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When Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, began to prayerfully consider her outward appearance, she said this:
It seemed to me from the teaching of the Bible that Christ’s people should be separate from the world in everything which denoted character and that they should not only be separate but appear so. As I advanced in religious experience I became more and more convinced that my appearance ought to be such as to show everybody with whom I came in contact that I have renounced the pomp and vanities of the world and that I belonged to Christ.
Amy Carmichael wrote about several young Indian women who became followers of Christ and decided to give up their jewels – a decision that was completely outrageous to Indian culture at that time. A woman’s jewels were her security and identity; her way of being accepted by society. And yet God was challenging these young Indian Christians to become “dead to the world and its applause.” Amy described the choice of one young woman:
It was a tremendous decision she made at the foot of the Cross that day. But nothing anyone could say could shake her. She had seen her Beloved, her Redeemer. On His brow was a crown not of gold, but of thorns. His hands and His feel were not jeweled, but pierced. She had seen Him. Could she follow Him adorned with gold?
Rather than showcasing the status and sparkle of the world, these women desired to shine with the radiance of Christ.
This is the foundational principle of dressing selflessly – to dress as a daughter of the King rather than a product of pop culture; To lay down our pursuit of gaining the approval and applause of this world, and to live for His smile alone.
When God radically got a hold of my life as a young woman, my wardrobe was one of the first things He began to gently convict me about. When I looked into my closet with a heart fully submitted to my King, I soon realized that most of my outfits had been purchased for the express purpose of drawing attention to myself – accentuating certain parts of my figure, making a loud statement about my trendiness, etc. With Godʼs help, I began to make significant changes to the way I dressed. It became my goal to honor Him, rather than glorify myself, through my clothes.
Take some time to prayerfully consider the way you dress, and what your inner motives are. Does your appearance show everyone that you belong to Christ, as Catherine Booth said, or does it show everyone that you belong to this world? Are there any “jewels” that Christ might be asking you to lay aside in order to better reflect His glory? Your “jewels” might be your addiction to the latest trends, your controlling craving for designer jeans and sunglasses, or even your obsession with always having the latest technology (cell phone, laptop, etc.) in order to show it off everywhere you go. There might not be anything intrinsically wrong with a pair of designer jeans or a brand new iPhone – but all too many of us have made these things part of our status and identity. Are we willing to let them go, that our identity might be found in Christ alone?
Here are a few key questions to ask yourself:
Does the way I dress place value on the status symbols and materialism of this world?
Am I so consumed with keeping my look up-to-date that I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy shopping for the latest trends? Am I insecure and uncomfortable if Iʼm not wearing the latest fads?
Do I secretly look down on people who are not wearing the most current styles?
Is there anything in my appearance that is sending the wrong message to the world about what my true priorities are?
Remember, it is more than possible to dress stylishly without being enslaved to worldly trends and status symbols. (Contrary to what some believe, there is nothing spiritual about being frumpy!) However, itʼs important to recognize that it is not a womanʼs clothing or sense of style that truly gives her grace and dignity – but the Christ-like radiance that exudes from her inner being. In light of eternity, things like clothes and jewelry are trivial and meaningless. They are tools that can be used to serve a higher purpose in our life – our call to reflect Jesus Christ to this world. But the moment we become servants of clothes, trends, style, or possessions, is the moment we stop serving Christ and start serving ourselves instead.
Many set-apart female missionaries throughout history chose to lay down personal style and adopt the simple clothing styles of the people they were ministering to in order to keep their appearance from being a distraction to the Gospel.
Lottie Moon, a young single missionary to China in the early 1900s, was described as a pretty woman with lovely soft features, kind eyes, and dark hair that she wore high swept. Raised in a wealthy southern American family, she was used to American luxuries and style. But on the mission field, she willingly chose to live like those she wished to reach for Christ:
She began to look Chinese as she went into the villages, for she dressed in a plain Chinese coat and gown and wore embroidered shoes made from fragments of old garments. Later she estimated that her shoes cost less than eighty cents and her winter boots less than a dollar. She slept on a brick bed and ate food bought in a village market, and cooked in Chinese kettles (from Great Women of the Christian Faith by Edith Deen).
When Amy Carmichael was a young missionary to Japan (before she arrived in India) she had an experience that profoundly influenced her. She was sharing the Gospel with an old woman,and just when the woman seemed ready to turn to Christ in faith, she noticed Amyʼs hands. It was very cold that day, and Amy was wearing fur gloves. The opportunity to win a soul for Christ was lost because of it. Amy wrote, “I went home, took off my English clothes, put on my Japanese Kimono and never again, I trust, risked so much for the sake of so very little” (from A Chance to Die by Elisabeth Elliot).
