[from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, January, 1897]
The subject of dress is one that calls for attention in the times in which we live. It is admitted on many hands that society is at present on the down grade, and it is quite apparent that the downward movement is not confined to the region of the invisible, but appears openly in a variety of forms. One of these forms, we think, is excessive adornment in dress. So widely prevalent has excess in this direction become that not only are light and profane worldlings distinguished for the vanity of their attire, but also many people who are members of churches, and profess to follow Christ. Now, this ought not so to be. In fact, vain attire does not become the man or woman of common sense. How much less does it become those who profess to be dead to the world and its follies and alive unto God through Jesus Christ? Apart from all subordinate considerations, we direct attention to the explicit testimony of the Word of God in favour of the utmost sobriety of apparel. Observe first, the judgment which the Lord of hosts declares against the daughters of Zion for their sin and vanity in respect of dress and adornment. “Moreover, the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the head-bands, and the tablets and the earrings, the rings and nose jewels, the changeable suits of apparel (embroidered robes), and the mantles, and the wimples (cloaks), and the crisping pins, the glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the veils. And it shall come to pass that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well-set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty” (Is. iii.16-24). These are the words not of man, but of God, and we would do well to lay them to heart in these days lest the same judgment should descend upon us. Again, in the New Testament there are positive and minute injunctions as to modesty of apparel. The apostle Paul says, “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works” (I Tim. ii. 9.10). The apostle here expressly forbids “costly array,” not to speak of that which is showy. It is evident, therefore, that they who expend much in dress, plain or otherwise, are disobeying the apostolic command. Further, the apostle Peter gives a similar injunction, “Whose adorning, let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God, of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves” (I Peter iii.4-5). Let us not forget that these are the words not merely of the apostles, but of the Holy Ghost, and there fore we are bound to respect them as possessing the authority of God.
Now, a word or two as to objections that are sometimes raised when plainness of dress is advocated. Some say, “Oh, if the heart is right, one’s dress does not make much difference. We should be engaged chiefly in examining our hearts.” To this it may be replied that it is invariable a sure proof the heart is wrong in important respects when vain attire is indulged in, and also that in the large majority of cases it is a real sign that the heart is not right at all. No one can consistently claim credit for anxiety as to the state of his or her heart who is not equally anxious to cleanse and reform outward behaviour according to the directions of the Word of God. It is also clear that when people wilfully disobey the divine commands about apparel which may easily be got rid of, they are not endeavouring to get the heart put right, which is a much more difficult matter. It is by the outward bearing and demeanour that persons are known in the world, and in vain does the tongue speak of Christ and religion, when the head and the whole body speak of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Another objection sometimes brought forward is that some good people have been or are showy rather than plain in their dress. What we have, however, chiefly to attend to is not the example of men, but the precept of the Word of God. the best of people may err, and are therefore not infallible guides. But the fact is that in the past the great body of people professing piety were exceedingly plain in their apparel. A distinction could be observed between the Church and the world. Now the distinction has to a large extent disappeared. It is told that on one occasion a girl went to a woman of eminent piety, professing concern for the state of her soul. The latter simply looked up to the girl’s head, and beholding it adorned, said, “Lassie, the devil is only making a fool of ye, speaking about religion and all these flowers on your head.” It may thus be seen how the holy women of old time regarded adornment in dress. It is also affirmed by members of the female sex that it is exceedingly difficult to get the vast majority of dressmakers to make plain attire. But who is to reform the dressmaking if persons tamely submit to any kind of attire that is made? This objection only springs from a lack of moral courage on the part of the objectors. Another, and last objection we shall mention is the common one, “Are we to dress differently from other people and make ourselves conspicuous?” Yes, if you are to follow Christ and to have that modesty which becomes His “peculiar people.” And you who make no profession of Christ be plain in your apparel that you may not grieve the Spirit of God, nor the hearts of those who desire that all things should be done decently and in order according to the rules of His Word.
In conclusion, it may be said that it is generally at times that people should clothe themselves with the utmost modesty that they are most vain and gaudy. We consider it to be nothing short of a desecration of the Sabbath, and a profanation of the house and worship of God for people on such a day, and in such circumstances, to appear in showy dress. This may seem strange doctrine to those who make the Lord’s day the time, and the house of God the stage, for exhibiting their flowers and finery. But it should be remembered that sackcloth and ashes would become sinners infinitely better in the presence of a holy God. It is further most shocking to see persons in light attire approach a communion table, where the death of the Son of God is showed forth, and where it would become sinners to mourn as one that mourneth for an only son, and be in bitterness as for a first-born. The Spirit of God is undoubtedly grieved by the vain attire of worshippers in the public assemblies of His Church. It is said that many years ago in the north of Scotland there was an awakening among a number of young people under the preaching of the late Rev. Peter Davidson, of Arran, who was at that time a missionary. One Sabbath a gaudily dressed young woman appeared in the congregation. Her appearance caught and fascinated the attention of the young. The awakening was sensibly checked, spiritual impressions declined, and the same hopeful signs were not to be seen. The subject may now be left to the serious consideration of our readers who, in their several places an stations, ought to set a good example in the matter treated of.