I was once explaining to someone about how my work as an image consultant supports people to find authenticity in themselves and in their clothes — and they were incredulous: “But, Glynis, humanity is sliding off a cliff and you want us to pay attention to what we wear?”
In considering the general state of the world around us, this is a perfectly understandable response. The very serious issues eroding and degrading the planet present an immediate responsibility to each of us to make conscious efforts to address them. For this reason, many concerned and deep-thinking people feel that there are more important areas to focus on than the seemingly superficial and materialistic subject of clothes.
In this article, I’d like to explore ideas of discovering and expressing our true selves through the clothes we choose to wear.
The Baha’i Writings are replete with seeming paradoxes
In many areas of the Baha’i Writings we’re challenged by what could, on the face of it, seem to be contradictions. In light of Writings such as, “Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self”1 and, “forget his material self so as better to seek his spiritual desires…”2, one can certainly appreciate that an interest in clothes could seem frivolous, irrelevant and egotistical.
However, while it’s clear that we need to move beyond a narrow focus on our “self”, we’re also told that: “True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self.”3
“Self” and “self”
I believe that there’s a difference between the lower-case, egotistical “self” and the upper-case, “higher Self”. It seems we need to move beyond our self-absorbed, “lower-nature self” in order to try and better understand our true Self, the eternal part of us that has been created in the “reflection and likeness of God.”4
This is a subtle but profound distinction that assists us in letting go of the materialistic side of ourselves in favour of developing our true Self, our genuine identity that will continue throughout eternity, unencumbered by worldly things such as clothes.
Part of the urge to try and understand our true Self is driven by the recognition that we have unlimited potential to reflect and embody all the attributes of God:
Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self.5
Baha’u’llah gives us an effective way to do this:
He hath known God who hath known himself.6
I think we can therefore resolve the seeming paradox of forgetting ourselves, but also knowing ourselves, by learning to appreciate — to the extent that this is possible — our true “Self”, that is who we really are and who we’re here to become.
So, while we realise that “that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel”7, we still have the vast responsibility and the priceless privilege of developing, over the course of our lives, as many of the “names and attributes” of God as possible. It therefore follows that we need to do whatever we can to take advantage of this treasure trove of potential within us.
Coming to know the “Self of God within” is a weighty responsibility and a lifelong journey — and clothes can be a fun and accessible part of this process.
Accepting that we have the potential to develop and embody all the attributes of the Creator makes it important to identify which ones come to us most naturally, because this is a clue to our individual spiritual blueprint. As each of us is as spiritually unique as our fingerprints, the more we’re able to recognise our particular constellation of qualities, gifts and attributes, the more we’ll be able to use them purposefully, wisely and productively.
Knowing ourselves better can also give us more clarity, perspective and insight as to our individual capacities and our contributions to the Plans of the Universal House of Justice.
So how do clothes assist us in this?
It’s a rare person that doesn’t have an instinctive enjoyment of colour, texture, pattern, proportion, balance and beauty, and clothes can satisfy this attraction in practical and uplifting ways. Abdu’l-Baha is recorded as having said:
It is natural for the heart and spirit to take pleasure and enjoyment in all things that show forth symmetry, harmony, and perfection. For instance: a beautiful house, a well-designed garden, a symmetrical line, a graceful motion, a well written book, pleasing garments – in fact, all things that have in themselves grace or beauty are pleasing to the heart and spirit …8
When we translate the awareness of our particular inner blueprint of attributes and talents into authentic clothes that encapsulate this, we’re creating inner and outer harmony and integrity.
We can start by identifying words that best describe our attributes and talents.
I’ve named these terms True Self Style Words and they include words such as generous, interesting, authentic, radiant, strong and trustworthy. These are the attributes of your authentic design as a soul that most resonate with you at this juncture on your life’s journey. They also include qualities that you’d like to develop and embody more consciously. For example, you may know yourself to be professional, reliable, persevering and serious, but you may also long to express more of your creative and eclectic parts. Or you may be aware that you’re courageous, disciplined, supportive and practical, while knowing that your spiritual and innovative sides may be a little neglected. Whatever your collection of words, they act as a “snapshot” of your True Self that can then be expressed in clothes that are befitting adornments of the temple of your soul.
These attributes are not about glorifying yourself, but rather about honouring the Creator who made you. I believe it’s important to acknowledge the exquisite spiritual attributes that you have within you. This isn’t vanity, but rather a grateful recognition for all that has been bestowed upon you by God. By embodying these qualities in your own life you’re manifesting in practical terms the seemingly abstract attributes such as steadfastness, moderation, dignity, kindness and patience. This assists us in concrete ways to make our individual contribution in carrying forward an “ever-advancing civilisation”.9
As “every atom in existence and the essence of all created things” has been “ordained” for our “training”10, we can use what we wear as a way to live more consciously and authentically and to enrich our human experience.
And, if you’ve ever been to the Baha’i Archives on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, and seen the simple cloak of the Beloved Bab with its beautiful silk lining, you’ll observe how clothes can be simple, practical and lovely at the same time!
- Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, The Persian Hidden Words, 40 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v II, p. 7 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 156 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 223 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 65 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 178 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 158 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha’s words to Mrs. Mary L. Lucas, as quoted in “A Brief Account of My Visit to Acca” (Chicago: Bahá’í Publishing Society, 1905), pp. 11-14 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 214 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, Persian Hidden Words, 29 [↩]