Clothes (Un)Maketh the (Hu)man
Several years ago in a local restaurant, the four year old daughter asked what, as always, seemed like a very simple question: “Mummy, what is fashion?” “Well,” the mother began confidently, “fashion is to do with clothes, what is fashionable and what is not.”
“But what does fashionable mean Mummy?” she pressed.
Realizing the mother she had not actually explained fashion she continued; “well, fashion is the clothes we wear and some people decide what people are going to wear at the moment and when we do, we are fashionable, we are wearing fashion…” she continued for a long time, digging herself into a deeper hole with every sentence and realizing just how ridiculous the whole thing sounded. The discussion concluded with the daughter saying “We had a fashion parade at preschool once, we dressed up.” “Exactly!” the mother replied and made a hasty retreat into safer territory!
This overhead conversation had started me thinking about fashion, clothes, their power and their place in our world. Why does it matter what we wear? What power does clothing really have? It shouldn’t have any, but it actually does have a great deal. There is a (excuse the pun) thread running through our parashah this week, where clothing plays a pivotal role in three of the narratives.
The first, and most obvious, is the colored coat which Joseph is given by his father as a sign of his favoritism. That coat caused Joseph’s already distainful brothers, to hate him even more and led to their heinous act of throwing him in a pit and then selling him to passing slave traders. Next, when Reuben returns to the pit and finds Joseph gone, he tears his clothing, a sign of mourning and grief. Joseph’s brothers then take the coat, dip it in blood and use it to deceive their father into thinking that Joseph is dead, whereupon Jacob tears his clothing as a sign of mourning. A link is made with this act of dipping in blood, which eventually leads to the Israelites being resident and then enslaved in Egypt, and the dipping in blood the Israelites performed when leaving Egypt.
Next our parasha takes a slight diversion into the story of Judah and Tamar. Again, clothing plays a pivotal role. Tamar, the widowed daughter in law of Judah, is being deprived of Judah’s youngest son to conceive a child in her first husband’s name. She takes matters into her own hands. She removes her widow’s clothing, a sign of her mourning, and disguises herself to trick her father in law into doing the right thing.
He thinks her a prostitute, sleeps with her and then leaves his cloak and other identifying items with her as a pledge. She later uses those items, including clothing, to demonstrate her innocence. And finally, we return to Joseph who has found work in Potiphar’s house and he is left alone with Potiphar’s wife. She attempts to seduce him and clutches him by the coat. He resists her advances and flees, leaving her with his coat as evidence which she then uses to have him arrested. So clothing once more consigns Joseph to a pit, this time, jail.
Clothing is found throughout the parashah, sometimes it is an outward reflection of what is happening within the wearer, other times it is concealing the person inside, it is used to condemn and to exonerate, to deceive and reveal, its manipulation causes pain and joy, suffering and passion. Clothing gives power to those who wear it and to those who react to it. And despite the passing of time, clothing has lost none of its power. It can help define who we are, connect us with communities, groups, ideologies, beliefs, it shapes part of the message we project into the world. We make assumptions based on clothing, we draw conclusions and we also use it to mask insecurities, hide flaws, project the image we wish to have in the world. It is far more than just a means by which we can protect ourselves from the elements. I wonder this week, when our parashah is so focused on clothing, if we could take a few moments to think about clothing, its role, its function and its power.