I wrote this in 2009. It was published in the Summer of 2009, in Zadok Perspectives #105. I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and was reminded of it.
Sometimes you forget to take off your dancing shoes. At least, that’s what my three year old says. She has a pair of pink sparkly ballet shoes which I bought for a dollar fifty at a car boot sale. She calls them her dancing shoes, and she wears them whenever we’re home. When we go out, she wears black Mary Janes. Ballet shoes are no good for running or climbing or doing much other than spinning around the kitchen.
But the other day I found her pink shoes caked in mud. ‘Whoops,’ I said, ‘What happened here?’. She said she’d worn them to the park with Daddy by accident. ‘But,’ she said, ‘sometimes you forget to take off your dancing shoes.’ And I melted.
I desperately wanted gorgeous shoes when I was a kid, but my parents wouldn’t have a bar of it. No patent leather, no white, no pink, no sparkles. After all, such shoes are useless at the park. They get dirty in minutes, and wear out quick.
Of course they were right, and I inherited their values for me. My daughters may wear pink sparkles, but I have only sensible footwear. Of these, I admit, some are fun. One pair of Birkenstocks is printed with flowers; my Crocs are bright green. But they’re certainly not dancing shoes. No matter how funky, even my strappiest Birkies could never be described as fripperies.
How did this come about? Well, if you’re like me and try to apply your theology to every area of life, then footwear and clothing become incredibly difficult. Most are made by workers in terrible conditions, and buying them maintains the situation. Advertisements featuring emaciated fifteen year olds threaten many adult women’s self-esteem so that we become dissatisfied with how we look. Even so, we are manipulated to desire more and more. Shopping becomes a leisure activity rather than a response to necessity, and houses fill with unnecessary goods. So many of us have multiple wardrobes of clothing and piles of shoes, when just a few items would do. It’s abusive, it’s wasteful, it’s greedy, it’s vain.
But having identified these problems, I react. I buy clodhoppers which last for years; and I buy most of my clothes second hand or made at a local workshop. And I buy very little, too little. I live in other people’s cast off jeans and t-shirts, and when I absolutely have to dress up I slip on a pair of black designer pants, very worn and shiny now, and fret anxiously about which of my op shop tops I can get away with. I buckle up my very sensible shoes, and stomp on out.
Yet sometimes we are invited to weddings. I’ve just been invited to two. And I can’t bear to wear, yet again, my old black pants and an ill-fitting top. I can’t bear to wear, yet again, my black Birkenstock shoes, so reminiscent of Olive Oyl; or my ancient crumbling (but almost strappy) Birkenstock sandals.
I find myself thinking about Jesus at wedding feasts, and fetching out the Moet. He loved a good party, and he told parables about them. In one, a king was so disgusted with a guest who failed to dress for the feast that he threw the guest into outer darkness. Sure, the parable is a metaphor for the kingdom of God – and yet just as surely, if we are to celebrate important human festivals which are signs of the kingdom, then we are to dress the part.
Failing to dress well because I’m too worried about being ethical or modest or frugal is just vanity in a different form. It’s saying that my personal theological hang-ups are more important than the vitality of the party. Yet dressing for a wedding is not about me or for me. The clothing helps celebrate something special, a real occasion. We dress up for weddings to mark the solemnity and the joy of witnessing two people pledge to share their lives until death - something that I believe God takes great delight in.
Sitting in the corner looking drab isn’t going to mark the time as holy, or help the festivities along. Sensible garb may be good for parks, but it’s not so good for parties. One cannot dance in earthbound Birkenstocks. They’re just going to make me feel lumpy and grumpy.
So rather than obsess about the abusive aspects of the fashion industry, or the fact that I have no idea where to buy beautiful ethical footwear - issues which keep my wardrobe stiflingly sober and small - I should dispense with my rules here and hope for grace. I should ask myself instead, How can I help celebrate this party more fully, this gathering of God’s people to witness vows, this manifestation of the kingdom? And then do the best I can, accepting God’s forgiveness for what I can’t manage in our society.
So it’s time to head down to the local workshop and find something gorgeous; then hunt down some strappy sandals or pretty ballet shoes to match. Because when my daughter said to me that sometimes you forget to take off your dancing shoes, I realised with a pang that most of the time I forget to put them on.
(This daughter is now 9, and very fashionable indeed! And I now own a pair of red party heels, a pair of blue heeled boots, and a pair of brown heeled sandals. Wow! Change is possible!)