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“Apparel oft proclaims the man.” —Polonius to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Both the burka and the bikini were devised by men as solutions to a male problem: the problem of male attraction to the adult female body.

Which parts of the adult female body are men attracted to? Every part, from the spire of the head to the underside of the foot.

The burka man offered a bolt of cloth to cover women tip to toe. And women asked, ‘How will this help your problem?’ The burka man said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll help.’

The bikini man offered a sliver of fabric to cover the essentials. And women asked, ‘How will this help your problem?’ The bikini man said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll help.’

The difference between these two garments is that one is religious and the other is not. Shall we think about religious attire for a little bit?

Let’s establish first of all that anyone should be able to wear anything they want in clothing, barring clear clothing where law forbids it.

It would be wonderful to see a population attired in interesting outfits instead of eyeing packs of people plodding along streets in cheap t-shirts and rubber flip flops

Style is art, and style suggests consideration for the eye of the beholder. Except for the morning mirror, except for a pane’s reflection, we do not see ourselves in our clothes most of the day. We dress for others’ thoughtful gaze. We are entertained by people in stylish clothes, and we are somewhat injured by slovenliness in others.

Personal style broadcasts only that a person has flair and says little or nothing about the inward character of a person.

Religious attire seems to announce that a person is holy and moral, perhaps holier and more moral than thou.

But religious attire would seem to announce that a person is holy and moral—perhaps holier and more moral than thou. And chances are, the body and soul beneath religious garb is no holier and no more moral than anyone else.

Can the religious keep personal piety to themselves without flagging it with fashion? Can they not dress so as to proclaim themselves spiritually lofty? Can we witness and confirm religious people’s piety and morality by their speech and their behavior alone? Must religious people prejudice the matter by arriving in holy attire?

We can also put courtroom judges in this category. Do they need robes to broadcast their sagacity? Might they dress like the rest of us to indicate that they are indeed like the rest of us? Won’t we see their wisdom soon enough in their judgments, even if we espy them in their street clothes? (At eye-level too, not on pedestals.)

Uniforms are a different category and all uniforms are necessary declarations—not of superior interiority in the wearer—but of function: cops, forest rangers, nurses, surgeons, athletes, soldiers, flight attendants, football players, school children, fast food employees. None of these uniforms indicate superior morality or a heightened spiritual sense.

Costumes too are different. They’re just the fictive hyper-indicators of whatever they proclaim: prince or princess, king or queen, dragon or dragoon.

But clerics, ministers, ecclesiastics, prophets, preachers, priests, mystics, monks, lamas, popes, nuns, rabbis, powahs, yogis, imams, ayatollahs, avatars, rishis, shamans, gurus, holy men, holy women—are all adorned in religious clothes that they need not wear.

Might a religious person dress in style, even modestly, sans Prêt-a-Porter Piété ?

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...