Dressed to excess

Trade your suit for a sarong, your skirt for a sari! Here is how more relaxed, easygoing clothing can lead to sartorial satori. An exclusive excerpt from a new edition of Alan Watts’ 1970 classic “Does it matter?”

Alan Watts| December 2007 issue
For most of my life I have been in rebellion against the various riggings of cloth that authority and fashion have constrained me to wear. It is largely the fault of the British, who, as traditional arbiters of style in men’s clothing, have foisted upon mankind the most ridiculous and uncomfortable forms of dress ever invented. British stylists have sold their absurd uniforms of tweed and worsted to the whole world. They have stripped the Japanese of their kimonos, the Sri Lankans of their sarongs, the Hindus of their dhotis, and the Levantines of their caftans—so that today a Japanese businessman goes about looking like a bag too large for its contents. Since the Japanese are relatively short, especially in the legs, the coattails reach well below their knees and one expects them at any moment to hop around and caw.
Let me catalogue the follies of Western man’s British-inspired dress:

  • Pants or trousers are entirely unsuited to the male anatomy, and insult by ignoring the Membrum virile. (Into which leg do you put it?)
  • The necktie, even when colourful, is a noose facilitating instant strangulation, and a symbol of servitude.
  • Strong leather shoes, and especially those of the hard, shiny and inflexible type, are just extra weight to carry when walking; deny freedom of movement to the complex bone structure of the foot; and by airless enclosure promote sweat and stink. In sum, conventional male dress is trussing. It is tight, stiff and constricting, and we are so habituated to it that we feel vaguely guilty when, several hours after arising, we are still clad in some loose-fitting robe. The collar, the tie, the belt, the pants, the shoes, the tightly fitted jacket squeeze in on us with the information that we are indeed really and truly there. As if we didn’t know. What about our clothes for women?
  • High-heeled shoes, especially the patent-leather ones with long, sharp points, compel women to walk “step-step-step-step” like inhibited mechanisms, clacking along the pavements and jarring their nerves. No natural or liberated person makes a noise when walking.
  • Nylon stockings are the most impractical leg wear ever invented. They run at the slightest scratch; they are a flimsy and expensive form of frou-frou that have to be supported by a garter belt or elastic girdle arrangement with pulleys and block-and-tackle contraptions.
  • Women’s gowns are, in general, held together by tiny, irritating devices such as zippers in unreachable places, minute snappers and hook-and-eye myopicisms where the eye is often nothing more than an infinitely small loop of invisible thread. I’m wondering: How do single women, without husbands or maids, get themselves zip-snap-hooked together?

