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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

How Should We then Dress?

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

“Is that appropriate?”

This has been a consistent question in my life. I always seemed to have a knack for showing up in the wrong thing at the wrong place. I internalized that to mean that I was not appropriate. Maybe that was a given with a mother who above all else believed that there were appropriate social norms—all of which I seemed to defy because just being me was usually deemed socially inappropriate.

But what is appropriate? I wrote the following ten lessons I learned along the way during my first year in therapy. I had forgotten about it until I was chatting with a former student. It is interesting to go back and pull from my earlier writings and see the phases I worked through. I was on a roll with this one. Ten lessons, here they are!

Lesson #1: Many are ready to judge you no matter how much they are missing the mark

My first or at least most memorable incident in this regard was in 7th grade. My homeroom teacher told my mother that I did not know how to sit modestly in a dress. OK, fair enough, but it was a scriptural example of having a plank in your own eye since she constantly sat on the desk and introduced the boys to garter belts.

Lesson #2: You can’t be cute and smart at the same time

In ninth grade, I had an older friend who had a fabulous wardrobe and she would lend me clothes. Having a different outfit every day was a dream come true—until I was sent to the office because my skirt was too short. At this point, the male counselor asked me to walk across the room toward him. (Does anyone else see flags flying on the field?) I then received a lecture about how I was an honor student and I did not need to dress that way to get attention—honor students should focus on learning.

Lesson #3: Dress for your audience—even children notice

When I left home to go to college, my mother who had always been very concerned with my wardrobe and ready to buy me clothes suddenly stopped. I guess she didn’t have to be seen with me? By the time I was a junior, my wardrobe was completely depleted. I started working in the Child Development Lab and a surprise gift of money from my brother afforded me an opportunity to buy some clothes. I decided on tops that would go with my two pairs of slacks. This seemed like a good option until a little boy said, “Why do you always wear the same pants.” Ugh, I was dressing for the adults, but the children were at eye level with that same awful pair of brown pants every day.

Lesson #4: Plain and demur is Godly

I attended a conference at an unnamed, but well-known college in Florida, and the first night we were required to attend a lecture on why they believed that dresses were the only appropriate way for women to dress. I learned it was scriptural. This was an amazing revelation for a California beach lover. The next day I encouraged two women from Kansas (who had never been to the ocean) to wade into the water in hose and full skirts. The skirts floated like lily pads. That is just how I roll.

So began many years of assimilation. I managed to transform myself from a beach girl to an appropriate fundamentalist godly woman. All the reasons why that happened aren’t necessarily important to this story because we all have our reasons why we are willing to become someone we are not. We may try to justify those reasons as spiritual, but in reality, they are a psychological denial of who God created us to be.

Every time I showed up dressed inappropriately (by someone’s definition) I felt the waves of shame wash over me. The worst day was my first day at work in a conservative world for which I was unprepared. In hindsight, yes, the cute (short) outfit wasn’t the best choice. Fair enough. Half of my wardrobe left the closet. I was able to relax a bit at my next job but then landed in the Midwest in a peasant top and skirt, tan, with sandals and no hose. In hindsight once again, the looks I got were probably much more complimentary than judgmental, but I was too far down the path of assimilation to realize it.

That move began twenty years of dresses and hose in classrooms without air conditioning in stifling humidity. The fact that I was constantly afflicted with boils and infections because of the nylon hose (I know, TMI) is just another layer. Yet, I kept those rules that made no sense to me.

Lesson #5: Keep the clothing rules the priority

The next incident tells this story to its fullest extent. A beloved student got into a car accident in front of our house (which was on campus) and I happened to be in a pair of shorts (oh no!). I frantically ran to my closet to find a skirt to throw on so I could go out and check on her. Need I say more?