Are we risking so much for the sake of so very little? Are we placing value on the temporary things of the world rather than the eternal treasures of Godʼs Kingdom? Are we bypassing opportunities to be ambassadors for Christ because we are too busy flaunting worldly style and status?
A woman who exudes true feminine mystique is both modest and selfless. She doesnʼt hide her femininity; she dresses to reflect the joy and radiance that fills her soul. She dresses to honor her future husband and the men around her. Her outward beauty is an expression of the trans-formation Christ has made to her inner life. She puts effort into her appearance, not to gain approval and attention, but to show respect and honor to those she interacts with. Her goal is to point peopleʼs eyes to Jesus and not to herself. She is modest and beautiful at the same time. In fact, her modesty is part of what makes her so beautiful and fascinating.
Before we can truly learn how to dress with selfless style, we must first become dead to the world and its applause. Once we exchange the worldʼs value system for Christʼs eternal priorities, we can begin to reflect the beauty of Heaven.
The Art of Dressing with Dignity
I have found that most modern girls either dress seductively or like slobs. But once upon a time, women wore elegant, feminine clothes and carried themselves with dignity and poise. The true gentlemen of yesteryear were not enticed by sensual outfits; rather they were captivated by true beauty and feminine grace. When a lady walked into the room, he noticed the sparkle of her eye and the radiance of her smile, not the outline of her body. But “dressing like a lady” is a lost concept these days. The Proverbs 31 woman (whom I wrote about in great detail in my book Set-Apart Femininity) is the epitome of feminine beauty and feminine valiance. She is clothed in “strength and dignity.” She makes coverings for herself of “fine linen and purple.” She has the respect of her children and community, and has captured the heart of her husband. When a young woman dresses with the grace and dignity of a true lady, she gains the right kind of attention from the right kind of guys.
Dressing with dignity doesnʼt mean giving up being feminine or attractive. Rather, it means exchanging the cultureʼs cheap counterfeit of feminine appeal for the stunning, God-designed version of female allure. And by the way, Christ-built men arenʼt just looking for girls who purposely drab-down their feminine beauty or hide behind tent-like clothes. They desire to see young women who exude a loveliness and graceful feminine beauty that flows from the inside out; a feminine dignity that is both modest and stunningly, refreshingly beautiful.
The typical style of dress for todayʼs young women is anything but elegant or refined. While Iʼm certainly not a proponent of stuffy, fussy outfits, I also believe that most modern young women are in need of a bit more class. Typically, the only reason we dress in anything nicer than jeans and a tee shirt is when we absolutely have to. Our American obsession with being super-casual has led to an overall sloppiness in our daily appearance – and when we adopt this pattern we exude a message of carelessness rather than one of dignity and grace.
There is a big difference in how I feel on days when Iʼve dressed hurriedly in sweats than on days when I put effort into my appearance. When I am dressed sloppily, I am more prone to feel sloppy, lethargic and unmotivated as I go about my daily tasks. But when Iʼm dressed with dignity, it brings value to the things Iʼm working, and they become deserving of my best attention and focus.
The way Iʼm dressed also affects the way I sit, stand, and carry myself. If Iʼm just in a slipshod outfit, I tend to slouch more and carry myself with far less poise than if Iʼm dressed a bit nicer. Dressing with class reminds me to carry myself with dignity and grace at all times. It keeps me focused on maintaining good manners and etiquette. It also shows honor to those I live with. If I dress haphazardly around my husband and kids, and only make myself look nice when we go out to meet other people, Iʼm sending the message that my family is not as worthy of my efforts as other people are; that I donʼt feel like going to the trouble of making myself look good for those closest to me.
Iʼm always disturbed when I observe homemakers who habitually look like slobs, using the justification, “Why should I bother looking nice? Iʼm just hanging out with kids all day long.” This attitude disregards the value of guiding a home and caring for a family. Iʼve observed that when a mother dresses with dignity, she takes her role far more seriously and the work she is doing begins to actually feel valuable and important. Of course, there are always exceptions to this principle. As mentioned earlier, clothing should be a tool to serve Godʼs purposes in our lives. There will be times when Godʼs priorities, or life circumstances, demand that we forgo taking time on our appearance and turn our attention to more important things. It is not something to ever become worried or stressed about. Remember, itʼs not ultimately the clothes we wear, but the inner beauty of Christ that creates our dignity and loveliness. Even in a filthy concentration camp, a truly set-apart woman radiates with beauty that does not fade no matter how dingy her appearance becomes – because her beauty flows from the life of Christ within her. But whenever we do have a choice, letʼs honor our King and those around us by exchanging the sloppy, careless, trashy style of the culture for a classier approach to our appearance.