Now—unless some zoologist can dig up a weird exception—humans are the only living beings who wear clothes. They are also the only beings who laugh, for humour is the property of humanity and consists, essentially, of not taking oneself too seriously. We can laugh at ourselves because we know, deep down, that our lives are a big act, a put-on.
This may get us into the depths of mysticism, but every person knows, tacitly, that he is God in disguise. Not, perhaps, the universal monarch of Jewish and Christian imagery, but at least the inmost and ultimate Self of Hinduism, the Actor who plays all the roles, and thus the Joker in the deck of cards. Stated more philosophically, each one of us is a manifestation of the total energy of the universe. Wearing clothes is therefore a gesture that implies the unadmitted knowledge that our personalities are put on.
Think of such phrases as “cover yourself,” “pull yourself together,” “tighten your belt,” “keep your hair on,” “don’t lose your shirt,” “caught with your pants down,” “shiftless,” “sound investment,” “redress of injustice,” “defrocked,” “uncloaked,” “dismantled,” “wearing an expression,” “clothed and in one’s right mind,” “vested interest,” “stuffed shirt,” “good (or bad) habits,” “the bare facts” and “the naked truth.” Such a list of sartorial symbols and millinery metaphors for mental and moral states, of depletions and completions of personality, express a basic and intuitive recognition of the connection between who we are and what we wear.
Thus does it not seem significant that those of us who are supposed to play Brahminical or “holy” roles in life—sadhus, swamis, monks, priests, professors in formal dress and even judges—wear loose-fitting robes? In fact, very far-out holy men, such as the Shaiva yogis of India, go stark naked to symbolize the supposition that they aren’t playing any role at all, that they have entirely transcended the ego and reidentified with the divine.
On the other hand, the aggressive, rough-and-tough military and business people are invariably trussed in armour, boots, puttees, Sam Browne belts, tight leather jackets, helmets and other crustacean, squeeze-play contraptions for letting ourselves know we really exist. Yet again, the true athlete, like the far-out holy man, goes almost naked. The Greek word gymnos means “nude,” thus a gymnasium was originally a place where everyone took off their clothes for exercise.
These remarks must not suggest that I approve of nudism as a way of life. The naked body is lustfully arousing, as it should be, to just the extent that it is usually veiled. Nudity must always be a revelation and a surprise for the simple reason that the universe itself is an energy system that vibrates: constantly it goes on and off. Now you see it; now you don’t. It creeps up on itself and shouts “Boo!”—and then laughs at itself for jumping, being a constant conversion of anxiety into laughter, dread into delight, and hatred into love. Human consciousness is the realization that this is the case, the nature of reality, which is why it is said throughout Asia that it is only from the human state that one can become a Buddha—a fully liberated being.
Energy going on and off may be represented, mythologically, as God playing hide-and-seek with himself, remembering himself and then dismembering himself into the myriad roles played by all sentient beings. That these roles are clothes is suggested in the Bhagavad Gita, the summary of Hindu philosophy, versified by Sir Edwin Arnold in “The Song Celestial”:
It is as when one layeth
His worn-out robes away,
And, taking new ones, sayeth,
These will I wear today.”
So according to Vedanta, the central doctrine of Hinduism, all bodies are the clothes of the one and only Self in its innumerable disguises, and the whole universe is a masquerade ball pretending to be a tragedy and then realizing it’s a ball.
Clothes, then, like our roles and personalities, should be worn easily and lightly in the realization that, because the whole universe is a masquerade, we may as well assume the utmost flair and elegance. Why the self-humiliation and cryptomasochism of being ashamed to dress up? Because one must not be conspicuous in a democracy? Because one must go along with the modest mediocrity of one’s academic, professional or business colleagues?
Obviously, such games involve taking the ego and personality as a serious reality. They are very definitely uptight and stodgy. But if you know you are a fraud from the beginning, you can afford to be exuberant and flamboyant, and in any case, colourful, comfortable dress is a function of imagination rather than money.
Some years ago, a Japanese friend told me he would no longer even dream of wearing a kimono on the streets of Kyoto because, he said, “You can’t run for a bus in a kimono.” True, but no self-respecting person should ever run for a bus. However, you certainly can run for a bus in a Philippine sarong, the most comfortable male garment ever conceived—an ample divided skirt made of cotton batik, which could just as well be silk or worsted, or even vicuña, plus, say, a vicuña poncho.
This sarong is a cylinder of cloth about three feet (a metre) wide and four feet long and divided into two “legs” with a split of about two feet at the lower end. You step into it, adjust it to your waist-ankle length, and fold the excess material (from the waist) inside. You then tighten it around your waist, tuck in the excess to the right, and secure it with a safety pin. All in all, you need two yards (two metres) of material some 50 inches (127 centimetres) wide. No belt, no zippers, no buttons, no weirdities of tailoring. You wear some attractive shirt and a poncho for cold weather or rain. You are both comfortable and dignified.
As for the nuisance of pockets, you take a lesson from the Buddhist monks of South Asia, and wear a rectangular bag over your shoulder or around your neck, secured by a short stole. If your belly is of such proportions that you have no waist, you secure the sarong with two strips of cloth going over the shoulders and crossing at the back to keep it from sliding off.
As for women, the incomparably comfortable and gracious garment is the sari. It suits all figures and comes in innumerable colours and designs. It makes you look like a queen, and you can pack 20 of them into a small suitcase, enabling yourself to change disguises three or four times a day. It is a simple rectangle of material six yards (six metres) long and four feet (a little more than a metre) wide, pleated around the waist, with a more highly ornamented end that is thrown over the left shoulder and secured with a brooch. It is worn with a skin-fitting blouse in a complementary colour.
Furthermore, the manufacture of millions of saris for Western women would do wonders for the economies of India and Sri Lanka. And since we are becoming accustomed to toplessness, suitably endowed girls might well be getting up the nerve to wear sarongs in the style of the Balinese, who go naked or elaborately necklaced from the waist up. Our homes are sufficiently heated that we can wear such garments even in winter; one would merely have to don a coat to go outdoors.
I am commending Asian and “primitive” styles of clothing not only because this would fulfill our obligation to boost the industry of the developing world, but also because it is all too true that “clothes make the man” and our essentially military style of vesture may not be unconnected with our imperious and discourteous attitude toward other cultures, and our competitive and uptight relations among ourselves.
Human beings need to relax and become more deeply human even as we take ourselves lightly. Easy, gracious and colourful clothing might well be a beginning.


Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a British-born philosopher who wrote many books popularizing Eastern spiritual wisdom. This is an excerpt from the posthumously published Does it Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality. © 2007 Alan Watts. Reprinted with permission of New World Library. newworldlibrary.com
 

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Dressed to excess

Trade your suit for a sarong, your skirt for a sari! Here is how more relaxed, easygoing clothing can lead to sartorial satori. An exclusive excerpt from a new edition of Alan Watts’ 1970 classic “Does it matter?”

Alan Watts| December 2007 issue
For most of my life I have been in rebellion against the various riggings of cloth that authority and fashion have constrained me to wear. It is largely the fault of the British, who, as traditional arbiters of style in men’s clothing, have foisted upon mankind the most ridiculous and uncomfortable forms of dress ever invented. British stylists have sold their absurd uniforms of tweed and worsted to the whole world. They have stripped the Japanese of their kimonos, the Sri Lankans of their sarongs, the Hindus of their dhotis, and the Levantines of their caftans—so that today a Japanese businessman goes about looking like a bag too large for its contents. Since the Japanese are relatively short, especially in the legs, the coattails reach well below their knees and one expects them at any moment to hop around and caw.
Let me catalogue the follies of Western man’s British-inspired dress:

  • Pants or trousers are entirely unsuited to the male anatomy, and insult by ignoring the Membrum virile. (Into which leg do you put it?)
  • The necktie, even when colourful, is a noose facilitating instant strangulation, and a symbol of servitude.
  • Strong leather shoes, and especially those of the hard, shiny and inflexible type, are just extra weight to carry when walking; deny freedom of movement to the complex bone structure of the foot; and by airless enclosure promote sweat and stink. In sum, conventional male dress is trussing. It is tight, stiff and constricting, and we are so habituated to it that we feel vaguely guilty when, several hours after arising, we are still clad in some loose-fitting robe. The collar, the tie, the belt, the pants, the shoes, the tightly fitted jacket squeeze in on us with the information that we are indeed really and truly there. As if we didn’t know. What about our clothes for women?
  • High-heeled shoes, especially the patent-leather ones with long, sharp points, compel women to walk “step-step-step-step” like inhibited mechanisms, clacking along the pavements and jarring their nerves. No natural or liberated person makes a noise when walking.
  • Nylon stockings are the most impractical leg wear ever invented. They run at the slightest scratch; they are a flimsy and expensive form of frou-frou that have to be supported by a garter belt or elastic girdle arrangement with pulleys and block-and-tackle contraptions.
  • Women’s gowns are, in general, held together by tiny, irritating devices such as zippers in unreachable places, minute snappers and hook-and-eye myopicisms where the eye is often nothing more than an infinitely small loop of invisible thread. I’m wondering: How do single women, without husbands or maids, get themselves zip-snap-hooked together?

