society. Well-dressed people are important and poorly dressed people are not. For the most part, it is a fairly superficial statement.

But what if the clothes actually did make a person who they were? In discussing the symbolic importance of clothing in my Pentateuch class this week, our professor shared a rather fascinating study published in 2012 called “Enclothed Cognition” (the study itself is not accessible for free, but you can read about it in a New York Times article here.) Basically, researches gave two groups of graduate students the exact same white coats to wear and asked them to complete a series of cognitive tasks. One group was told that the white coat was a doctor’s lab coat, the other was told that it was a painter’s coat. The results? Those who believed they were wearing a lab coat made half as many mistakes as those who believed they were wearing a painter’s coat!

As the article says, researchers have known for years that the way one looks can affect the way people are perceived and treated. What this study indicates, though, is that the clothing one wears can actually affect one’s image of self, and thus, have an effect on one’s psychological processes and productivity.

I have been a long believer of this, even before knowing the science behind it. In high school, our baseball coach allowed us to wear anything we wanted to practice as long as we had long pants and our shirts represented the school. Almost every player chose to wear sweatpants and an untucked t-shirt. I just couldn’t. I wore baseball pants, high socks, belt, and tucked in baseball shirt, the same things I wore for actual games. To most of them, it didn’t matter what one wore, it was how one played that mattered. Which is true. But at least for me, I knew that how I dressed affected how I played. Besides the obvious practical concerns (sweatpants are more cumbersome than baseball pants) there was a psychological disposition that clothing had on me: in my mind, wearing sweatpants was associated with lounging around and being lazy whereas wearing baseball pants was associated with playing baseball, something that was always done as hard as I could, and helped me focus. Clothing was not an inconsequential external, it was a conscious decision that changed the way I thought about myself and likely affected my psychological disposition.

As someone in religious life, this sort of insight is very interesting to me. While I get the feeling that the issue of wearing a religious habit is completely irrelevant to most people, it is a question that has been hotly contested by priests and religious since the Second Vatican council. Should we wear distinct religious garb? Because there are such strong opinions on either side (about which I have written before), the general conclusion for many is simply to say, “It doesn’t matter what you wear anyway, so wear whatever you want.”

I disagreed with this notion when I played baseball, and now, having learned that there is actual research in this area, have to disagree again. What one wears is not some inconsequential external with no meaning. It is an expression of oneself with significant import. What one wears not only affects how one is treated, it affects the way that we understand ourselves and act in the world. As public figures concerned with the spiritual and physical well-being of all people, called to evangelize and shepherd God’s people, how could this not matter?

But that doesn’t mean I’m calling for everyone to wear their habits and collars. Actually, in what might be the biggest surprise for some people, it’s quite the opposite: I think some people should wear their habits much less. Yeah. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Here’s what I mean. For me, the habit is a positive sign. It symbolizes humility, connects me to the larger tradition and church, allows me to connect with the people of God, and overall, makes me feel good as a pastoral minister. I embody what my clothes mean to me. But what about those friars for which the habit represents something negative, a sign of privilege or a way to separate the laity from ministers? For them, wearing the habit and embodying what it means to them is not going to allow them to be the best ministers they can be. Or, worse yet, what about those people for whom the habit is a sign of privilege and a way to separate the laity from ministers, and they like that about it? What it causes them to embody is extremely detrimental to the faith.

So, I guess the question I have comes down to this: if clothes can actually “make the man,” what sort of man is his religious garb making him into? If what someone wears makes him/her a less effective minister or moves them further from God, it might be time for a wardrobe change.

The cover photo is by German artist Herlinde Koelbl in a project titled Kleider Machen Leute (‘Clothes Make The Man’). The subject is Cardinal Müller, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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6 Comments on “Do Clothes Make the Man?

  1. Your Posts are always refreshing and I continue to look forward to them. Keep up the great work!

  2. I appreciate your view, and I think it certainly seems like common sense, but I think you might have missed a significant part of the monastic tradition surrounding the use of the habit. Obedience and humility are certainly the primary monastic virtues, alongside a practice of ceaseless prayer, These imply the habit, rather than the other way around. There is an interesting point in classical monastic thought that the use of the habit, while it might lead to pride in some people, has of itself a relation to obedience. This isn’t to say wearing the habit magically implies obedience.

    What it means, by contrast, is that wearing the habit puts one in that position because it is not your choice to wear it. It has symbolic significance not merely in wearing it at certain times, but wearing it primarily or exclusively. What we have today that poses that danger is that each friar is given permission to choose when to wear it and when not. Some wear it only in ministry, some seeing it only as a liturgical garment, and others wearing it when they want to impress donors, others when they feel “comfortable” wearing it in public as they see fit but taking it off inside the friary.

    It might seem that we should wear the habit only when we can “use” it well. I think, nevertheless, this is a kind of spiritual temptation. Consider what we dealt the same way with the habit as we did with crosses in church – removing them when they pose a purported temptation to pride – or with going to confession – not going to confession for years because it might make me presumptuous of God’s mercy. Or we stop begging as Franciscans and leave poverty behind as being a possible route to pride. The problem is a kind of spiritual pride that leads to sequestering symbols where they match my expectations. It remains a concern focused on “my” identity and “my” use of symbols, rather than their power to change me. Rather, the appropriate solution in all these cases is something like following a spiritual rule tested by saintly elders in the Catholic tradition. With the habit, it is true the habit does not make the monk, but that is not a call to stop wearing it, but to wear it authentically.

    I find in practice that these people who exalt themselves with the habit would only be made worse by wearing the habit less; just one more relationship they had to a higher authority to which they were subject, or a view of being a servant in line of Francis, etc., would be removed. It just symbolically concentrates their power more in themselves. If they stopped begging and lived off a regular income, they’d just feel more entitled; if they stopped going to confession, they would just have one less opportunity to amend their conscience and no accountability; if they got rid of crosses, there would be no sign of humility visible to them; if they stopped wearing the habit, they would just continue down the same road.

  3. In this discussion, I don’t think that “clothes make the man.” I think it’s the other way around: the mind and heart dictate the clerical clothing choices. I like it that Cardinal Sean O’Malley wears his habit almost everywhere. Seeing him at a distance, it’s impossible to tell what office he holds, but it’s easy to see he’s a Franciscan. To me, it’s an indication that he’s far more deeply a friar than he is a cardinal (and, if rumors are true, a popular candidate for pope in the last election). Pope Francis told the recent meeting of the OFM’s in Rome that, in Argentina, priests and male religious often were called names (“donkey” is one, if I remember correctly). The Franciscans, though, were never called such names, the Holy Father said, because the people love the friars. For me, what sets clerics apart from the people isn’t their clothing in and of itself. It’s the attitude some have that they are more important than the rest of us. Cardinal Burke, in his cappa magna, doesn’t speak to me of Jesus of Nazareth. While Cardinal Sean proclaims his poverty, sincere humility, and love of Saint Francis by wearing the habit and speaking always with love, his classmate, Archbishop Chaput, proclaims his superior office and attitude by his fancy clothes and razor-sharp judgments. Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez also would do well to get rid of a lot of his fancy bishop’s duds and go back to the habit that shows the fraternity from which he comes. The ancient habit of the lesser brothers is recognized and loved by Catholics all over the world. It doesn’t set the friars apart, but instead includes the wearers in the long line of holy and faithful men who have walked with God’s people since the time of Saint Francis

  4. I enjoy your articles very much Brother Casey. They always give me things to think about from perspectives I had not considered before.

  5. The article sounds like something you’d discuss in Bosworth’s class!

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