Let’s ask ourselves what dress is for

The debate about veils - to wear or not to wear - has surely made all of us more conscious of how we dress and what it means, to ourselves and to others.

The debate about veils - to wear or not to wear - has surely made all of us more conscious of how we

dress and what it means, to ourselves and to others. I'm not going to go into the pros and cons of

the 'veil' question at all, but the whole debate has made me stop and think about why I, and others, choose to dress the way we do.

One can attach too much importance to dress, but to say that the question does not matter, both in the abstract and to each one of us, is simply not true. Why do I choose to wear this shirt and not that?

Why do I dress extra carefully to go for an interview or for a first date?

Why do the papers endlessly discuss what people in the public eye wear? Precisely because we are all, as readers, interested in what these people wear. At least, I have yet to meet someone who is not.

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So what is dress for?

Well, obviously, at the most basic level, it's to keep us warm, or make sure we stay cool - and are decently covered.

There is an element of practicality in all dress. I have seen people trying to negotiate mountain paths in flip-flops or high heels, but no one with any sense would choose such footwear to go hiking.

However, there is much more to the question than that. The way I dress sends out all sorts of messages relating to how I see myself and what kind of signals I want to send to other people.

So what are these signals?

Some of them are linked to my personal taste, the colours I like, what I know looks good on me.

Dressing carefully to suit the way I look and in something that's right for the occasion signals self respect as well as respect for others - assuming that I have a choice and am not wearing a uniform.

But isn't an interest in clothes a form of vanity? There are certainly some Christians who seem to think that any kind of attention to appearance shows that one is vain and self-centred.

At times that is true: The way someone dresses can shout "I'm so good-looking!" or "Look how much money I've got!", but that is far from always the case.

Surely shapes and textures and colours are part of God's Creation and we are meant to use them for the good of everyone.

Personally I would find it difficult to live in a world without colours, including some in my wardrobe!

Most of us have been told at one time or other "That's just you" - meaning that somehow that particular outfit sums up who we are - and that's true of both men and women, though women tend to have more 'strings' to their bow, as far as clothes are concerned.

That's just me - if I've got it right - shows a proper love of myself, just as, sad to say, dressing badly can be a way of showing contempt of myself, "Because I don't deserve

any better." So even the decision not to bother is a

significant choice.

St Francis de Sales, who was the Catholic bishop of Geneva in the first half of the 17th century, wrote the first book of spiritual guidance aimed specifically at lay people.

It was called Introduction to the Devout Life, and was meant as a guide for Christians who seriously wanted to live their religion.

The book immediately became popular and has been ever since, simply because it is so eminently practical. It looked at the ordinary everyday questions that we all face in life, such as how to relate to other people, how to spend our money and how to dress.

This is what St Francis had to say about dress: "I would

have devout people, whether men or women, always

be the best dressed in a group, but the least pompous or affected."

I recently bumped into someone I usually see in uniform: "You look very smart", I said. His reply struck me, "It's rather nice to be able to dress as me, for a change. I spend an awful lot of time in uniform."

Dressing well can be an acceptance of myself and of my God-given personality, in fact a way of giving thanks.

If the debate about the veil has made some of us - whatever our religious persuasion - think more carefully about what dress really means, then it may already have done some good in an unexpected way.