Now—unless some zoologist can dig up a weird exception—humans are the only living beings who wear clothes. They are also the only beings who laugh, for humour is the property of humanity and consists, essentially, of not taking oneself too seriously. We can laugh at ourselves because we know, deep down, that our lives are a big act, a put-on.
This may get us into the depths of mysticism, but every person knows, tacitly, that he is God in disguise. Not, perhaps, the universal monarch of Jewish and Christian imagery, but at least the inmost and ultimate Self of Hinduism, the Actor who plays all the roles, and thus the Joker in the deck of cards. Stated more philosophically, each one of us is a manifestation of the total energy of the universe. Wearing clothes is therefore a gesture that implies the unadmitted knowledge that our personalities are put on.
Think of such phrases as “cover yourself,” “pull yourself together,” “tighten your belt,” “keep your hair on,” “don’t lose your shirt,” “caught with your pants down,” “shiftless,” “sound investment,” “redress of injustice,” “defrocked,” “uncloaked,” “dismantled,” “wearing an expression,” “clothed and in one’s right mind,” “vested interest,” “stuffed shirt,” “good (or bad) habits,” “the bare facts” and “the naked truth.” Such a list of sartorial symbols and millinery metaphors for mental and moral states, of depletions and completions of personality, express a basic and intuitive recognition of the connection between who we are and what we wear.
Thus does it not seem significant that those of us who are supposed to play Brahminical or “holy” roles in life—sadhus, swamis, monks, priests, professors in formal dress and even judges—wear loose-fitting robes? In fact, very far-out holy men, such as the Shaiva yogis of India, go stark naked to symbolize the supposition that they aren’t playing any role at all, that they have entirely transcended the ego and reidentified with the divine.
On the other hand, the aggressive, rough-and-tough military and business people are invariably trussed in armour, boots, puttees, Sam Browne belts, tight leather jackets, helmets and other crustacean, squeeze-play contraptions for letting ourselves know we really exist. Yet again, the true athlete, like the far-out holy man, goes almost naked. The Greek word gymnos means “nude,” thus a gymnasium was originally a place where everyone took off their clothes for exercise.
These remarks must not suggest that I approve of nudism as a way of life. The naked body is lustfully arousing, as it should be, to just the extent that it is usually veiled. Nudity must always be a revelation and a surprise for the simple reason that the universe itself is an energy system that vibrates: constantly it goes on and off. Now you see it; now you don’t. It creeps up on itself and shouts “Boo!”—and then laughs at itself for jumping, being a constant conversion of anxiety into laughter, dread into delight, and hatred into love. Human consciousness is the realization that this is the case, the nature of reality, which is why it is said throughout Asia that it is only from the human state that one can become a Buddha—a fully liberated being.
Energy going on and off may be represented, mythologically, as God playing hide-and-seek with himself, remembering himself and then dismembering himself into the myriad roles played by all sentient beings. That these roles are clothes is suggested in the Bhagavad Gita, the summary of Hindu philosophy, versified by Sir Edwin Arnold in “The Song Celestial”:
It is as when one layeth
His worn-out robes away,
And, taking new ones, sayeth,
These will I wear today.”
So according to Vedanta, the central doctrine of Hinduism, all bodies are the clothes of the one and only Self in its innumerable disguises, and the whole universe is a masquerade ball pretending to be a tragedy and then realizing it’s a ball.
Clothes, then, like our roles and personalities, should be worn easily and lightly in the realization that, because the whole universe is a masquerade, we may as well assume the utmost flair and elegance. Why the self-humiliation and cryptomasochism of being ashamed to dress up? Because one must not be conspicuous in a democracy? Because one must go along with the modest mediocrity of one’s academic, professional or business colleagues?
Obviously, such games involve taking the ego and personality as a serious reality. They are very definitely uptight and stodgy. But if you know you are a fraud from the beginning, you can afford to be exuberant and flamboyant, and in any case, colourful, comfortable dress is a function of imagination rather than money.
Some years ago, a Japanese friend told me he would no longer even dream of wearing a kimono on the streets of Kyoto because, he said, “You can’t run for a bus in a kimono.” True, but no self-respecting person should ever run for a bus. However, you certainly can run for a bus in a Philippine sarong, the most comfortable male garment ever conceived—an ample divided skirt made of cotton batik, which could just as well be silk or worsted, or even vicuña, plus, say, a vicuña poncho.
This sarong is a cylinder of cloth about three feet (a metre) wide and four feet long and divided into two “legs” with a split of about two feet at the lower end. You step into it, adjust it to your waist-ankle length, and fold the excess material (from the waist) inside. You then tighten it around your waist, tuck in the excess to the right, and secure it with a safety pin. All in all, you need two yards (two metres) of material some 50 inches (127 centimetres) wide. No belt, no zippers, no buttons, no weirdities of tailoring. You wear some attractive shirt and a poncho for cold weather or rain. You are both comfortable and dignified.
As for the nuisance of pockets, you take a lesson from the Buddhist monks of South Asia, and wear a rectangular bag over your shoulder or around your neck, secured by a short stole. If your belly is of such proportions that you have no waist, you secure the sarong with two strips of cloth going over the shoulders and crossing at the back to keep it from sliding off.
As for women, the incomparably comfortable and gracious garment is the sari. It suits all figures and comes in innumerable colours and designs. It makes you look like a queen, and you can pack 20 of them into a small suitcase, enabling yourself to change disguises three or four times a day. It is a simple rectangle of material six yards (six metres) long and four feet (a little more than a metre) wide, pleated around the waist, with a more highly ornamented end that is thrown over the left shoulder and secured with a brooch. It is worn with a skin-fitting blouse in a complementary colour.
Furthermore, the manufacture of millions of saris for Western women would do wonders for the economies of India and Sri Lanka. And since we are becoming accustomed to toplessness, suitably endowed girls might well be getting up the nerve to wear sarongs in the style of the Balinese, who go naked or elaborately necklaced from the waist up. Our homes are sufficiently heated that we can wear such garments even in winter; one would merely have to don a coat to go outdoors.
I am commending Asian and “primitive” styles of clothing not only because this would fulfill our obligation to boost the industry of the developing world, but also because it is all too true that “clothes make the man” and our essentially military style of vesture may not be unconnected with our imperious and discourteous attitude toward other cultures, and our competitive and uptight relations among ourselves.
Human beings need to relax and become more deeply human even as we take ourselves lightly. Easy, gracious and colourful clothing might well be a beginning.


Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a British-born philosopher who wrote many books popularizing Eastern spiritual wisdom. This is an excerpt from the posthumously published Does it Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality. © 2007 Alan Watts. Reprinted with permission of New World Library. newworldlibrary.com
 

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