5 December: Keeping up appearances.

Off-duty peacock, almost invisible.

A dozen old boys from a small boarding school were meeting up over a Zoom link; a very flexible agenda led to discussion of clothes. Nobody seemed to agree with Erasmus’s adage, ‘Clothes make the man’.

The school was run by the Missionaries of Africa who have an unusual official habit, based on XIX Century North African menswear. No doubt that would be interpreted as ‘cultural appropriation’ in some quarters today, but it was intended to show respect for the local people and distance the society from the colonial power. This is from a 1960’s school photograph.


(Source: The Pelicans)

The principle of dressing like ordinary local people means the members of the society often do not wear clerical black, and the habit is now worn just for special occasions. (It takes a lot of washing and ironing.)

As for us former students, Mike, who lent this photo, newly retired from his service as a head teacher, paid a visit to his local charity shop to hand over all his formal suits, which he would never wear again. Freedom! Another told how he and his colleagues abandoned their ties after a high-up from head office gave some in-service training, tie-less. Yet another’s suits hung unworn since retirement, except for weddings and funerals; a fourth having lost weight, gave away all his old clothes to encourage himself not to put the pounds back on.

The suits and ties did not ‘make’ the men, rather they seemed to circumscribe them, to identify them as respectable workers who kept their hands clean. I found that being prepared to get dirty hands – gardening, fixing a puncture, measuring and sawing wood – was a good way to get alongside the excluded boys and girls I taught. A jacket and tie would have been a barrier day to day, but they came out for end-of-year presentations, our one formal event. And the Lord Mayor always wore his chain to give out the certificates; a visible acknowledgement of the work the young people had done over the year.

Clothes, whether splendid and luxurious or drab and plain, do not make the man. As Doctor Johnson once remarked, in answer to the arguments urged by Puritans, Quakers, etc. against showy decorations of the human figure: “Oh, let us not be found, when our Master calls us, ripping the lace off our waistcoats, but the spirit of contention from our souls and tongues! … Alas! Sir, a man who cannot get to heaven in a green coat will not find his way thither the sooner in a grey one.’

From “Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780” by James Boswell, via KIndle.

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