Sports and style have been playing partners since men first pulled on a uniform. (The ancient Greeks used to compete naked, so the uni was real progress.) Over time, athletic apparel and street clothes blended — athletes became fashionable, and fashion became sporty. Today the two camps draw mutual inspiration…
How we dress is spiritual. It is making beauty. It is expressing our essence. It is a way we have to integrate diverse strands in our culture — conflicting ideals about what it means to be human, to be a child of God, to be an evolving being.
Every sporty element we add to our attire communicates something, even unconsciously, about our relationship to athleticism. Every tattoo. Every piercing. Every time we wear business attire (or refuse to put on a suit and tie!), we say something about our relationship to the economic structure of civilization. Every time we don religious jewelry or attire, we tell the world something about our relationship to our religious heritage.
Some of my most interesting spiritual experiences have consisted simply in choosing an accessory or shirt that I felt really good about and enjoyed wearing. Even a simple T-shirt with a minimalist design says something interesting. I don’t want to convey the impression that I analyze my optimal fashion according to a mathematical formula or anything like that; it can be a very intuitive process.
Like the time I bought my first pair of cowboy boots as an adult (about seven years ago). They hurt my feet like hell and I rarely had the opportunity to wear them, but I felt good when I was in them. And pretty soon I realized that I wouldn’t be able to “pull them off” very well with my existing wardrobe. Gradually as I replaced old clothes I started replacing them with new clothes that fit the new accessory, and over time eventually my entire look changed. It wasn’t planned; it just happened.
A few years ago, I remembered that when I was a child I wore cowboy boots probably until I entered kindergarten. I remembered that my Dad wore cowboy boots all the time (probably something he did all his life, since he grew up working on farms and continued to do so until soon after I was born). I used to watch him shine and polish the boots and I forgot how much I loved the smell of shoe polish.
My brothers and I all wore boots for years, and I don’t recall when or why exactly I stopped. Probably I just needed a more conventional shoe for school. I don’t know why I stopped back then, but today I have a choice. And on my birthday last year I got a new pair of cowboy boots that are so comfortable I can wear them everywhere, every day, and even walk for miles in them. Really.
In the past several years, I reached the age that my father was when I was growing up. Looking at pictures, I can see a strong resemblance. In my twenties, I wanted nothing to do with him or the way that I was raised. In my thirties, I reconciled myself to my childhood and realized that my adult life was what I made of it. I could no longer blame anyone else for my problems; I had to do my own work on my self.
Now, having entered my forties, it seems I’m rather literally walking in my father’s (style of) shoes. Without even trying, I’ve integrated a part of myself that was underloved and underappreciated, and included it in a wider embrace.
To change one article of clothing can lead to a sea change in a wardrobe given enough time and inclination; it can even change our relationship to diverse aspects of our human nature, such as the athletic and the professional sides (or in my case, helping me to find my “inner cowboy,” that tough-loving, honest, straight-shooting, free spirit side).
And that’s how spiritual integration works, too. We can change one habit and then slowly without even realizing it we find ourselves different on the inside.