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Clothes Call

On the importance of dressing up

Liel Leibovitz
March 06, 2009

Brothers, sisters, members of the tribe,

There’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you for quite some time now. It’s not easy to do. Awkward, really. But I can’t help myself; some things need to be addressed, no matter how painful. This is one such thing. And it can wait no longer.

You see, my fellow Hebrews, we have a problem. Whether by accident or by design, whether throughout the course of human events or just in recent decades, whether knowingly or not, we have become sartorially challenged. And it’s not doing us good.

This textile dysfunction of ours isn’t hard to notice. Walk into a party here in New York, and the various clans that inhabit the city’s social landscape become evident, distinguished by their uniform: just as a Scot could tell a Lumsden apart from a Scrymgeour, a quick glimpse at their garments would help you tell the dons of academia—all faded tweeds and time-chewn mocassins—apart from the lords of Wall Street, with suits by Brooks Brothers and red ties by Satan.

But the Jews? Oy: the Jews, more often than not, are the schleppy ones, the ones with the jacket just a bit too tight or too loose and the pants a tad creased and the shirt slightly stained. More often than not, the Jews are the ones who look like they just don’t care. Which is because, more often than not, they couldn’t care less.

Before you pounce, friends—haven’t I seen Natalie Portman’s stunning Oscar dress? And don’t I know that Ralph Lauren, that icon of all-American elegance, was once Ralphie Reuben Lifshitz?—please bear with me. After all, Lauren may be Jewish, but he made his reputation by abandoning the Bronx and imagining instead the polo fields and yacht clubs, dens of effortless elegance and entitlement. And Calvin Klein may have celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, but only became a man in full when he adopted that clean-line look that owed more to Yves Saint-Laurent than to anything you may see in shul on Saturday morning.

Nothing better illustrates this argument, perhaps, than a quick Google Images search comparing New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose perpetual grayish-blue suits are as monochromatic as his voice and public persona, and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, whose crisp, unbuttoned white shirts and tight-fitting pinstripe suits perfectly capture the reckless charm evident in both his personal and political lives. Put bluntly, the point is this: we Jews, in general, are an unstylish bunch.

There is, of course, a strong philosophical statement behind this common carelessness. Gently broaching the topic with several of my more accomplished and successful friends, men and women whose wardrobes, alas, fall far short of their stature, a similar theme came up repeatedly. A sloppy attire, went the argument, is a sign of a great mind: unlike the beefheaded goyim, who gladly idle away their time with fripperies and ornamentations, we Jews are too busy thinking, addressing life’s fundamental questions, to care about such piffle as lapel width or hem line or cut.

A good argument, this, but not one that our forefathers would’ve embraced. As this week’s parasha goes to great lengths to demonstrate, even the holiest of Hebrews were as concerned with sharp suits as they were with sharp minds: for pages on end, the Bible describes the outfits to be worn by the high priests, from their linen breeches to their silky sashes, displaying the obsessive attention to detail one expects to find in Esquire rather than in the Good Book.

Why do we need to know what the priests wore? Or why, for that matter, did the priests even need such luxurious getups, given that they spent most of their days sequestered in the sanctuary, far from the madding crowd? The answer is simple: it’s because our relation to our clothes has always far transcended our mere utilitarian needs. The Greek philosopher Epictetus got it just right when he said that a man must first know who he is, and then adorn himself accordingly; without the adornment, presumably, we can never be who we truly are, can never feel the true force of our personality.

A less philosophical way to think about this issue may be to imagine how you felt the night before the first day of school, say, or upon starting a new job or going out on a first date. Unless you are severely disinterested in all things corporeal, it is more than likely that you spent at least a few minutes fretting in front of the mirror, picking out the perfect outfit, discarding a few alternatives before settling on the one that made you feel most comfortable, the most desirable, and the most confident.

There’s nothing frivolous about such behavior. On the contrary: we are, all of us, perpetually playing dress up, counting on our clothes to imbue us with that determined sense of purpose that our easily rattled psyches often neglect. It’s why the priests had their linens, why brides have their gowns and soldiers their fatigues and nudists their nakedness: nothing says more about who we are than what we wear (or don’t wear).

And so, brothers and sisters, let’s try a bit harder. Let’s, together, wage war on frumpiness and schlubiness and carelessness. Let’s learn from all of our ancestors—the high priests of God and the high priests of Seventh Avenue—who worked hard to look good, and make this millennium the one in which we Jews become known as much for our bon chic as for our big brains. Instead of wearing our hearts on our sleeves, let’s keep our sleeves on our minds. Let’s dress up.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.