I grew up in small town Ohio and spent the majority of my time at school and sporting events. Either I was in my uniform, or athletic gear. When I went to college, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to wear required attire. It definitely sounds dramatic, but something about that really caused a change inside me.
Now, I’m not knocking uniforms at all. I liked wearing a uniform; I think they’re pretty classy. Sometimes I even still wish I had one to fall back on when I feel like I have nothing to wear. However, I can’t deny that I saw inner growth once I was given free reign of my wardrobe. I actually did my hair, and put make-up on– neither of which I took the time to do in high school. My self-esteem grew, for some reason it helped me to realize my worth. I wasn’t basing my worth on how I looked… I think I just finally saw my own beauty…the beauty that was a reflection of my Creator and was meant to be a gift to this world. I enjoyed taking pride in my appearance.I felt stronger and more confidant, and the way I approached my daily responsibilities changed because of it. The way I approached people changed because of it… I felt as though I was dressed for the occasion– sort of like how we wrap gifts before we give them to our loved ones. It’s not the wrapping that is the gift, but it does seem to draw our attention to the fact that it is something special.
Once upon a time, I would have thought of my concern for my hair and my clothes as nothing more than vanity. Growing up active in my faith, I remember being told time and time again that inner beauty was more important than being physically pretty… especially during my preteen years, when all us females seemed to be going through our most awkward stages. I don’t know how or why, but my little brain misconstrued that message. Maybe it was to make my self feel better about my baby fat and baby face… but I took that message to mean that outward beauty didn’t matter at all. From that conclusion stemmed the thought that being concerned about my looks in anyway shape or form was actually vanity.
Obviously, I have since realized that this is untrue… and I think I have to give credit to two places: Our Lady of Guadalupe & The Song of Songs. These thoughts of vanity surfaced during a time when my self-esteem was low, and my scrupulous view of my life was high… Seeing these religious presentations of beauty, and the effect they had on their intended audience was both healing and freeing for me.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
In 1531, Mary appeared near modern day Mexico city dressed as an Aztec princess– her beauty and loving message sparked the conversion of 6 MILLION native people who had rejected Catholicism due to the mistakes of the Conquistadors. Partial credit for the attention she got from these peoples must be given to the fact that when she appeared to Juan Diego, she was dressed as one of their own.
By no means do I think that trendy tops, skinny jeans, and booties are going to cause anyone to convert, but I do believe that on some level, it affirms the fact that the Truths we proclaim and live are not “old-fashioned” or “out-of date.” Just as Our Lady did, we should dress as a true member of the culture, and that draws attention in and of itself, giving the impression that we are “relatable” and that desiring holiness is not something that has to make one awkward. One can still be “normal,” enjoy the goodness within the current culture and be striving for sainthood.
The Song of Songs
The Song of Songs is a beautiful “mosaic” of poems in the Old Testament about a young bride and groom that are madly in love with one another.
In the poem, the bride comes before her husband completely decked out….
She’s tan (Song 1:6), healthy, & strong (Song 1:9)
She is freshly bathed (Song 5:2-3)
Her breath smells good (Song 7:8)
She’s wearing a lot of perfume (Song 1:12-14)
Her hands are dripping with precious, expensive oils (Song 5:5)
She’s adorned with jewelry (Song 1:10-11)
Her husband thinks she’s the prettiest woman alive (Song 1:8), compares her beauty to that of both the dawn and the moon (Song 6:10) and praises every inch of her body (Song 4:1-5)
As a woman, I love that this bride is adorned from head to toe– and it’s not out of vanity! It’s out of love! She is completely dolled up as a gift for him! She knows her worth, and is using all the scents and ornaments to accentuate and communicate the enormity of the gift that is herself. The groom is mesmerized, showering her with praise, jewels and gifts of all kinds.
Isn’t this how our love for others should be– mesmerizing? Shouldn’t it be attractive, drawing people close in wonder and awe? We are material beings- the more senses that can be used to communicate a message of love to those around us the better!
I found further affirmation of beauty’s goodness while reading about different Saints… especially the more modern ladies. Venerable Teresita Quevedo was voted “best dressed” by her senior class before they graduated. St Gianna Beretta Molla would have her husband bring home fashion magazines when he was traveling out of the country on business. St Zelie Martin owned and operated a renowned lace-making business in the mid 1800s. While fashion was not the main focus of their lives, it was obviously still important to them, and they were able to incorporate it into their lives in a virtuous way.
Today, I even see “living saints” (with a lowercase “s”)– individuals striving to live holy and virtuous lives. In my opinion, these ladies are a few solid examples of faithful Catholics whose fashion and style make their messages all the more attractive.
Immaculee Ilibagiza – A survivor of the Rwanda Genocide, Immaculee is an author and motivational speaker whose story stresses the importance of the rosary, mercy and forgiveness.
Leah Darrow – Once a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, as well as a professional model in NYC, Leah now travels the country speaking about her experiences, her conversion, and the virtues of modesty and chastity in light of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.
Lila Rose – President and Founder of Live Action, a human rights organization dedicated to ending abortion and inspiring a culture that respects and protects life.
Even just by reading a little bit about these women and glancing at their pictures, it’s clear that their stylish appearance only accentuates what is on the inside….
But, what happens when this is not the case? What happens if we misuse this gift?
Look at this photo…
How does it make you feel?
(please keep that thought in your head for comparison)
Now look at this photo….
I’d bet money you felt better about looking at the second one…
Maybe it made you feel peaceful…
while the first photo might have made you feel a little uneasy… maybe even self-concious…
Was it a bad idea to use a picture of a nun in a post about the importance of fashion…? Maybe…
The point I am attempting to get across is that our physical beauty and the way that we dress does have an effect on those with whom we come in contact. Mother Teresa’s habit might not be the most fashionable, but I think it is still “attractive” in that it is inviting… When I look at her, I am drawn to her. When I look at the picture of the woman above her, I almost want to look away…
What kind of message does our daily ensemble proclaim? Do we look warm and inviting? Or cold? Or outdated?
It remains a simple reality that people judge us by our appearance. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, fashion sends a message about who we are to those around us. I believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to “accentuate” the Gospel. If wearing cute clothes helps– why wouldn’t we do that? If we have an opportunity to present ourselves as being “current with the times,” I believe we should take it.
This is not to say that the Gospel will only be accepted if proclaimed by a woman in Gucci stilettos and a Dolce outfit from this season, but I think the way we take care of our bodies, as well as our overall appearance can greatly reflect the wholeness of Christianity. Of course, someone with a “faulty” sense of fashion can still be a powerful tool for evangelization (hello- John the Baptist dressed himself in camel hair); but by-and-large, I think fashion plays a role in helping people be open to the concept of a God who isn’t stuck in the 15th century, especially in today’s Western culture.
St. Paul says, “… become all things to all men, that [you] might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22).
I think a trip to T.J. Maxx is in order…