We stood on the sidewalk in front of a summer-faded lawn and a modest family home. We were waiting for our Martha Stewart-esque Realtor. Like most children, I didn’t want to move.
“What do you think of the house, Emily,” the realtor said when she finally arrived.
I, usually a friendly child, stared at her with a dramatic expression of confusion. “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are talking about.”
The Realtor looked at my mother.
“She’s pretending to be Esther from the Bible today,” my mother explained.
I curtseyed, careful not to let a plastic tiara tumble from my head.
“So she doesn’t respond to her name?” The Realtor clearly didn’t see the irony of finding my commitment to imagination weird when she made her living moving people into strangers’ houses. Clothes and crowns are far easier to trade than houses.
As I grew up, playing pretend and loving costumes developed into an understanding of the deeply symbolic nature of clothes. Rather than focusing on the outward-facing message of what I wore, however, I became fascinated by how an outward sign could not only evidence but bring inward transformation.
I also gained a respect and a love for hand-me-down houses as well as clothes. Like reading books with a friend’s notes in the margins, experiencing a house or a hat after someone else is a gift, an invitation to understanding.
When my grandma was fighting cancer, I started wearing her silk scarves, which were out of style and certainly out of place on a middle schooler. My Nana and I had not been close until she became ill, but I held her hand for hours outside of radiation rooms and inside nursing homes. Wearing her scarves was a way to claim the gift of those precious months of real relationship and the part of me that I inherited from her. The tangible expression of connection was as meaningful as sharing eye color or a nose.
The joy of embodying something borrowed from someone beloved is like falling into step with someone as you talk. Or the way it is almost impossible, when you rest your head on someone else’s chest, to desynchronize your breathing and heartbeat from the rhythm of that other heart and pair of lungs. In the act of putting on some characteristic garment, you share strengths, experiences, understanding, and love. Imitation allows us to try on and celebrate the strange glory of someone else made in the image of God.
We are all imitators. We pick up mannerisms from our friends and style choices from celebrities. My little brother, when he was still small, began imitating my dad’s voice when he answered the phone. He wanted to sound like a man, like his hero. We intuitively know we can embody someone else’s character by adopting some physical symbol of it. How many women have a smart black dress reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn? It’s a wardrobe staple. When a woman wears her black dress, she intends to be Audrey—to embody poise and sophistication.
Vestis Virum Reddit—clothes make the man. Clothes change our movement and posture, evoke powerful associations, and communicate. The stiffness of a tailored suit or the sound of your heels clicking on marble can make you more confident in a presentation. A bright hair dye can make you funnier. Even a cardboard sword in a school play can make you more dashing.
When I pretended to be Esther on the sidewalk, perhaps I was identifying with a feeling of exile or claiming some kind of royal power and agency in a world of mighty adults who told me where I would live and what I would do. Perhaps, I just wanted to be a princess.
When I worked as a historical interpreter, giving tours of a turn-of-the-century manor house, my supervisor impressed upon me the value of accuracy in my costume, of wearing a corset and multiple petticoats.
“Aren’t you hot?” visitors in T-shirts and shorts would ask.
“Well,” I would answer honestly, “the layers insulate me from the heat of the coal stove. The corset provides a lot of support, like a back brace, when you are on your feet all day doing manual labor.”
The shape of the garments reminded me to refine my speech and contain my gestures. The clothes were time travel, a way of entering a rigidly structured world and the lives of the people who lived there.
Clothing often becomes costuming because we are often intentionally trying to evoke or imitate something or someone else. Like acting, costuming can also be an act of empathy.
A drama teacher once told me that learning to act was just as important as studying math because “acting is empathy.” In reading, or watching, or beholding, we consume. In acting, we become Jean Valjean imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread or 13-year-old Juliet ready to die for a boy she thinks she loves. In that moment, we truly love the ex-con and the teenage fool as we love ourselves.
Which brings us to the issue of masks.
I recently watched Disney’s new show The Mandalorian. In the show, set in the Star Wars universe, the main character is a bounty hunter with a distinctive set of armor, completely concealing his face until the final episode. Though his face is hidden, his unique armor communicates his identity and some of his personal and cultural history.
The debate around compliance with facial mask regulations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was heating up around the time I watched the show. The polarization of so simple a caution and courtesy seemed ridiculous to me. What was the big deal?
Masks are a theme in Star Wars. In fact, from Leia’s hair to Kylo Ren’s aesthetic helmet, Star Wars might be one of the best examples in film of iconic, even iconographic, costumes.
Masks are a big deal because all clothes mold us and mediate between us. There is a sacramental echo in taking a visible action, like putting on a mask, in response to an unseen virus.
The verbal recitation of the creeds, the physical disciplines of Lent, or the ingestion of communion allow us to enter into a sacred mindset, a holy space of closeness with God. We imitate, like children playing pretend, incarnation, crossing over into a strange glory like our High Priest who took on flesh and can sympathize with our weaknesses.
Scripture alludes to clean robes and perfume, and to sackcloth and ashes, as important symbols of spiritual attitudes and also a means of entering those attitudes. Paul uses the same metaphor when he calls the Christians to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. … And over all these virtues, put on love...as one body” (Col. 3:12-15). Paul’s concern is for our witness, that the image we evoke to the world would be Christ.
Clothing is a liminal space where the unseen interacts with the seen, where we communicate our character or adopt a symbol of the character we wish to have.
When I wear a mask, I take on the costume of doctors and nurses like my aunt. I pretend I’m a surgeon for 20 seconds as I scrub my hands. My mask reminds me to take every opportunity to help, heal, and protect others as if it is my job.
I empathize with my elderly brothers and sisters in my church and the frustration of separation from those we love. I also try to imitate the mature faith in God’s will that they have modeled for me.
When I wear a mask, I am much more conscious of my breathing, of how fragile these bodies are, how often harmed by disease and violence. COVID-19 and the cry for racial justice in America will always be connected in my mind. The mask can be a symbol of many abstract concepts—freedom, protection, regulation, safety. But a mask is an unyieldingly physical action, not an abstraction. I believe in the danger COVID-19 poses, so I wear a mask. What am I going to do about what I know and believe about justice and equality?
In being conscious of the illness-prone frailty that God has mysteriously joined together with an immortal spirit, we can also be reminded how different and powerful is our God, who chooses to dwell in us in our broken world. The glory, which once reflected so brightly from Moses's face it had to be covered, surrendered to be clothed in humanity. The fact that we no longer need to be shielded from God’s strange glory calls us to cover ourselves in humility and love in imitation.