Clothes are the external symbols of spiritual potency. Despite this, the symbol may become a simple sign which destroys the reality when dress is mere uniform unconnected with personality. For example, the current liking of priests and officers for lay dress and plain clothes in place of clerical dress or uniform may doubtless be explained in terms of social development, but it may conveniently be observed that this fact is a sign of desacralization and loss of meaning of the symbol.
If dress no longer displays a relationship of a symbolic nature with the underlying character of priest or soldier, it would in fact be far better to get rid of it altogether and for the people concerned to be reduced to the dead level of mediocrity. Dress indicates membership of a body with a specific character, be it the church, army, navy or the law, and to cast off its particular dress is in some sense to deny membership of that body.
It is rather too easy to say that ‘the habit does not make the monk’ or, as Chuang Tzu remarked, the mandarin. Indeed, and this is not something which should be ignored, the purpose of the monastic habit may well have been to conceal individual physical differences. In the past, in the Orthodox Church as in religious orders, taking the habit could stand in all respects as a form of second baptism, with effects which were not purely external. Buddhist monastic dress suggests complete withdrawal from the world, the dust and rags picked up haphazardly along the road. A Zen patriarch is invested by transmission of a robe, his kasaya. They might not owe it to their learning, but educated Chinese told the world that ‘by their round caps they understood heavenly things; by their square slippers they understood earthly things, and by their tinkling earrings they understood how to achieve harmony everywhere’ (Chuang Tzu: ch. 21). If dress exteriorizes office or status, it is sometimes their symbol and helps to confer both the one and the other.
The Sufi master gives his khirka to the person he admits to his community.
The vestments of Jewish priests were reminders of the correspondences between micro- and macrocosms, and their fringes of the grace raining down. Use of priestly vestments is widespread, but it is to be observed that this hieraticism is also applied to lay clothing. In this context the priestly vestment above all others is the pilgrim’s dress, often a white robe, as in Islam for both Sunni and Shiite and in Japan for both Buddhist and Shinto. The pilgrim has to change from everyday dress into a special garment, which sacralizes him. This is ‘putting off the old man’ and ‘putting on the new man’ spoken of by St Paul, purification as a preliminary to ‘passage’. Before initiation into Chinese secret societies the candidate, too, puts on a white garment. This calls to mind the ‘wedding garment’ mentioned in the Gospels (Matthew 22: 11-14).
In China the Imperial robe had a round collar and a square hem, which therefore made its wearer an intermediary between Heaven and Earth, circles symbolizing Heaven and squares Earth. When discussing the hexagram k’uen (Earth; passive First Cause), the I Ching links it with the ‘undergarment’ denoted by the same ideogram, which was yellow, the colour of earth. The Li-ki attached the highest importance to the symbolism of this garment, which prescribed the noble carriage and qualities of its wearer. It was fashioned from twelve strips like the year from twelve months (harmony); its sleeves were round (graceful movement); the stitching at the back was straight (rectitude) and the lower hem was horizontal (peace of heart). ‘When dress is as it should be, the bodily carriage will be correct, the facial expression calm and gentle, in conformity with rule, prescript and order’.
The shaman’s robe contains an equally great wealth of symbolism. ‘In Ancient Uralo-Altaic cultures, the shaman’s cloak was decorated with a three-branched emblem known as the mark of the bustard, a symbol of communication between the worlds of death and resurrection.’ In Western popular art the wizard’s pointed hat, his magic wand and cloak ornamented with stars recall the shaman’s kaftan, a ‘robe with long sleeves decorated with iron rings and the figures of mythical beasts’, and the different items in his wardrobe. Wearing wings upon his shoulders signified that he was the ‘intermediary between the two worlds’. ‘North African peasants wear a burnous of seven separate pieces of cloth stitched together, symbolizing the seven parts of the human being... Throughout time and place,’ Jean Servier concludes, having given countless examples, ‘whether clothing is made of thread, beaten bark or skin, its wearer through symbols finds the place which he believes he should fill in this world, clothed in light’.
Even in Old Testament times choice of dress could indicate the underlying character of the wearer. Thus in Daniel’s vision (7: 9), he describes God as the Ancient of Days, seated upon a heavenly throne and dressed in white, the colour of light. The prophet Isaiah gives thanks to the God who has saved and justified him. Dress is no external attribute, foreign to the nature of its wearer, but on the contrary is an expression of the inherent and essential truth of his character.
