Don’t Look At The Jugs

What a relief to read yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that there now seems to be no single leading fashion trend and “everything is in style.” Despite the fact that following fashion is not high up on my to-do list, I still take comfort in knowing that – at least for one season – it’s trendy to be my usually untrendy self. I feel so fashion forward to discover that “people now dress the way they see themselves, choosing looks that flatter their bodies and fit their lifestyles,” basically adopting my long-held approach to clothes. The article further explains this idea by saying that, “Most of us dress with our social groups or professions, rather than fashion trends, using clothes to flash messages about who we are.” So it would seem that it is completely fine that my overall look was formed and ossified circa 1998, making a clear statement of who I am: A super -busy working mom of three boys who has neither time nor budget for annual fall and spring shopping sprees.

The sort of jug the Rabbis of the Mishna would have been referring to

Fashion, shmashion. After all, doesn’t it matter more what is inside us than what we wear on our outside?  The Mishna tells us (Avot 4:27), “Al tistakel bakankan, elah b’mah sheyesh bo” (Don’t look at the  jug, but rather at what is inside it), just as the English maxim reminds us to not judge a book by its cover. Well, the answer is yes…and no.

As the piece in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, what we choose to wear makes a statement about who we want people to think we are – which in turn says a lot about who we really are. Let’s just admit that we all see the jugs and make inferences about their contents (Yes, there is a double entendre here – but I am not going there since this is not a post about breast augmentation.) And we all know that the activity of judging oneself and others based on appearance begins at the youngest of ages.

I suppose that it worked out well for me, having not inherited my family’s X-chromosomal genes for fashion and shopping, to be the mother only of boys. I have been mercifully spared from having to make regular accessory buying trips to Claire’s, buying pouffy princess costumes, and finding shoe racks to hold a zillion pairs of rhinestone-studded sparkly shoes. But, as we all know, appearances matter also to boys – even to those who don’t admit it. You don’t have to be Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin or Mr. Blackwell to figure out why my highly social and politically-minded middle son carefully cultivates his signature look featuring his mane of long, thick, curly hair (think Jim Morrison) and trendy skater-surfer togs. Similarly, it is no surprise that our cerebral and frugal oldest son prefers bargain-priced jeans from big box stores and logo-adorned freebie t-shirts handed out at tech conventions. As far as our youngest son is concerned, it’s too early to tell. He’s still working his way through endless hand-me-downs.

The standard uniform colors - navy, white, khaki and light blue

As much as I appreciate the role fashion plays in personal expression, including how it helps my sons try on different personas as they grow up, I often think back to the years when the two older ones wore uniforms to school (it’s hard not to think of this, given that so many of the aforementioned hand-me-downs are navy pants and light blue and white oxford shirts). Having never worn a uniform myself, I was at first unhappy about it and dubious that the uniforms were anything but an attempt by this particular Jewish day school to position itself as a fancy Manhattan prep school. But I soon came to appreciate not only the time saved in the weekday morning rush from the boys’ not having to decide what outfit to wear, but also the mindset it put them into as they started their day.

The uniforms did more than just level the economic playing field at the school. They erased the walls of the kankan, the jug, making what was inside more readily visible. It really did seem when you were in the classroom, that you could see the children better, the uniform attire ironically making the uniqueness of each boy or girl more apparent. Concurrently, the sameness of the children’s dress made the setting come more into focus. With the attention no longer on the students’ appearance, the colors of the vibrant learning environment “popped” like a painting set against the right background.

With our boys’ having attended schools with uniform codes and without, I can appreciate the benefits of both approaches. I still have not settled on a definitive preference. However, one thing I am sure of is that no matter what is showing on the runways of Paris, New York and Milan, the wisdom of the Sages never goes out of style. Fashion is fun, but appreciating others for what lies beneath their skin is serious business to be pursued by us all.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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