In general, I find clothing to be more trouble than it’s worth. It requires a lot of maintenance. People judge you for it. It can hardly be said to improve one’s quality of life in proportion to the effort that’s put into it. Formal dress is the worst: Frequently uncomfortable, requiring careful upkeep, formal clothes amplify all the social concerns associated with ordinary dress. All things considered, if I could go around draped in a flannel sack, I might.
Some years ago, I cannot remember where, I came across an old image of some high-ranking officer in the German government (Emperor? Chancellor? President?) who had allowed himself to be photographed in a bathing suit. The image, as I recall, was scandalously humanizing at the time. A great, almost mythic Leader of His People (was it Hindenburg?) was stripping away the emblems and embroidery of high office to reveal the pudgy awkwardness of his middle age, clad in abbreviated long-johns.
Thinking about it, I found myself almost sympathizing with Edmund Burke and his love of the outward forms and signs of status which “harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland simulation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society.” There’s something about elegance and finery that increases the dignity of society. The aristocratic displays of the aristoi dignify us all by teaching us to aspire to nobility. That’s the idea, anyway.
But the more basic insight that I take away from my memory of Hindenburg (or whoever it was) in his bathing suit is that it is important to guard the presentation of one’s physicality in public, simply because the choice of clothing is a form of social communication, by which one can (for better or worse) say something about the order of one’s life (and by saying it, reinforce it).
Much ink has been spilled over the Burkini Ban—France’s latest tiff over Islamic garb worn in public. Perhaps we should approve of the ban, because French Muslims need to be encouraged to assimilate. Perhaps we should oppose it on the grounds of religious liberty and freedom of expression. My own inclination is to laugh at the pettiness of the fight, given the much graver problems facing French civil life today.
But I think there is something admirable in the burkini, as in the burqa. Not that I support the attitude toward women that the burqa seems to imply—their reduction to chattel, virtually nonexistent outside their husbands’ homes. What I admire in the burqa is the way it expresses an entire lifestyle by a single gesture. The burqa tells us so much about the identity of the wearer, the sorts of relationships she is likely to have with her husband, her in-laws, her children, her profession of faith, etc. And it is simply a piece of fabric. Compare: How much does one know about the family and community life of the girl wearing the tank top and the shorts who’s crossing the street ahead of you, or the fellow in his t-shirt and jeans? What can we assume about their values and beliefs?
In this respect the burqa is comparable to two other habits of dress that come to mind: that of Sikh men, who refuse to cut their hair, who wear the kara and carry the kirpan; and that of Christian religious, with their cowls and rosaries and scapulars. I love all of these, in a way, because they speak of commitment and conviction, because they show us that their wearers have allowed a choice (a pious, devotional choice) to determine who they are.
Elliot Milco is deputy editor of First Things.