Clothes Count ... Part 2 of 3



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The second part of our conversation with Pamela Klassen, S. Brent Plate, and Kelly Baker on clothing and religion.

- Edward J. Blum

Question: From your research, what’s the quirkiest or most interesting example of dress and its links to religious identities?
Arrested Development's "George Bluth"
wearing a head covering after his
prison conversion
Pamela Klassen: I was preparing a lecture for my anthropology of Christianity class this past spring, and turned to google for some images to go along with my discussion of Joan Scott’s The Politics of the Veil (which I think is one of the best of very many books on Muslim women’s head coverings).  I discovered that there is a North American renewal movement of sorts, with a very active internet marketplace, focused on convincing Christian women from a range of denominations to return to the head covering as a symbol of their submission to male headship and, ultimately, to God. 

Anglicans, Catholics, Mennonites, Jews for Jesus, and evangelicals of various sorts all testified to their joy at wearing a small(ish) piece of cloth on their heads. Cottage industries of sisters and mothers making both traditional and downright sexy head coverings have sprung up and you can visit some here (they take both Visa and Paypal): http://www.prayercoverings.com/ , http://www.headcoverings.com/ , and my personal favorite for its Martha Stewart aesthetic, http://www.garlandsofgrace.com/

Brent Plate: I'll just say my favorite connection is found in the artist Nick Cave's"Soundsuits." He's been working on these for many years. They are marvelous performative, living artworks that invoke the senses just as they pull on West African masquerade traditions. They are modernist as they are performance and body oriented and utilize found objects; and traditional as show what can be done with the body even as the body is hidden and the individual is depersonified in ritualistic form. See http://soundsuitshop.com

Kelly Baker: Klansmen claiming to wear Jesus on their bodies in the form of robes is my most interesting example by far, and I have been hard pressed to find another example that surprised me as much as this did. Though, a modern seamstress blessing Klan robes places a very close second. The founder of the second Klan, William Simmons, describes, in words that I can only call lovingly, the sacred importance of the robes as a memorial to the Reconstruction and their deep symbology in “every line and every angle.” Many more Klansmen than Simmons described the “value” of the robes in their connection to Christ and biblical narratives, while also affirming the robe and mask’s importance as covering individuals while presenting an order. The practicality of masked faces was not lost on them nor was the popular criticism of the “hated” hood. Theology became material by donning the robes. Yet, the meaning of the robes was never quite fixed. Klan leaders envisioned the robes as material Christianity, while victims of the order saw something quite different an example of terror and horror. The multiplicity of this one garment, then, signals the complexity of interpretations for clothing as artifacts of religion. The multiplicity lures me in every time I rely upon clothes to discuss religion (in my religion and gender course I include a whole unit on clothing) and my main interest, religious intolerance.

Part 3 on Friday: Do you see skin as another form of dress (lack of dress) or as something distinct and different?

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