Making it Practical
Leslie’s Tips for Dressing with Selfless Style
Typically, I choose to wear stylish feminine outfits instead of casual jeans and tee shirts, even if Iʼm just working at home or with my family. This doesnʼt mean Iʼm in a dress and high heels every day! With four little children to manage, my clothes have to be functional and comfortable. Iʼve found that just a few feminine upgrades to my outfits can make a huge difference in taking me from sloppy to classy. For instance, wearing tailored, trouser-style jeans and pants that are a bit dressier than the form-fitting low-cut style. (Tailored jeans are also more modest.) You can usually find young, stylish pants and jeans of this kind in the “young professional” stores at the mall – stores that cater to young, working twenty-somethings, rather than just teens Also, Iʼve found that dark-wash jeans usually look more polished than lighter shades. Wearing a short casual jacket and button-up top or a dressier feminine blouse with jeans is a great way to add a bit of class without feeling super dressed-up. And in the summer, wearing a casual flowy skirt with a simple feminine top is a great way to keep cool and feel refined at the same time. In fact, Iʼve started adding more casual skirts to my wardrobe, because Iʼve discovered itʼs a great way to maintain my feminine dignity and still feel casual and comfortable.
Like I said, there are always exceptions. I do have days when itʼs just easier and more practical to wear sweats or casual jeans and a tee shirt – like when Iʼm cleaning out the basement or baking cookies with the kids. But for the most part, I feel and act more dignified when I dress like a lady, and so I make it my goal to do so whenever possible.
Annie’s Tips for Dressing with Selfless Style
Iʼve learned from a few godly, elegant women in my life an approach to building a wardrobe that has saved me from impulse purchases, breaking my budget, and wasting countless hours looking for an outfit. Here was their approach and the one that I aim to have as well: stock up on the classics and only splurge occasionally on trendier items. Trends will always be going “out” as quickly as they came “in” but as I have invested in classic pieces, Iʼve grown a wardrobe that is timeless, always has something for me to wear, and is versatile with the few new things I may buy.
Here are some of my favorite classic wardrobe staples and how I change them up:
Dress pants: Dress up with heels or go ladylike casual with flats. Pair with a blouse with feminine detailing or a lovely pattern. Layering over pants a dress that may be too short alone, gives it versatility, modesty, and a unique style.
Cardigans : I love these! I have my basic black and cream, long and cropped, that can dress up jeans, complete a sleeveless feminine blouse, or add something more to a basic dress. Sometimes I pin a broach on the upper right corner or button it up and finish with a belt around my waist.
Tailored jeans : As Leslie said above, jeans can be a comfortable, casual choice, but donʼt have to be frumpy or grunge. I have found it so worthwhile to invest in a well-fitting, quality pair, that can take me from nice casual to dressy.
Layering tops : Having layers helps extend my wardrobe through all seasons, necklines, or hemlines. I layer fitted long t-shirts under feminine blouses to carry them into winter and nice, classic tank tops help when necklines are a bit too low. These are a definite staple to make sure any outfit can be modest, versatile, and fresh.
Dresses : Iʼm always on the lookout for a good dress, (the hardest item to find), but finding a classic one allows me to dress it up for an important event, or make it work-ready with a cardigan, simple necklace, and heels. I also sometimes layer leggings and flats, or match it with English riding boots, a scarf, and a fitted jacket (Iʼve always had a pull to the “English” look).
Soft scarves : Scarves can be worn so many ways, and if you have a few colors, they can change up any outfit instantly. I have a plain colored one to add to my feminine blouses and patterned ones to dress up simple jeans and a top.
With having these timeless staples and adding in just a few new additional splashes each season, I can put together endless, beautiful combinations that express feminine style and eliminate those frantic hours of “outfit arranging,” that time wasted looking to the world for itʼs enunciation of style, and keep my heart stayed upon my things that will not fade away or be destroyed. It should not be about our own “style” or “the latest fashion,” but rather it should be a thought through, quiet expression of honor, dignity, and feminine expression.*
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