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Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“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” (Isaiah 3:16).

The passage takes us back 2,600 years and sets us down in an ancient city: Old Jerusalem. Men and women are moving up and down the streets. The modest ones do not attract our attention. But here come the haughty daughters of Zion! They lean forward, too much—so far forward as to be unnatural—teetering, wobbling, wriggling, flirting, or, as my text describes it, they “walk with stretched-forth necks, walking and mincing as they go.”

See! That girl is a princess. Look! That man is a Damascus sword-maker. Look! That man is a Syrian merchant. The jingling of the chains, the lashing of the headbands, and the exhibitions of universal swagger attract the attention of the Prophet Isaiah, and he pulls out his camera and snaps a picture.

God “will judge the haughty Jewish women, who mince along, noses in the air, tinkling bracelets on their ankles, with wanton eyes that rove among the crowds to catch the glances of the men …. No longer shall they tinkle with self-assurance as they walk. For the Lord will strip away their artful beauty and their ornaments, their necklaces and bracelets and veils of shimmering gauze. Gone shall be their scarves and ankle chains, headbands, earrings, and perfumes; their rings, jewels, party clothes, negligees, capes, ornate combs, and purses; their mirrors, lovely lingerie, beautiful dresses, and veils …. All their beauty will be gone; all that will be left to them is shame and disgrace” (Isaiah 3:16-24 TLB).

The description is rich because God, looking on, is intolerant of the wretches and their haughtiness—their pride. Their attitude and attire show that they are vain and proud, unaware that the trappings that they think set them apart and make them superior are, in fact, measly and temporal, and will, in time, bring them to degradation and shame.

Where is that scene? Vanished.

Where are those colorful streets? Gone.

Where are the hands, the necks, the foreheads, the shoulders, and the feet that sported all that magnificence? Ashes! “The world and its lusts pass away” (1 John 2:17).

BEAUTY OF NATURE

God “has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). “Consider the lilies …. They toil not, they spin not, and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27).

When I see the apple orchards of the spring and the pageantry of the autumnal forests, I conclude that if Nature ever does join the Church, while she may be a Quaker in the silence of her worship, she never will be a Quaker in the style of her dress.

Why the notches of a fern leaf or the stamen of a water lily? Why, when the day departs, does it let the folding doors of heaven stay open so long, when it might go in so quickly?

One summer morning I saw an army of a million spears, each one adorned with a diamond of the first water—I mean the grass with the dew on it.

That we should all be clothed is proved by the the first wardrobe in Paradise, with its apparel of dark green fig leaves (Genesis 3:7). That we should all, as far as our means allow us, be gracefully attired is proved by the fact that God never made a wave but He gilded it with golden sunbeams, or a tree but He garlanded it with blossoms, or a sky but He studded it with stars, or allowed even the smoke of a furnace to ascend but He columned, turreted, doled, and scrolled it into outlines of indescribable gracefulness.

When the Prodigal came home, his father put not only a coat on his back, but shoes on his feet and a ring on his hand (Luke 15:22). Christ wore a beard (Isaiah 50:6). Paul, the bachelor apostle, not afflicted with any sentimentality, admired the arrangement of a woman’s hair, when he said in his epistle: “If a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her” (1 Corinthians 11:15).

There will be fashion in heaven as on earth, but it will be a different kind of fashion. It will dictate the color: white. Those who have not defiled their earthly garments “shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). “A great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palms in their hands” (7:9). “And the armies which were in heaven followed Him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean” (19:14).

I say these things as a background to my sermon, to show you that I have no prim, precise, prudish, or cast-iron theory on the subject of human apparel; but the goddess of fashion has set up her throne in this country and at the sound of the timbrels we are all expected to fall down and worship. Her altars smoke with the sacrifice of the bodies and the souls of thousands of victims.

VICTIMS OF FASHION

When I come to count the victims of fashion, I find as many masculine as feminine. Men make an easy tirade against woman, as though she were the chief worshipper at this idolatrous shrine, and no doubt some men in the more conspicuous part of the pew have already cast glances at the more retired part of the pew, their look a prophecy of a generous distribution. My sermon will be as appropriate for one end of the pew as for the other.

