When I was ten, I decided it was time to show that I was growing up by wearing an elegant, lovely outfit to school. My mother and I went to the local department store and bought a stylish pantsuit. The next day, my teacher promptly banished me from school to go home and put on a proper dress. Apparently, my teacher thought that my powder blue pantsuit would cause a social and cultural revolution among the other students. She had to stop my polyester call to arms!
At that moment, I became a tiny feminist keenly aware of the power of clothes. If you don’t believe that our garments have such a power, then wander down to the closest newsstand and check out the new gazillion-or-so-page September issue of Vogue. A lot of trees were sacrificed to enlighten adult women as to what they should wear this fall. Even more telling, consider these senseless clothing taboos and maxims I was taught when growing up: Do not wear white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Respectable women never dress in red. Real women stumble around on three-inch heels that cause untold strains, falls, fractures, and permanent foot damage. Would so many nonsense rules be made without a purpose?
Ancient people knew the deep meaning of apparel. Merlin Stone recounts the Zulu story of the goddess Mbaba Mwana Waresa in Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood (Beacon Press, 1979). Mbaba fell in love with a mortal and went to his village to fetch him on her wedding day. She exchanged clothing with her attendant just to make sure he loved her for herself and not simply because she was a goddess. She switched her elaborate divine robes and jewels for a shaved head, body smeared with ashes and a torn zebra skin. Together, she and her attendant descended to Earth. When her beloved saw beyond the clothing and picked out the woman he loved, she knew she had chosen well, and they flew together to their home in heaven.
In fact, from the earliest times until recent millennia, clothes have been symbols of women’s spiritual, political, and cultural authority. Max Dashu (www.suppressedhistories.net) spent decades collecting slides of women leaders that show how dress is frequently an indicator or channel for power. In Merlin Stone’s retelling, Mbaba wore a beaded belt when she dressed as a goddess. All over the world and in many different eras, beaded belts are a symbol of spiritual elevation. I have a few in my closet that I bought just because I liked them, but maybe somewhere inside myself I knew that they represented something else?
Most of us likely can think of a time when clothing has meant more to our sense of self than just a textile with which to cover ourselves. In my twenties, I worked with people whose ultra-conservative worldviews disturbed me. However, I needed the steady income, so I dressed to match their beliefs in order to stay employed. When I finally found a job in a more progressive company, one of my first acts was to give away four garbage bags of drab, boxy business clothes and buy a new wardrobe that reflected my values and taste. Dressing to express and not hide, to proclaim and not submit, lightened my mood and straightened my shoulders every single day and taught me again that being true to myself was deeply liberating on levels beyond simple outer appearance.
You probably have your own ceremonial clothing that makes you feel strong and sacred. I treasure blouses and jackets inherited from my mother and grandmothers that I still wear to feel close to them. I have a few pieces that I happened to have on at moments of grace or achievement that I sometimes take out in times of trial. Hidden away in my jewelry box are so many gifts from friends whose love I remember when I see them, as well as pendants in the shape of symbols that are potent only to me.
Of course, a lot of women around the world have little choice about what to wear if they wish to make a living or get through each day without the aggravation of challenging strict family or community. Billions of other women do not have the economic resources to purchase new clothes as spiritual objects. For others burdened by overwhelming responsibility, illness, or grief, clothes are the last thing about which they choose to spend their time and energy thinking.
What if we wrote another story like that of Mbaba? What if in this story, the goddess is not able to reclaim her clothes, but must remain in her ashes and torn zebra skin? What if she cannot fly to heaven, so she and her beloved remain on Earth to toil and sacrifice? Would not this story be more like the lives of most women, at least at some time in their lives? Would she grieve and no longer be a goddess?
Without her beaded belt and other goddess clothing, Mbaba and those who encountered her would understand that all she needed in order to show her divinity was her all-encompassing compassionate manner. In fact, by insisting on being recognized for who she was despite her lack of goddess apparel, Mbaba liberated herself from the trappings of her position, showing that she belonged in heaven for herself alone. Her ashes became an even more glorious cloak of divinity than her jeweled robes.
We, too, can reorient the meaning of the clothes we must wear to show ourselves and others who we truly are. Had I been supporting a family when I was in my twenties and wearing my business suits, my clothing would have been a symbol of my devotion to loved ones as I worked everyday to feed and shelter them. A friend’s shaved head resulting from chemotherapy can be a most beautiful sign of her courage in the face of illness. Dirt under my fingernails is not a symptom of unwomanly uncleanliness but a badge proclaiming that I sometimes spend time with my hands in Mother Earth.
Clothing, and indeed every way we express ourselves, is a well of power that either can nurture or destroy our spirits. So often I get caught up in “bigger” indicators of women’s progress toward equality—like a woman almost being nominated to the US presidency or what percentage of corporate executives are now female—that I forget to wake up each morning questioning how I can, like Mbaba, take control of daily life’s elements rather than allowing them to define me.
Like Mbaba, I can be at home wearing finery as a way of expressing the joyful, glorious, and artistic side of me, or cover myself with mud and leaves and be close to the earth. Every day, no matter what I carry on my body, whether beaded belts or torn zebra skins or powder blue pantsuits, I can clothe my spirit in feathers or ashes knowing that being true to who I am transcends what I wear.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~Author Bio: CAROLYN LEE BOYD is a New Englander who writes fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and memoirs celebrating the spirituality and creativity in women’s everyday lives. Over the past three decades, she has published in women’s and feminist literary, art, and spirituality magazines, both in print and online. You may read her occasional musings and published writings, as well as download a free copy of her new novel, at her blog, Goddess in a Teapot. You are invited to contact her through her blog’s contact page.