Forget about Brexit. The big news in the UK is that England’s prime minister, Theresa May gave an interview a few weeks ago in The Sunday Times Magazine in London wearing designer leather trousers that cost $1,250 dollars. Despite the fact that she spoke openly about her childhood and the difficult decisions facing her as a leader now, her constituents heard one thing: the price tag. Not surprisingly, the Twitter universe lit up with criticism. How dare she dress in such expensive clothes at a time of Britain’s austerity, warm in her leather trousers, while some have no money to heat their homes.
Never mind that many English male politicians dress in Saville Row suits that cost thousands of pounds or that America’s president-elect Trump favors Brioni suits, which I am told can sell for as much as $17,000. The focus on a woman’s leadership so often turns to looks. Criticisms flow about hair and clothing, weight and presence that seem to target female leaders much more often than their male counterparts. The storm in a British teacup has been called “Trousergate.” Personally, I’m getting tired of all these old and new gates: Monicagate, Camillagate, Riogate, Bloodgate and most recently, Pizzagate. It’s time for a new term.
On the other side of the pond, Ivanka Trump has been raked over the coals for selling a brand of soft feminism in her clothing line and then not saying a word when accusations flew about her father’s treatment of women. Again in the Twitter universe, there are opponents who started a campaign asking women not to support her brand. Yet clothing she wore in major political speeches on the campaign trial were then advertised on her website to instant success. She became her own billboard for advertising. The brand is growing by leaps and bounds. Not coincidentally, the leather trousers May wore are already sold out.
With all this clothing gossip, it’s not hard to understand why in Hebrew the word for clothing “beged” is the same root as the word for traitor “boged.” Clothing conceals and reveals, and therefore it involves a lot of decisions about how we present ourselves to the world. It gets to the heart of personal identity.
Our first clothes, according to the Hebrew Bible, were skins that God made for Adam and Eve. They grabbed leaves for covering the nakedness they suddenly experienced after eating from a mysterious tree that gave them knowledge. Many believe this story is a metaphor for the discovery of sexual knowledge that made them both self-conscious in the presence of each other. And this, too, reveals something about the ideal state of humanity and the real curse these primordial beings received. Virtually every time we get dressed, we engage in questions about who we are based on how we look. Who are we trying to impress? Have we dressed appropriately for the occasion or activity? Are we dressing to stand out or fade into the background? What psychic pleasure it must have been to have none of this nonsense upon which to perseverate.
Dr. Norman Cohen in Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing and Identity writes, “The symbolic power of clothing, both in terms of what it hides as well as what it reveals, has everything to do with identity and how we perceive it.” He goes on to cite a beautiful piece of the Zohar, a medieval kabbalistic commentary on the Pentateuch. The Torah itself is described as a bride with many layers of clothing that hide her innermost beauty. The Zohar warns about just seeing the external layer and believing that the outer garment is all there is. “Come and see: There is a garment visible to all. When…fools see someone in a good-looking garment, they look no further. But the essence of the garment is the body; the essence of the body is the soul! So it is with Torah…This body is clothed in garments: stories of this world.”
To impart its wisdom, the Torah is robed in beautiful stories. According to the Zohar, “All those words, all those stories are mere garments.” They draw us in with their curb appeal. The fool sees only this literary covering, the amusement or drama each story offers. The wise reader understands that such stories, like garments, conceal and reveal themselves to those who have deep curiosity. In the peeling away of meaning, life lessons emerge as our finest teachers.
Many of the current political discussions involving clothing actually mask prejudices, gender biases and profound anxieties about leadership in general and specific leaders in particular. Like the Torah that clothes itself in external layers that invite curiosity, should we be uncovering what these conversations are really about, hiding as they do behind petty barbs.
Instead, perhaps we can turn to Job who made virtue and justice his clothing: “I put on righteousness, and it clothes me. My justice was like a robe and a turban” [29:14]. Dress in piety and you’ll always be dressed for true success.