Men are as much the idolaters of fashion as women, but they sacrifice on a different altar. With men the fashion goes to cigars, club-rooms, yachting parties, and wine suppers. In the United States men chew up and smoke $100 million worth of tobacco a year. That is their fashion.

In London not long ago a man died who started in life with $750,000; but he ate it all up in gluttony, sending his agents to all parts of the earth for rare delicacy for the palate, sometimes a plate of food costing him $300 or $400. He ate up his whole fortune, and had only one guinea left. With that he bought a woodcock, had it dressed, ate it, allowed two hours for digestion, then walked out on Westminster Bridge, threw himself into the Thames, and died.

But men do not abstain from millinery and elaboration of skirt through any superiority of simplicity. It is only because such appendages would hinder business. What would sashes and trains three and a half yards long do in a stock market? And yet men are the disciples of custom as much as women. Some of them wear boots so tight that they can hardly walk in the paths of righteousness; some buy expensive suits of clothes and never pay for them; some go through the streets in great stripes of color, like animated checkerboards. I say these things because I want to show you that I am impartial in my discourse, and that both genders are guilty of being slaves to fashion.

God being my helper, I am going to set forth the evil effects of both improper dress and excessive finery.

INDECENT APPAREL

It is a simple truth, though the pulpit has not yet uttered it, that much of the female attire of our time is the cause of the temporal and eternal damnation of men. There is a shamelessness among many that calls for vehement protest. The aim of many, it seems, is to see how near they can come to the verge of indecency without falling over.

I am in full sympathy with the officer of the law who, at a levee in Philadelphia last winter, went up to a so-called lady, and because of her inadequate apparel, ordered her to either leave the house or habilitate herself immediately. It is high time our good and sensible women took aim at such indecency (and saved the men the trouble); but if the women will not do it, then the husband needs to counsel the wife; and the father, the daughter. The evil of women’s shameless, skimpy attire is menacing and overshadowing.

I suppose that the American stage is responsible for much of this. I do not go to the theater, so I must take the evidence of the actors and managers of theaters, such as John Gilbert, AM Palmer, and Daniel E Bandmann. They have recently told us that the crime of indecent exposure is blasting the theater, which by many is considered a school of morals, indeed superior to the Church in its influence.

AM Palmer says, “The bulk of the performances on the stage are degrading and pernicious [harmful]. The managers strive to come just as near the line as possible without flagrantly breaking the law. There never have been costumes worn on a stage of this city, either in a theater, hall, or ‘dive,’ so improper as those that clothe some of the chorus in recent comic opera productions.” He says in regard to the female performers, “It is not a question whether they can sing, but just how little they will consent to wear.”

Daniel E Bandmann, who has spent twenty-nine years on the stage and performed before almost all nationalities, says, “I unhesitatingly state that the taste of the present theater-going people of America, as a body, is of a coarse and vulgar nature …. Our shop windows are full of, and the walls covered with, show cards and posters which should be a disgrace to an enlightened country and an insult to the eye of a cultured community.”

John Gilbert says, “Such exhibition is a disastrous one to the morals of the community. Are these proper pictures to put out for the public to look at, to say nothing of the propriety of females appearing in public dressed like that? It is shameful!”

I must take the testimony of the friends of the theater and the confirmation I see on the board fences and in the show windows containing the pictures of the way actresses dress. I suppose that those representations of playhouse costume are true. If they are not, then the theaters are swindling the public with promises of spectacular nudity which they do not fulfill.

Now, all this familiarizes the public with improprieties of dress and depresses the public conscience as to what is allowable and right.

The parlor and drawing-room are now running a race with the theater and opera. They are now nearly neck and neck in the race, the latter a little ahead; but the parlor and the drawing-room are gaining on the others, and the probability is they will soon be even and pass the stand nearly at the same time. Let printing press, platform, and pulpit hurl red-hot anathema at the boldness of much of female attire!

