Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

When I was a kid, a professional prankster named Alan Abel got a lot of mileage in the media by organizing a phony group dedicated to clothing naked animals for the sake of decency.  Such is the media appetite for novelty that it took five years before people realized Abel was pulling their leg.  His stunt does make you think, though.  Why do we find it so peculiar that someone would want to put clothes on naked animals, rather than ask why we, among all God’s creatures, are the only ones who wear them at all?

People didn’t always wear clothes, of course.  It’s not clear who made the first fashion statement by wrapping himself in an animal skin.  Anthropologists speculate it might have occurred when humans first began migrating out of Africa some 70,000 years ago.  It turned out the animal skins we were born with didn’t provide much insulation in colder climates.  Although our hides provided little protection against the elements, our opposable thumbs were marvelously adapted to manipulating buttons and zippers and all those other little contrivances that come with a wardrobe.

According to the biblical account, God was the first one to clothe a naked animal for the sake of decency.  Although it was the Lord’s idea to wrap the first man and woman in animal skins, he did so only after they realized they were naked and had made themselves aprons of fig leaves.  Thereafter, nudity was generally regarded as shameful.  Noah’s son Ham was cursed and condemned to slavery after he saw the nakedness of his father, who was drunk and uncovered in his tent.  King Saul stripped off his clothes and prophesied, but by then he was already on the outs with God and was clearly coming unstrung.  

If we are made in God’s image, as the Bible assures us, why are we so reluctant to be seen in our own skin?  Although God may have been the first haberdasher, the creation story makes clear that the impulse to clothe naked animals was originally ours.  Whatever protection they may provide against the elements, clothes are also a means of self-adornment.  Before clothes, the main way to adorn yourself was by marking your flesh, which can be painful.  Far better to put on something you can hang in the closet at night. 

We may all stand naked before God, but our standing in the world often depends on what we wear.  Clothes tell the world a great deal about our personal taste, social standing and membership in the tribe.  When we take off our clothes, we are removing a crucial element of who we are.   We think our naked self is our true self, but that’s not really why we want to hide.  Underneath it all, we’re afraid that without clothes we are nobody – and perhaps we are.     

Genesis 3:7-21; 9:18-25
1 Samuel 19:24
2 Samuel 6:12-23

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