In the “Habit” of Countervalence

In the previous post I mentioned that there were two issues that seemed to be at the heart of the discord between me and those who had objected to my notice, via the congregational list serve, concerning my self-employment initiative.  The first was the issue of “sanctuary” versus “economic activity” – which was the major substance of that previous post.  I have since been asked to expand that (because our “sanctuary” often has art exhibits/paintings for sale on the walls – so much for the inviolable principle of separation) and I am working on that as an essay now.

But there was a second issue, one that seems evoked (incited?) by my mere presence alone. Precisely because “modernity” expresses a progressivist ideology and precisely because I appear to be rejecting modernity, my presentation (and myself) are suspect and indeed, derided by some – most disquietingly by some in my religious congregation.  I should explain.

I consider myself to be a “green nun” and dress accordingly.  Not only have I dressed in green for many years, the outfit I wear is consciously patterned after a nun’s habit – that is to say, it is reminiscent of the dress that “Western” women wore before “modernity”.  The skirt is long and tiered (in honour of the Cretan Goddess). The bodice is a jumpertop/tunic overlaid with a green bandana, worked on the diagonal to form a loose “bib” over the bosom – and fastened with silver buttons.  Over this, I wear a long, soft vest, the colour of which changes with the seasons (now it’s claret, in honour of the Autumn leaves).  Over this, I wear a long, soft, darker green “surcoat” (or “duster” as the fashionistas would describe it), with shorter sleeves so that those of the paler green jumper/tunic show through.  Somewhere there will be flash of red (with the green), in honour of the Gesena/ Gallicenae.

I carefully designed it, working on it for several years,  and put it together from bits and pieces of yard sales, Sally Ann’s and Value Village bargains – it’s very hard to find green clothing, especially,  that works in these ways, so it took some doing to pull together several interchangeable outfits that follow this pattern.  To finish off, I wear boots, over which the long skirt falls.  (I would gladly pay a seamstress to make more polished versions – but, alas, my “benevolence fund” would have to get a lot more substantial before that will be possible.)  The “outfit” signals my dedication to my Gesena calling and has deep meaning for me.  Look around and you will see other women “wearing the green” – who, like me, are answering a spiritual and cultural summons.  But…   Not your average “Western” dress.  People react in one of two ways.  I often have people stop me and tell me how much they like what I am wearing – oddly enough, especially young men (have no idea why) but a week never goes by that someone doesn’t stop to let me know that they admire it.  On the other hand, “muggles” Just Don’t Like It.   Period.   And they, too, let me know, if not through direct speech then through facial expression and body language.   Messages of disapproval range from snubs to glares to nasty comments – or just to expressions of puzzlement: why wouldn’t I grow up and stop dressing in “costume”.   Indeed, it is thanks to Muslim women that I can get away with dressing this way at all.  Once I might have been considered so eccentric as to warrant being detained as crazy – but, since many Muslim women wear similar outfits, my own rights now can less easily be infringed.  So, first off, I should thank my sisters for enlarging the space in which I can express something different from either their own cultural ensemble or from the mainstream “West”.

Why is this at all important?  Actually a lot is at stake – for both those whom I distress and for the stance I am taking: my habit of contervalence.   This, of course, is not a singular phenomenon.

Consider the “modern” dress that “Western” women are supposed to wear.  Sometimes long skirts are permissible, but they must be alternated with dresses at the knee-length to show that one isn’t too eccentric or, even worse, repressed.  If one is “liberated”, a woman might wear pants (that cut into the crotch when sitting), ankle hose, flats, blouse, and blazer that will cut her line across her widest portion, making all but the anorexic look dumpy.  One suspects that this is, in fact, the intent – to coerce anorexia or to stigmatize as unattractively zoftig: a sly way of denigrating women generally – and large women in particular.  This, and its variations (you will be able to identify them on sight), are signs of modernity as applied to women.   The young can flirt in shorter skirts; the casual can wear jeans – but there is a “uniform” that signals one’s participation in the cultural moment – and that moment is capitalism (with all its tensions and contradictions).   If you wish to dress alternatively, then that act constitutes being “in costume” (unless you have the support of an identified cultural community behind you) – certainly, the “grow up” message is a request to accede to capital’s normative values.  Best do your costume dressing on the weekend (for release!) – and, indeed, amongst much of the Pagan community, that is exactly what happens.   But in the weekday world of the market, and all its infeed capillaries, a certain degree of conformity is required if you want to participate – and a certain degree of censure delivered (gate-keeping) if that conformity is not forthcoming.

Going deeper, we remember that capitalism is the problematic off-spring of “modernity” – thus to reject capitalist style is to reject modernity.  Modernity, in turn, is the child of the enlightenment and, in turn,  to reject “enlightenment” advances is to reject the Reformation institutions which organized the enlightenment into modernity – in the case of some among my congregation, to reject the Protestant variant from which we descend.  Thus it is that choosing to dress in something that suggests pre-modernity is to implicitly (or perhaps, explicitly) denigrate that entire trajectory of progressivism – to critique that “progressivist” heritage tradition in viscerally visual ways.

My problem with that progressivist heritage (and one reason I do reject it – in sartorial ways among others) is the dissonance between what it says it has accomplished – and what it has left out of the story: a constant and consistent imperialism obscured by the demonstrably untrue rhetoric of liberty.   In trying to find redemption as a “Western” person, I, as have many other others including Pagans, have had to make an imaginative jump considerably back in time to reconnect with a putative indigenaity: jumping back over capitalism as an economic system, over modernity as a paradigmatic epoch, over the Enlightenment as the ostensible triumph of “reason” (actually rationality as ratio) , over Romanitas, over Christianitas as the origins of dominant institutional values – in substance to be the presence of conscious alterity within the dominion into which I was born.   Many feel this way too.  Many are political and many more are becoming so, as the situation deteriorates.  But to wear it on one’s sleeve is to provide an (unwelcome, perhaps) encounter with alternative history – and that makes some heirs of the Enlightenment cloud with anger.  Yet, it is not a closet in which I could stay.  As all know who have come out of closets, first steps are scary but there is a clean authenticity about presenting one’s deepest values into civic discourse.  But also, as everyone knows who has come out of any closet, laundry can make a social scene tense, to say the least.

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