I charge Christian women, neither by style of dress nor adjustment of apparel, to become administrative of evil. Show me the fashion of any age between this time and the time of Louis XVI of France and Henry VIII of England, and I will tell you its morals. Without exception. Modest apparel means a righteous people; immodest apparel, a depraved society.

EXTRAVAGANCE OF DRESS

It is not only such boldness that is to be reprehended, but extravagance of dress. This latter is the cause of fraud, deceit, theft, and treason. Did you know that Benedict Arnold of the American Revolution proposed to sell his country to get money to support his home wardrobe? I declare here before God and this people that the effort to keep up expensive establishments in this country is sending more businessmen to temporal perdition than all other causes combined. It was this that sent prominent businessmen to the watering of stocks, life insurance presidents to perjured statements about their assets, and some to the penitentiary.

But why should I go to these famous defaults to show what men will do to keep up great lifestyle and expensive wardrobe, when you and I know scores of men who are put to their wit’s end and are lashed from January to December in the attempt? Our Washington politicians may theorize until the expiration of their terms of office as to the best way of improving our economy. It will be of no use, and things will be no better until we learn to put on our heads, backs, feet, and hands no more than we can pay for.

There are clerks in stores and banks on limited salaries who in the vain attempt to keep the wardrobe of their family as showy as other folk’s wardrobes are dying of muffs, diamonds, camel’s-hair shawls, and high hats; and they have nothing left except what they give to cigars and wine suppers. They die before their time and expect us ministers to preach about them as though they were the victims of early piety. And, worse, after a high-class funeral, with bright silver handles at the side of coffins, it will be discovered that the undertaker was cheated out of his legitimate expenses! Do not send to me to preach the funeral of a man who dies like that! I would blurt out the whole truth, and tell that he was strangled to death by his wife’s ribbons! The country is dressed to death!

You are not surprised to find that the putting up of one public building in New York cost millions of dollars more than it ought to have cost, when you find that the man who gave out the contracts paid more than $5,000 for his daughter’s wedding dress. Cashmeres of a $1,000 each are not rare on Broadway. It is estimated that there are 8,000 women in these two cities [Brooklyn and New York City] who have spent $2,000 a year on their personal array.

What are the men to do to keep up such home wardrobes? Steal—that is the only respectable thing they can do! During the last fifteen years there have been innumerable fine businessmen shipwrecked on the wardrobe. The temptation comes in this way: a man thinks more of his family than all the world outside; and if they spend the evening in describing to him the superior wardrobe of the competing family across the street, the man is thrown on his gallantry and his pride of family. Without translating his feelings into plain language, he goes into extortion, issuing of false stock, and skillful penmanship in writing somebody else’s name at the foot of a promissory note; and they all go down together—the husband to the prison, the wife to the sewing machine, the children to be taken care of by poor relatives.

Oh, for some new Shakespeare to arise and write the tragedy of clothes!

Act I. A plain but beautiful home. Enter the newly married pair. Enter simplicity of manner and behavior. Enter as much happiness as is ever found in one home.

Act II. Discontent with the humble home. Enter envy. Enter jealousy. Enter desire to display.

Act III. Enlargement of expenses. Enter all the queenly dressmakers. Enter the French milliners.

Act IV. The tiptop of society. Enter princes and princesses of New York life. Enter magnificent plate and equipage. Enter everything splendid.

Act V. Enter the assignee. Enter the sheriff. Enter the creditors. Enter humiliation. Enter the wrath of God. Enter the contempt of society. Enter death.

Now, let the silk curtain drop on the stage. The farce is ended, and the lights are out.

Will you forgive me if I say in tersest terms possible, that some of the men in this country have to forge, to perjure, and to swindle to pay for the wife’s dresses? I will say it whether you forgive me or not. The tide of masculine profligacy [conspicuous consumption] will never turn back until there is a decided reformation in women’s clothing.

“I want men everywhere to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from sin and anger and resentment …. Women should be the same way, quiet and sensible in manner and clothing. Christian women should be noticed for being kind and good, not for the way they fix their hair or because of their jewels or fancy clothes” (1 Timothy 2:8-10 TLB). Their grooming shouldn’t “be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel, but the hidden person of the heart … even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Peter 3:3, 4).