White, shining or glistening garments enable angels to be identified immediately (Matthew 28: 3; Luke 24: 4). In the Transfiguration, Jesus’ garments became gleaming with a supernatural, heavenly and divine whiteness (Mark 9: 3ff.). It should be seen as a manifestation of the glory of the Resurrection in advance of the event; the gospel account of it betrays the literary influence of other accounts of the manifestation of the godhead.
When, according to legend (2 Enoch 22: 8ff.), Enoch was taken up into Heaven, the Lord commanded him to remove his earthly garments and to put on glorious robes. In so doing he assumed the character of the new world into which he had been taken.
In this context it is legitimate to enquire whether the dress of the Essenes should be regarded merely as a symbol of purity, or rather as the sign that members of this sect belonged to the new covenant with the angelic world, a belief expressly stated in their writings.
As both Christian and Jewish writers testify, since the salvation of mankind in some sense numbered humans among the heavenly host, it is hardly surprising that around the beginning of the Christian era we should repeatedly find the image of clothing as a symbol of the eternal lot promised to the elect and to true believers. The author of The Ascension of Isaiah (8: 14-16; 9; 9ff.) knew that such garments awaited each of the faithful in Heaven. 1 Enoch 62: 15ff. thus describes the resurrection of the elect: ‘They shall put on robes of glory. And such shall be your garments; garments of life from the Lord of Spirits.’
In the Book of Revelation (6: 11; 9: 14ff.) martyrs received hereafter the final reward (of white robes) promised to all Christians (2; 10; 3: 11).
The clothing to which the apostle aspires is clearly the final manifestation of his salvation. To be found naked would be seen as being rejected by Christ. Nevertheless, St Paul superimposes a second symbol upon this traditional symbol. Salvation is a second garment added to and transforming the first garment, which must accordingly only designate the body.
This is the germ of a symbol which Gnostics were to develop to an extraordinary pitch. At its best it may be seen in ‘The Hymn of the Soul’ in The Acts of Thomas. The king’s son (elect; of divine nature) departs into Egypt (into a world which is evil because it is material). He soon forgets who he is and exchanges his royal robes (signs of his divine origins) for the squalid garments of the Egyptians (sign of his soiling by the phenomenal world). He only casts them aside in disgust when there appears before him a marvellous royal robe, made to fit him perfectly in his father’s court. In this robe he was to recognize himself for who he was, that essential being beyond deceptive appearance.
There can be no better example of the symbolism of dress in its most highly worked Gnostic guise - dress as symbol of the very essence of the human being.
Reverting to Christian symbolism, the employment of the image of clothing should be observed in a baptismal context in The Odes of Solomon 21: 3: T have cast darkness aside and put on light’; while St Paul says ‘Let us cast aside the works of darkness and put upon us the whole armour of light.’ Again, Christ is said to have ‘put on human nature’ while the Christian ‘puts on Jesus Christ’. It may also be recalled that ancient liturgies provide evidence that in baptism the neophyte was clothed in a white garment, symbolizing the purity which was received simultaneously with salvation, of which the newly baptized person received the reward. In addition, numerous Mandaean sources could be quoted to show that they regarded baptism itself as the divine gift of a robe of glory.
Dress is something unique to mankind, since no other creature wears it, and is one of the first signs of consciousness of nakedness, of self-consciousness and of moral consciousness. It is also revealing of certain aspects of the personality and in particular of that part of it open to influence (fashions) and of its wish to exert influence. Uniforms or certain items of dress - helmets, caps, ties and so on - show membership of a specific group, entrusted with specific duties or possessed of particular abilities.
In Islamic tradition, the ritual changing of garment marks the passage from one world to another. An emir, for example, will not dress in the same way in his own country as he would in a Western luxury hotel, unless he were travelling in his rank. However, some garments proclaim an even more fundamental change, such as the monastic habit which denotes the passage from the everyday world to the religious world. In his journey from the land of Abraham to the Heavenly Malakut, the mystic pilgrim passes through twelve worlds, twelve ‘veils of light’, and thus changes clothes, these symbolizing the necessary inner disposition, the ‘garments of the soul’, stage by stage until he achieves enlightenment in Paradise. ‘The Tale of the White Cloud’ provides examples in the Islamic tradition. Similarly, the ritual employed in Mithraic mysteries displays ‘clothing in different garments appropriate to the specific level of mystical ascension’.