Lesson #6: It is not about modesty

One night I dreamed that typical “out in public naked” dream but in my case, I was at a basketball game in slacks. Same exact feeling. I wore culottes over sweatpants to play with my children in the snow. I learned that sitting in classrooms in dresses was not always a modest choice for my female students. Climbing ladders at church to hang decorations with men in the room was awkward. Once I fell in the chapel. My husband very delicately pulled my dress over my backside as I tried to recover from the pain. I attended a state university while working on my Masters and slid down a long flight of icy stairs only to land in a circle of young men with my skirt around my neck. There is nothing modest about falling in a dress. Nothing.

Lesson #7: Rules without foundation create rebellion without a cause

My daughter was about nine when she asked me why it was OK for her to wear pants but I couldn’t. That is when it struck me that I was adhering to rules that made absolutely no sense to me. I realized that rules we follow without believing in them send subtle messages to our children that inhibit important conversations about what it means to live in fellowship with God. I was dying on hills of no eternal value, and in the process I was teaching my children that it was acceptable to live outside of the rules. I was teaching them that rules did not make sense or have value and it was really beyond their developmental stage to distinguish between those things that man created and what God put in place. Because this man-made rule held such prominence in our lives (every time I walked out my front door), I was unable to help them understand the difference between man’s rules and God’s rules—set in place to ensure communion with Him and our fellow man. Should I have feigned belief? Children are far too bright to be fooled by that—after all; I was not going to wear a dress when we went to the beach on our vacation.

Lesson #8: Be true to yourself and discern the truth rightly based on God not man

Life moved on from that confusing world and so did I. It was such a relief to not have to professionally look the other way from foolishness such as “you can’t wear sandals that have straps between the toes.” I lived my life well. I kept the rules that I was told to keep only now realize that most of those rules have been discarded. Some say that is a slippery slope. I say thank you, but it is too late for me to be true to myself while raising my children.

So, how should I now dress? In truth and righteousness, unfettered by the rules of man. Only in freedom can my conversations be about my walk with God. So much is placed in our way to distract us. Is what I wear important—or keeping any other man-made rules for that matter? Maybe not, but who makes that choice for me certainly is.

Lesson #9: Any rule not based on our love for God and our neighbor becomes a means to make our faith seem superior and leads us to judge others

Jesus was so clear on this, yet we often miss his point completely. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. We can be distracted by so much, but why? Live your life. Be authentic in front of your children, family, and friends. Be true to yourself as the one who God created. Love others. Love them. Just love them. They don’t need your rules—they don’t even understand them. They can’t distinguish between what God says and what you say. You represent God to them. Jesus said to love. It is just that simple.

I hate to end without a tenth lesson. It just doesn’t seem right to someone who taught math for so many years. I think God agreed—10 commandments and all. Maybe retirement has made me realize how much of my life was controlled by the rules and opinions (dare I say judgments?) of others. In my very last conversation with my colleagues, I asked the question, “Do we trust the Holy Spirit to convict others?” There was an uncomfortable silence and possibly a snicker. We know we should, but it is hard. We want everyone to conform. We are sure that if they followed every guideline or rule we set before them their lives would be better. We aren’t sure they will understand this and feel compelled to enforce compliance instead of having legitimate conversations.

The problem is, sometimes the rules we believe are important today get discarded tomorrow, and then what do we say? Well, it was important until a committee or assembly decided it wasn’t. The church is replete with illustrations. So, stop dying on those hills! The only hill worth dying on is to love others as Jesus did. He was just so secure in his love for others that it was not necessary to express judgment. He knew that if he loved them (right where they were, just who they were, just who he created them to be, no matter if he agreed or disagreed with their choices), they would want to be like him. I could just break into song here! “Oh to be like Thee!”

Sometimes the old hymns really do say it right—it is compassion that the world needs: Oh! to be like Thee, full of compassion, Loving, forgiving, tender and kind, Helping the helpless, cheering the fainting, Seeking the wand’ring sinner to find.

Lesson #10: Love trumps judgment every single day.

I desire to choose love over the rules—every single day. I wish my focus could have been on love for all those years when I followed rules that made no sense. I am going to spend the rest of my days choosing love—no judgment, just love. Ah! I chose love. It feels so free and good.

How should we then dress? Clothed in Love.

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