ALMSGIVING AND BENEVOLENCE

Again, extravagant dress is the enemy of all Christian almsgiving. Men and women put so much in personal display that they often have nothing for God and the cause of suffering humanity. A Christian man cracking his Palais Royal gloves across the back by shutting up his hand to hide the penny he puts into the poor box! A Christian woman at the story of the Hottentots crying copious tears into a $25 handkerchief, then giving a 2¢ piece to the collection, thrusting it down under the bills, so people will not know but it was a $10 gold piece—$100 for incense to fashion, 2¢ for God!

God gives us 90¢ out of every $1. The other dime, by commandment, belongs to Him: “the tenth shall be holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:32). Is not God liberal according to this tithing system laid down in the Old Testament? Is not God liberal in giving us 90¢ out of a $1 when He takes but 10¢? We do not like that. We want to have 99¢ for ourselves and a penny for God!

Now, I would a great deal rather steal a dime from you than to steal it from God. “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me. You say, In what have we robbed You? In tithes and offerings.” Therefore, “You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me” (Malachi 3:8, 9).

One reason why many people do not get along in worldly accumulation faster is that they do not observe this divine rule of giving to God. God says, “Well, if that man is not satisfied with 90¢ out of $1, then I will take the whole dollar, and I will give it to the man or woman who is honest with Me.”

The greatest obstacle to charity in the Christian church today is that men expend so much on their table, and women so much on their dress, they have nothing left for the work of God and the world’s benevolence.

DISTRACTION IN WORSHIP

Again, extravagant clothes are distracting to public worship. You know very well that a good many people go to church just as they go to the races, to see who will come in first. Men and women with souls to be saved passing the hour wondering where that man got his cravat, or what store that woman patronizes. In many of our churches the preliminary exercises are taken up with the discussion of wardrobes. It is pitiable.

Is it not wonderful that the Lord does not strike the meetinghouses with lightning? What distraction of public worship! Dying men and women, whose body is soon to be turned into dust, yet before three worlds strutting like peacocks. People sitting down in a pew or taking up a hymn book, all absorbed at the same time in personal array, to sing:

Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings,
Thy better portion trace;
Rise from transitory things
Toward heaven, thy native place! ~Robert Seagrave (1742)

I adopt the Episcopalian prayer, and say, “Good Lord, deliver us!”

“How can you claim that you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, if you show favoritism to rich people and look down on poor people? If a man comes into your church dressed in expensive clothes and with valuable gold rings on his fingers, and at the same moment another man comes in who is poor and dressed in threadbare clothes, and you make a lot of fuss over the rich man and give him the best seat in the house and say to the poor man, ‘You can stand over there if you like or else sit on the floor’—well, judging a man by his wealth shows that you are guided by wrong motives …. God has chosen poor people to be rich in faith, and the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs …. And yet, of the two strangers, you have despised the poor man. Don’t you realize that it is usually the rich men who pick on you and drag you into court? And all too often they are the ones who laugh at Jesus Christ …. ‘You must love and help your neighbors just as much as you love and take care of yourself.’ But you are breaking this law of our Lord’s when you favor the rich and fawn over them; it is sin” (James 2:1-9 TLB).

“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (1:27).

SHALLOWNESS

Extravagant clothes belittle the intellect. Our minds are enlarged or they dwindle in proportion to the importance of the subject on which we constantly dwell. Can you imagine anything more dwarfing to the human intellect than the study of dress? I see men on the street who, judging from their elaboration, I think must have spent two hours grooming themselves. After a few years of that kind of absorption, which one of McAllister’s magnifying glasses will be powerful enough to make the man’s character visible? What will be left of a woman’s intellect after giving years and years to the discussion of such questions? They all land in idiocy.

I have seen men, at the summer watering places, because it is the fashion of the day, the mere wreck of what they once were. Sallow of cheek. Meager of limb. Hollow at the chest. Showing no animation save in rushing across a room to pick up a lady’s fan. Simpering along the corridors the same compliments they simpered twenty years ago.

