Keeping Up Appearances
Posted on April 10, 2013
This post was not on my list of possible blog topics. But I found that I wanted to touch on something that has reared up, something that’s apparently bugging me. Recently, New York City Councilman Dan Halloran was arrested for attempting to facilitate the rigging of the mayoral election of New York City. Whether or not he is guilty of it is not the point of this post. Nor is the point whether or not he is (or was, who knows, the man flip flops on it) an unfortunate face for Heathenry.
The New York Post, which I flatly refuse to link here, ran an article about his religious background. From skimming the deplorable piece of journalistic claptrap, I assume the article was about how he attempted to bribe and cajole his way through his religious organization in order to try to change the governance of the group. I’m not sure.
However, in classic New York Post fashion (being an American version of the Daily Mail, in my humble opinion), the journalist included this lovely gem early on in the article:
“his kooky heathen religion — whose members wear medieval garb, make sacrifices to multiple gods and compete in combat games.”
The emphasis is mine.
Let’s look at that again. Take it in a minute:
Wear medieval garb.
Think about that for a little bit. Now, I am a sometimes-Renny. At least once a year I go down to the New York Renaissance faire in Tuxedo with a few friends, spend the day drinking wine. And mead. And beer. And staring at prodigious amounts of female flesh. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fun.
But it is ultimately an amusement. A diversion. This, Heathenry, Reconstructionism, Paganism, what-have-you, are religious movements. They are a grouping of faiths that, I would assume, the adherents want people to take seriously. It is not just serious to us. It shouldn’t just be serious to us. It needs to be taken seriously by “the straights”, or else where will the respect come from? Where can acceptance be found if they make the connection that Pagans are members of a (group of) “kooky” religion(s)?
Is this truly, really, what we want a layperson to think when they see any one from the Paganisms at ritual? That we are a bunch of weirdos who are play-acting? Displaced Rennies that want to escape from reality and are uncomfortable with living next-door to them as mundanes? Religious growth is, I believe, based in part on accessibility, especially for faiths that do not make it a mandate to proselytize.
Why is it that whenever I see photos of Pagan gatherings, I either see people dressed in one of two ways:
1. Full-blown garb that looks like it was purchased from Museum Replicas or By the Sword.
2. Super casual, trashy street clothes; jeans and hoodies.
I’m going to bring up the second point first, because it’s a shorter part of this tangential writing. What is wrong with “Sunday dress”? What is wrong with plain decent clothes? You know, the kind that one might wear out to a sit-in restaurant, or some that wouldn’t look out of place or embarrassing to wear at a wedding?
To me, rituals are gatherings for the formal occasion of worship. They are occasions of reverence. Even nice jeans (read: no acid washed, distressed jeans) and a button-down shirt are preferable to day-off street clothes. Or, hell, nice clothes in general. I’m not talking a three-piece suit, here. I routinely dress up for even dinners at a family member’s house for holidays, simply because it shows respect for the occasion, respect for the people that put the effort into hosting the event. It translates that I consider it an important occasion.
And yes, I understand that the “Sunday attire” isn’t the most appropriate for all rituals or religious observances, especially in a movement that places a lack of emphasis on interior worship. Trekking out to the summit of a mountain, or heading to a ritual located on the beach, or any time a ritual is going on in not-so-perfect weather outdoors will all require specific attire.
But the observances inside? On the back patio? Is there something wrong with enforcing a more rigid dress code than “what the hell ever”? It doesn’t even have to be modernist! Just nice!
And that point – modernity – brings me back to the first article on the list. Why is it that whenever I see people in “the traditional garb” is everyone in garb? Is it part of our collective traditions to require mostly-tacky attire which people attack us as Renaissance faire-rejects? I wasn’t made aware of this.
We are not play actors. We are not reenactors or living historians. I’d like to think we’re not just playing dress up. But it passes that image along to lay observers, like we’re functioning in a diversion from our reality.
Nor are we members of a religious community that insists on living in traditional ways. I’m sure there may be some that come about, eventually. And presently hardcore recons might want to bring back the religion as entirely as possible, but I doubt very many of them would be willing to live in it in the same manner as the ultra-orthodox Anabaptists. Although, who knows. In many cases our faith is complimentary to our modern lives, not an escape or replacement. It is enrichment.
I’ll say it. I wish people would eschew the “traditional garb”, such as it is. Not only does it pass along the image that the Post and other outlets like to purport, but it lends to some significant confusion among observers.
In many major religions the presiding cleric or priest will wear some kind of unique ritual vestment which identifies them in their station. They, and any helpers they have in that ritual, will draw the crowd’s attention towards them as leaders. They are thus centerpieces of the ritual experience, acting as conduits and facilitators for the divinity to be spread to the congregated audience. I feel that this role alone necessitates some form of differentiating attire from the congregation and laity.
