My Thoughts on Pagan Religious Dress

Ever since learning about Sailor Mars, I’ve always wanted to be a monk (err, I guess a Nun. Specifically, one of these). Now, that was at a very impressionable young age, and since then I’ve wanted to be many other things “when I grow up”: Archaeologist, architect, cartoonist, porn star, scholar, revolutionary. But the monastic urge has never left me. Now, I could (and will) write a whole post about what a Pagan monasticism might look like, and what some Pagans have done in order to begin such traditions. All I want to talk about right now, though, is clothing.

You see, one of the aspects of the monastic life that has always appealed to me is the idea of formal dress, dress with a purpose. Dress that comes out of a tradition; dress that others like you have worn before.  Dress that is a constant reminder to one’s-self and to one’s community of a commitment to religious life.

Back when I almost converted to Islam, a not-insignificant part of my reasons for potentially doing so was that Islam has a thriving culture of—if not exactly “monastic”—traditional religious garb. Hijabi women I know (that is, women who wear Islamic head coverings) often explain that their decision to wear the hijab comes out of a recognition of tradition, a fulfillment of (what they themselves interpret to be) religious obligation, and a commitment to expressing their religiosity at all times. Of course, these same women must continually negotiate issues concerning the oppression of women through prescribed clothing, and that is an ongoing (and raging) discussion that I won’t go into here.

Men in Islam might also wear religious garb; hats like skullcaps are the most recognizable form of this. They do so out of respect for Allah and, again, in order to keep themselves mindful of their faith. This idea of “mindfulness” is one reason (along with religious dictation–it’s built into the system) that Jewish people might wear tzitzit (fringes).

And so, like I said just a second ago, these ideas of 1) constant mindfulnessand 2) affiliation with tradition appeal to me. Concerning the first point, this can be managed by anyone privately, I think, and Pagans often wear jewelry to this effect. I and many others wear necklaces or rings with specific personal or cultural meanings that remind us of, say, our commitment to certain Gods or practices. But to me, this is on too small of a scale. Everyone’s jewelry is different; it’s all personal, not communal, and therefore it does not imply a relationship with a group. The only thing we have that comes close to this is the iconography of the pentacle, but it’s not like we -all- wear pentacles, or the same pentacles, nor do all Pagans recognize the pentacle as meaningful!

Now, the examples of religious dress that I just described from Islam and Judaism all come out of the interaction between religious law and cultural norms. As American Neopagans, we have neither law from which we gain ideas about dress, and a large part of our ethos is the rejection of the social mores of the dominant culture. So, two questions arise:

What statements would we want to be making with our choices about religious garb, and what source(s) might we draw from in order to design the clothing?

Now, just to be clear, I realize that trying to work out common practices for Neopagans to adopt is like trying to herd anarchist zombie kittens that have rabies and are all on fire. Still, I think that it’s an exercise that’s worth doing, especially since I am by no means suggesting that ALL Pagans should (or MUST!!!1!) conform to any sort of dress practice. I’m just saying that we should think over the possibilities of starting a few practices that, over time, could grow into meaningful and optional practices among certain kinds of Pagans. ((There, caveats done!))

For me, Paganism is all balanced on two pillars: Earth-centered spirituality and respect for ancient Pagan traditions. So, I think that as Pagans our goal in creating religious garb should be to highlight these two things, while at the same time creating that sense of communion that I’ve discussed above.

I think that clothing choices based on Earth-centered spirituality must be ecologically aware, but that could mean many different things. To me, this implies a rejection of capitalism (being a plague on the planet, frankly) and so a movement toward clothing that is not branded. Personally, the aesthetics of a simplified, smaller, even plain wardrobe speaks to me; however, it is also true that a joyous grokking of the Earth calls out in a language of mess and vibrancy, and so one’s Earth-centered clothing might reflect that fact through color and texture. Truthfully, the negotiation of this conundrum might be one of the most productive sources for ecotheological dialogue in Paganism, and so I won’t try to draw any conclusions on the topic here.

Regarding the ancient traditions from which we take inspiration, there are many things for us to look at, including the proto- or pseudo-religious orders that existed in the past. As one example, this book details traditions relating to devotees of Isis, including the donning of black skullcaps. The problem with this, of course, is that each ancient practice that we might draw upon is necessarily culturally inflected, and so I can anticipate that it would be difficult for us to build any pan-Pagan traditions out of these.

All of this means, then, that I might have set myself to an impossible task. We may never be able to devise any sort of Neopagan religious garb, and that’s fine. I realize that my impulse toward head-coverings and simple clothing is my own, although I’m aware that it’s not JUST me. I guess what it comes down to is this: We can’t set about trying to make up these things; instead, it might be that we have to wait until inspiration hits us and decidedly “neo-” practices come about. Sure, now monks wear apron-like robes, but that came about practically and then spread. I think that this is how all of this must come about—the problem is that all that takes time, a -long- time, and I’m impatient! We also have to ask ourselves what sort of clothing choices we make generally (and not necessarily out of a devotional impulse) that might later inform such a practice; as for me, I’m not looking forward to seeing any sort of Pagan monastic orders that wear tie-dye Celtic knot robes with pewter sandals and crushed velvet hats!!

((Now, I do have ideas floating around in my head, don’t get me wrong! The most productive idea I’ve had, I think, is that Pagans could adopt the practice of devotional scapulars. These have a form that can remain constant while supporting the individuality needed in any Pagan practice.))

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About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

4 Responses to My Thoughts on Pagan Religious Dress

  1. Hystery says:

    My own blog grows directly out of a line of thought very similar to what you express here. The “Plain” in Plainly Pagan is related to my attraction to plain dress. What you write here is so very familiar.

  2. RE this statement:

    As American Neopagans, we have neither law from which we gain ideas about dress, and a large part of our ethos is the rejection of the social mores of the dominant culture. So, two questions arise:

    What statements would we want to be making with our choices about religious garb, and what source(s) might we draw from in order to design the clothing?

    Now, just to be clear, I realize that trying to work out common practices for Neopagans to adopt is like trying to herd anarchist zombie kittens that have rabies and are all on fire.

    And I say:

    Depends on what tradition you’re part of, and no – TRADITION isn’t a bad word!

    I use the rainbow step stole as a nod to the Bifrost Bridge/Rainbow Bridge that connects Midgard to Asgard.

    So if one has a cultural tradition like Northern European heathenry to look to, one can find all kinds of ideas for ritual garb.

  3. Medeina Ragana says:

    I have also been thinking about this over the years. I finally concluded that since my background is Balto/Slavic, and since I have attempted to research the old Religion from that perspective, that I should do research regarding possible sacred clothing. In doing so, I discovered that many of the embroideries of things like rushnik (sacred towels), etc. had very religious associations attached to them that were, in essence, pre-Christian and dating back possibly 4,000 years. So I have begun to create rushnik for my altars and am in the process of creating a vyshyvanka (traditional woman’s blouse) that has the symbols of the Goddess on it. What was even more interesting was that in my research I discovered that there were many such symbols of the Goddess scattered throughout weavings, drawings etc. from almost every culture around the world. So there is a great deal of resources availalbe for those who wish to incorporate them into their own clothing.
    I highly recommend the book “Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe” by Mary B. Kelly. She has an enormous wealth of information in it.

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