SIMPLE IDOLATRY

Yet, my friends, I have given you only the milder phase of this evil. It shuts a great multitude out of heaven. The first peal of thunder that shook Sinai declared, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3), and you will have to choose between the goddess of fashion and the Christian God. There are a great many seats in heaven, and they are all easy seats, but not one seat for the devotee of apparel. Heaven is for “meek and quiet” spirits (1 Peter 3:4). Heaven is for those who think more of their soul than of their body.

Give up this idolatry of fashion or give up heaven! What would you do standing beside the Countess of Huntingdon, whose joy it was to build chapels for the poor? Or with that Christian woman of Boston, who fed 1,500 children of the street, at Faneuil Hall, one New Year’s Day, giving out as a sort of doxology at the end of the meeting a pair of shoes to each one of them? Or those Dorcases of modern society who have consecrated their needles to the Lord, and who will get eternal reward for every stitch they take (cf Acts 9:39)?

O men and women, give up the idolatry of fashion! The rivalries and the competitions of such a life are a stupendous wretchedness. You will always find someone with brighter array, with more palatial residence, and with lavender kid gloves that make a tighter fit. And if you buy this thing and wear it, you will wish you had bought something else and worn it. And the frets of such a life will bring the crow’s feet to your temples before they are due; and when you come to die, you will have a miserable time.

I have seen men and women of excessive fashion die, and I never saw one of them die well. The trappings off, there they lay on the tumbled pillow, and there were just two things that bothered them—a wasted life and a coming eternity. I could not pacify them, for their body, mind, and soul had been exhausted in the worship of fashion, and they could not appreciate the gospel. When I knelt by their bedside, they were mumbling their regrets. “O God! O God!” Their garments were hung in the wardrobe never again to be seen by them. Without any exception, so far as my memory serves me, they died without hope, and went into eternity unprepared.

The two most ghastly deathbeds on earth are the one where a man dies of delirium tremens, and the other where a woman dies after having sacrificed all her faculties of body, mind, and soul in the worship of fashion.

You who are rich, “now is the time to cry and groan with anguished grief because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is even now rotting away, and your fine clothes are becoming mere moth-eaten rags. The value of your gold and silver is dropping fast, yet it will stand as evidence against you and eat your flesh like fire. That is what you have stored up for yourselves to receive on that coming” Day of Judgement. “You have spent your years here on earth having fun, satisfying your every whim, and now your fat hearts are ready for the slaughter” (James 5:1-5 TLB).

“God gives strength to the humble but sets himself against the proud and haughty. So give yourselves humbly to God …. And when you draw close to God, God will draw close to you” (4:6-8).

My friends, we must appear in Judgement to answer for what we have worn on our body as well as for what repentance we have exercised with our soul. On that day I see coming in Beau Brummell, English dandy, without his cloak; Aaron Burr, without the letters that to old age he showed in pride, to prove his early wicked gallantries; Absalom without his hair (2 Samuel 14:26; 18:9); Marchioness Pompadour without her titles; and Mrs Arnold, the belle of Wall Street, when that was the center of fashion, without her fripperies of vesture.

And in great haggardness they will go away into eternal expatriation, while among the queens of heavenly society will be found Vashti, who wore the modest veil before the palatial bacchanalians [drunks] (Esther 1:11, 12); Hannah, who annually made a little coat for Samuel at the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:19); Grandmother Lois, the ancestress of Timothy, who set for him a virtuous example (2 Timothy 1:5); Mary, who gave Jesus Christ to the world (Luke 2:4-7); and many of you, the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the present Christian church who, through great tribulation, are entering into the kingdom of God (cf Acts 14:22). Christ told us who would make up the royal family of heaven when He said, “Whoever does the will of God, the same is my brother, my sister, my mother” (Matthew 12:50). Are you doing the will of God?

“Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society.” ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Wedding Rings

*Adapted from “Costume and Morals,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], The Wedding Ring: A Series of Discourses for Husbands and Wives and Those Contemplating Matrimony (New York: Louis Klopsch, 1896). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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