Some Christians have a unique attire, as do Shinto priests, to give differing religious traditions as examples. The attire itself is religiously imbued and incorporated. It identifies the priest by their station and, in some cases, parts of it are nearly sacred articles in and of themselves. Barring their aides or participants they will be the only people dressed up in this manner. Yes, it is true, that in some Eastern religions like Shintoism there are occasions where lay members will wear ritualistic garb. But these occasions are, in my understanding, differentiated from everyday visits.
Many Paganisms do not have that. Some of the more hardcore Reconstructionist movements do and can pull off formal, traditional garb very well. I have found that the ones that do this are the ones with the most sourced material still available, the so-called “Classical” religions. These groups can maintain an air of dignity when in their formal garb, and their garb can often take the place of the garb of Plain Clothes traditions or Shinto priests in the sense that it is a hold-over from the period.
And, of course, I appreciate the amount of effort some of them go into purchasing their attire. I have stumbled upon discussions about traditional dyes, wools, and other particulars. Some of them do not simply throw on a velvet piece of clothing from a popular online retailer and call it a day, or wear a “ritual cloak” over jeans and a t-shirt in order to pull together their service.
I find the issue of laughable medievalist-garb exists more in the Paganisms that are building more-or-less from the ground up, without either the history (as in modernist religious endeavors such as Wicca) or the remaining archaeological/historical that benefits the Classical Paganisms (such as Reconstructionist movements that didn’t have much in the way of written records prior to the advent of Christianity, if at all).
And dressing that way, well, really isn’t doing anyone in the movement any favors.
Maybe my expectations are too high. This whole writing presupposes a societal-division in the community (that being, the establishment of a more-concrete religious class). I am probably putting the cart before the horse here. It assumes that there is a more formally trained clergy, either through tutelage/apprenticeship or an accredited program, operating within each of the movements, instead of the piecemeal self-initiated system that a lot of us have had to make use of. A lot of the Pagan faiths are moving into an accreditation program for their clergy, as pan-national organizations grow in number, the teachings they offer create traditions of their own.
This is happening, it is evolving. I feel that if any one of the Paganisms are going to survive to be accepted as a truly valid religion on their own merits, and not just one of those ‘wacko groups’, it has to evolve. And public acceptance has a lot to do with public appearance, accessibility, and commonality.
It also assumes a greater access to places of religious worship, and our own identity in that regard, which is an entirely different subject. I understand this.
Ideally I would like to see a distinctive line of clothing formed for the needs of each of the Paganisms, suitably tailored to their traditions, and rooted within the history that they feel encapsulates them. Something identifiable, yet not appearing as if they were purchased from a magazine that anyone could buy. Perhaps for some it could be a modernist, perhaps not. There has been so much lost within our collective heritages, but innovation is never a bad thing. In some cases, it could be beneficial.
I would like to see clerical vestments crafted to span the entirety of a polytheistic lineage, so that the sticklers for history do not find fault with some kind of accuracy. Some of these religions lasted thousands, or more, of years. Something that can point to that heritage, while affirming that the religion is not just play-acting, or being a diversion, or anything else. Something that will mollify both (forgive the reenacting term here) stitch-counters and the onlookers.
But above all:
It is our responsibility to represent the communities. We are still in that formative stage of our identity. We have to make sure that the outside world takes us as seriously as we take ourselves. In my opinion, that means no “traditional” Renaissance-faire garb. That means making oneself presentable to attend a service with the due reverence it is entitled. And I think, eventually, that means crafting a clerical identity for the organized aspects of the religion, as opposed to the private spirituality.
There are ways that this can be done without compromising our integrity. Without seeming like we’re trying to establish a mirror to the larger faiths, or mimic them, or whatever the detractors will say. There has to be another way. We’re rekindling the fires of religions and cults that are thousands of years dead, simply because we are called. We have the capacity to do this.
We are a coalition of communities with immense potential. We have immense talent, either academically minded, artistically minded, or both. I’d like to see something generated from the community when it gets more stabilized. I hope it will be within my life.
These are my observations and thoughts, and I make no apologies for them. But until we get serious about this, serious about our presentation to both ourselves and to the world at large, papers like the New York Post will publish articles which identifies groups of our communities with ridicule for their appearance and attire. That is the defining characteristic that these groups like to levy on us.
We are not play-actors.
We are not playing dress-up.
We are practicing a myriad of rebirthed faiths, cobbling together a cohesiveness that hasn’t been seen in many hundreds of years. So very many of us are serious, as individuals and as groups. And we’re growing.
I just want us to grow with a little mockery as possible.
Thanks for reading.
(An interesting aside: Some religions include a specialized ritual dress specifically for use in order to make pilgrimages, even in the modern day. Functional AND religious!)