What lies beneath

“The hidden truth about clothing” – Jonathan M.

Monday, 7:28am
Rembrandt shirt, tie, woollen vest, dress trousers, Last Footwear Company friars.

Feature woman

Tuesday, 7:34am
Fresh shirt, trousers, jockeys & socks. Same shoes, same tie as yesterday.

Wednesday, Thursday & Friday mornings

Saturday, 8:46am
Crumpled T-shirt, torn Lees, bare feet.

Sunday, 9:23am
Strellson shirt, Levis, over-priced boots & flash body spray.

Is that the last word on clothing? For some, it should be. To them, getting dressed is a drag, and clothing a necessary evil. For others, though, it’s a groove and a gas. It’s something to get into and celebrate. For many, it’s a medium for creative expression. “Take art off the wall and out of static display. Adorn the body in wildly wonderful ways,” say the beautiful people at the World of Wearable Arts.

Either way, clothing and fashion are an elementary feature of human life everywhere. Here in New Zealand, they have burgeoned into a multi-million dollar industry aglow with considerable international success. Celebrities such as Madonna and Julia Roberts have been snapped wearing our labels and, in the year ending June 2005, New Zealand exported NZ$317 million worth of apparel to the globe. Never before, it seems, have Kiwis been so chic.

Send wine and chocolates to the fashionistas, I say. Toast their success and clamour for more. After all, a bubbly rag trade creates jobs and helps enliven the otherwise drab wardrobes of proles like you and me.

That said, both the glitz and glamour of haute couture and the banal normality of everyday dress belie the essential significance of clothing. They simply “don’t go there.” To discover the real significance of clothing, the story of its origin must be told.

“Who told you that you were naked?” came God’s sharp interrogative. “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam and Eve fumble about famously for excuses. Later, when the truth has been uncovered and the sentence handed down, God makes for the man and his wife clothing.

It’s a gracious act, because Adam and Eve have, by their own doing, alienated themselves from God and become offensive to Him. He can no longer bear the sight of them as is. Yet, rather than turfing them out with no hope of reconciliation, God provides covering for the shame of their now-corrupt selves.

The new “skins” given them are not a permanent fix, mind you. They’re just a temporary measure until God chooses to arrange totally satisfactory “clothing” for humanity in the person and work of His son, Jesus of Nazareth. That happens some 4,000 years later.

Significantly, it’s the local wildlife that serves as the raw material for Adam and Eve’s new tunics. An animal must bleed and die for their rebellion. It’s a sad moment that declares the idyllic bond between man and nature to be well and truly wrecked. Man can now expect to suffer at the hands of nature, just as nature will suffer at the hands of man.

Human experience throughout space and time testifies to this unnaturally hostile relationship. For millennia, men and women have taken all manner of practical measures to cope with the enmity of nature. Housing and apparel have long been their two principal means of defence.

I’m reminded of this on a browse through Gordon’s Outdoor Equipment. The racks are jammed with these coping mechanisms – gloves, parkas, long johns, possum-merino beanies. The story’s no different at Paddington Coat Factory or Hugo Boss or Glassons. Neither is it any different elsewhere in the world. In Greenland, the Inuit don caribou hide. In Paris, they slip into Armani. Though climates vary and seasons change, man’s need for shelter and protection from the elements is fixed and constant.

So is his need for protection from his peers. When Adam and Eve fell for reptilian rhetoric, they not only destroyed their relationship with God and with nature, they also ensured that the bonds between individuals would be forever soured. If that had not yet occurred to them, what would have left them in no doubt is the envious murder of their son, Abel, by their other son, Cain.

While the effects of murder are not something we are all called to suffer, we do all suffer from this spoiled inter-personal spirit. And again, humanity’s use of clothing suggests the truth of it.

Consider notions of modesty for a moment. Like climate, they vary greatly – from those of the West Papuans whose little men sport little more than spindly gourds to those of the Afghans whose burqas shield all bar eyes and footwear. Even female executives in “liberated” western-style workplaces must take care to protect themselves from unwanted attention. It seems that people the world over dress as though they are never quite sure when dirty old men or women are watching.

Often, of course, sexual attention is highly sought after. For many style doyens, it’s a given. On this, Auckland clothing designer Kristine Crabb has said, “I like the idea of seduction that isn’t really that obvious.” Others have voiced similar thoughts for years. And so clothing, from the ancient to the avant-garde, is marked by the attempt to maintain this delicate tension between attraction and deflection.

If looking hot is important to some, then looking cool is imperative for all. The need to be accepted, loved and valued by a social group is, for most, a central theme of life. East of Eden, such acceptance is hard to come by. Conformity of dress and appearance is a common requisite. If in doubt, pick up a Marie Claire or a Seventeen and peruse the ads and articles. Cellulite is out, flatter tummies are in (when haven’t they been?). Or, test the theory yourself. If you’re a stylish young thing and enjoy the company of other stylish young things, drop your sense of style and start shopping carelessly. See how long it takes before the txts stop arriving. If you’re a conservative Protestant pastor, pull on a pink shirt, get a facial, and jazz up your hairstyle … then track the loss of respect from your peers. Had paradise not been lost, the security of our social relationships would have been assured.

As if breaking fellowship with God and nature and society wasn’t enough, man lost true contact with himself as well. He had been at peace; he had been content and satisfied with his appearance. Then he spurned his status as the bearer of God’s image. Ever since, men and women have been hunting restlessly for new images to bear. For much of history, the source of these have been their cultural elites, their Paris Hiltons. Sometimes the images are generated by individuals themselves. Either way, clothing and fashion have long been an attempt to alleviate self-loathing and assist self-improvement. Botox and breast augmentation may be new, the urge to have them done is not.

New Zealand Fashion Week was held this month. As expected, it dazzled and delighted. When the cameras stopped flashing, it was right back to our very own workaday wardrobes and the daily deal of dressing up and dressing down. Really, it’s all just an epic effort to make the best of a bad situation.

Jonathan M. is a mercenary, hotelier, journalist, spy and round-the-world sailor. In his dreams. The less glamorous reality is that he teaches high school students where to put their apostrophes and bad attitudes. After hours, he can be found all over town laughing and carrying on, mostly with his wife Kelly and their son Vincent.