I only wore skirts or dresses until 2005.
I suppose it’s not all that unusual of a statement, considering women from varied religions and cultures wear long dresses or skirts instead of whatever style is trending in fashion. Indeed, fashion trends currently support a dress or a skirt as a cute option for modern women.
There is one picture of me around 1989 where I am standing in a sand dune in Holland, sporting a matching shirt and shorts with Minnie Mouse scattered over them. My corkscrew curls are fuzzy from the wind. My grin is wide and wild. I loved that outfit.
But after Minnie was too small for me, I spent the next 22 years of my life bound in skirts that reached my ankles, legs hidden, feet encumbered. Another picture from 1999 depicts me at a picnic trying to catch a baseball, awkwardly stretching my arms forward, while my jean skirt billowed around me.
Fashion trends and cultural norms aside: in my church, the skirt symbolized submission and status. Wearing a skirt meant you followed the rules. My church required submission to a lot of rules, yet the skirt on a female ranked high in priority. Close to the top of the list, following the no drinking or dancing or mixed company hangouts.
If you wore a skirt, you were right with God.
I believed that a particular type of outerwear would somehow make me better in the eyes of God. Attempting to hide my outer self beneath mounds of fabric would keep my life pure and righteous.
All it did, in reality, was harden my heart and limit the effects of grace. It may seem strange to think that the clothes that I wore affected who I was, but it is true. Somehow, when I was surrounded by other girls and women who wore capris or jeans or leggings, I raised myself to a sense of superiority.
I knew I was right with God.
And I liked it.
I liked the status of the skirt.
One evening at my grandfather’s church, I sang with a group of other teenage girls. We practiced hard and delivered our song with gusto. Later that evening, my grandpa complimented me on the song. “You were so poised,” he said. “Especially compared to the other girls.”
Poised. Positioned. Perfect.
That became my anthem. In the play, “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye says that his people wear their yarmulkes to “show their devotion to God.” For me, every outfit I wore was to show my devotion to my tribe and my God. I longed to be the good girl. I ached to do everything just right so that I could be affirmed one more time.
And for what purpose, I now wonder?
My church taught me that my clothes were meant to keep me pure, that the skirts pleased God, and that I was to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Yet, all it did was elevate my sense of superiority to those around me and made me think my outfits made me noticeable to God. I became addicted to forms and structure.
Skirts added to the illusion.
As if the Divine cares about threads we sew together. As if the Divine channels power via flowing garments, knee-high stockings, and long-sleeved white blouses. As if grace extends further if one is dressed a certain way.
I hoped I was special to God because of my certain way of dressing. I watched the wrath of the church ensue on any woman who stepped out of line to wear any slacks or form-fitting top. I tried to reconcile the rules I obeyed with the God of Love and Grace that I adored.
In 2005, as a 20-year-old girl, I began riding horses with a group of other Americans with a lady who owned a barn near Frankfurt, Germany. My mom helped me pick out an outfit that would “still display modesty.” It was a long top with a bulky fleece sweater, and for the bottom half, a pair of oversized culottes.
My first night in the barn was amazing. Being around horses made me feel alive in a way that I never had. Hailey, one of the other riders, strolled over to me as I brushed my horse. We chatted amiably, and then she said, “I like your outfit.”
She wasn’t rude or mean. In fact, she almost sounded encouraging.
But at that moment, something shifted in me. I was done trying to be above everyone else. Poised. Positioned. Perfect. This would no longer work for me.
I went home that evening and announced to my parents that I was wearing pants to ride horses. “It is ridiculous to not wear pants to ride a horse,” I said. My voice held no questions or doubts.
I didn’t feel closer to or further away from God as I made changes to my wardrobe. But, slowly, as the next years of my young life unfolded, I softened towards others. I was no longer appalled when another woman approached me in pants, or whatever they were wearing. I began to focus more on their words and their actions.
Movement towards others and engagement in the world around me became more fascinating as I left behind the confines of a skirt. I could explore more freely the world around me and say “yes” to more activities because I wasn’t constantly thinking about what I was wearing or what other people might think about what I was wearing.
God stayed close to me throughout the whole process. The garments became a neutral part of my relationship to Him. He began working on the posture of my heart instead as a hardening had occurred. Jesus declared harsh words over the Pharisees and their pleasure derived from their outward appearances. “You are whitewashed tombs,” he hurled at them. “Outwardly you are clean but inside you are full of dead bones.”
My long skirts had been beautiful. My jeans were now comfy. But neither reflected grace. I might have been trying for perfection, but I was coming up short. Not a single piece of clothing can make a soul righteous. Only grace can.
Grace—the undeserved favor of God upon me simply because I am His Divine creation. Lanelle Harris wrote a song with this lyric, “Were it not for grace, I can tell you where I’d be: wandering down some pointless road to nowhere with my salvation up to me, forever running but losing the race were it not for grace.”
Forever wearing status symbol clothing but missing the point.
The point of: grace opens the gateway to a relationship with the Divine.
Grace covers me.
When a symbol becomes an idol, it no longer honors God. The Pharisees wore their tasseled robes, and phylacteries with the Torah inside them, yet their hearts were far from God. Their outward appearance dressed up a ragged inner self. When my skirts and dresses elevated me above the other women around me, the clothes became a problem. When wearing jeans meant I was walking in more freedom and liberty than the other women around me, the jeans became a problem.
There is nothing wrong with symbols and guides inside our relationship with the Divine.
Yet, they are not the sole purpose.
I’m finding more and more that God is deeply interested in the attitude of my heart rather than the appearance of my physical body. He desires to chip away at the callouses on my heart, the dust in my soul, and the cobwebs around my mind so that I can be filled up with grace and joy and purpose.
And, that little girl in the Minnie Mouse pink outfit? She had joy all over her face. Not solely because of the outfit either.
Her little self knew she was loved, cherished, valued.
I’m re-learning what it’s like to be that little girl. Practicing humility like a little child is challenging as a clumsy adult.
But, it’s good.
Because all of life is good. Because all of life is a gift from God. Because grace abounds and abounds and abounds, like rolling waves of a fierce ocean.
No matter what I’m wearing.
PS: when I locate the Minnie Mouse photo, I’ll post it.