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Gary Watt: Dress, law and the truth

What does it mean to wear religious dress? A British legal scholar talks about clothing, the law, architecture, religion and the nature of truth.

October 8, 2013

At their core, law and dress function much the same way, with both producing a certain order and decorum in civil society, said Gary Watt, a British law professor.

And so too does religion play a role, one of many facets of the founding concern with civil order, said Watt, the author of “Dress, Law and Naked Truth.”

WattPublished in October 2013, the book is a study in “sartorial” jurisprudence, examining the cultural connections between dress and law.

“Culturally, they’re equivalent; they’re facets of the same concern with order in civil society,” said Watt, a professor of law at the University of Warwick.

A judge’s robe, for example, is both law and dress, an exercise in the performance of regulatory power. Likewise, religious dress can serve a powerful, ritual function, particularly in transitional moments such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, he said.

“What a church leader is identifying with in those moments is not necessarily the common humanity, the idea that ‘I’m just like you,’ but actually the common mystery of entering and departing this world,” Watt said.

Watt was at Duke University to deliver a lecture at the law school, and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You argue that dress is law and law is dress, that the two are essentially the same anthropological phenomenon. What do you mean?

When I started, I wondered if dress was like law in some of the ways it functions and how it mediates between the private and the public and how it produces a certain social order and decorum.

But rather than just drawing an analogy, I wanted to try a more radical thesis, and push it as far as it can be pushed, and ask whether or not they are the same essentially.

At one level, that sounds strange. But one can look, for instance, at a judge wearing the robes of office and ask, Are those robes law or dress? Or when a man removes a hat before entering church, that is a very powerful and compelling cultural rule, whether or not it is law. In fact, its impact upon the individual is very much equivalent to law. It has that sort of normative force.

Culturally, they’re equivalent; they’re facets of the same concern with order in civil society.

To find support for that claim, I went back to the very beginning, and I found, for instance, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, that the idea of civilized political society was defined in terms of dress. People within the city dressed, in contrast with people in the wilderness, who are described as naked, covered only in hair as if they were animals.

Early writers were struck by what they saw as an obvious difference between human social nature -- which is to go dressed -- and animal nature.

I think they saw in this the seeds of civilization, but not only in dress. In the city-state, you would also have architecture, which is a kind of dress. It accommodates humans; it’s decorative and symbolic and makes statements. It also establishes thresholds between the private and the public, which is still very significant in law. The threshold to a house demarks the private from the public zone and limits what you can and cannot do in public view.

So I found through reading Gilgamesh and other sources that from a very early stage, human culture identified architecture, law and dress with order, and particularly with managing the boundary, the threshold, between the private and the public.

Q: Where does religion fit in? Hasn’t it also played a role historically in creating some sense of social control and order? Speaking of early narratives, it’s interesting that in Genesis, one of the first acts was putting on a fig leaf.

There are many other candidates that are facets of the founding concern with civil order. Religion is one. Language is another. Look at the example of the Tower of Babel as a city-state that was founded on language, and how when that becomes disorderly, that sense of civil political order breaks down.

It’s hard to define what religion is and whether what we call religion today corresponds exactly with what an early society called religion. But one of the more interesting etymologies is the idea that religion is from “religare,” that which ties us like a ligament.

So there is almost a dress dimension, in that we’re bound and that we attach to something. I wouldn’t put it necessarily with architecture and law, but it is a process that could bind you to a degree of order.

It probably varies from religion to religion, from faith to faith, but yes, the Genesis story has obvious comparisons. I did look at the story of the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the fig leaves, the clothes made from animal skins, and wrestled with all of that and tried to work out where I thought this might fit.

The point that struck me as being of most resonance, when I thought about architecture, thresholds, limits and law, was that once the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been broken, it was followed by an architectural exclusion. They were put beyond the walls of the garden.

But what was most compelling for me was the sense that Adam and Eve had not covered themselves out of shame at their own nakedness. As I read the account, it struck me that they were not ashamed of their nakedness per se.

It wouldn’t make any sense, because the same account tells us that they used to walk naked and unashamed in the garden of Eden with God. Actually, the only reference to shame is that reference.

They felt unashamed when they were naked with God. So when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, there can’t have been a strange awareness that this was actually a wrong thing, because God had clearly approved of it before. So what did they become aware of?

My theory is that what they became aware of was that God was adorned differently from animals. Animals were not dressed, but they realized that God had raiment. The Bible does refer to God having raiment.

If that was their acquired knowledge, the shame of being naked is not because nakedness is in itself wrong, but they felt shame and an inferiority because they now realized they were not godlike, and they felt they were closer to the animals.

This ties in quite interestingly with the psychological theory of the inferiority complex, which has been given as an account of why we dress. They had knowledge, and that knowledge revealed that they were not dressed but God was, and they felt inferior. This was their shame.

They covered themselves in fig leaves, and clearly they were still embarrassed and hid because they knew this was inadequate, and it was God, according to the account, who gave them the first animal-hide clothes.

Q: That’s interesting, because they get kicked out for fear that they’ll eat of the other tree, the tree of life, and become like gods.

Yes. And you can follow that through. There are so many examples. For instance, Cain, who was born in the excluded state beyond the garden wall and who killed his brother Abel, was a marked man. He was marked, or dressed, by God, and he founded the first city.

So you have this connection between human civil order and marking. Dress, architecture, law -- these are all things that mark us out from animal nature and make us humans: civil, political creatures.

Q: You point out in the book how the law uses dress for the theatrical performance of regulatory power, through judges’ gowns and robes. To what extent do you see that in other professions, whether physicians’ white coats or clergy robes and collars?

We all dress, but certain types of dress seem to induce a certain kind of response. The more formal and ordered the dress we wear, the more likely we are to feel fitted to serious business. The more uniformed and formal someone else appears, the more likely we may be to obey what they say.

Law may have taken this anthropological feature of dress and employed it to further its own project of producing order and respect for authority. As for other professions, there’s no doubt that it has the same effect.

As for religious dress, it’s interesting. If you look at people who have founded religions -- Jesus, for example -- there’s no indication of any special dress being worn.

Yet if one were to dress today like Jesus, one would be wearing rather special dress. One would look like a Franciscan monk, with a very simple gown and sandals.

What does it mean to wear religious dress is an interesting question. Is it to wear the sort of dress that makes you indistinct from any other person? Or dress that is quite formal and distinct?

I haven’t studied clerical dress and its origins, but I’m sympathetic to those who say a clergyperson should dress the same as anyone else.

Having done this study of dress and law, however, I’ve found that there is a dimension to dress that in some contexts can support a degree of distinction, especially the way in which dress can perform a ritual function, particularly in a liminal context.

For example, in funeral rites or wedding rites or birth rites, in all these liminal moments -- the entry into life, the entry into the civil or religious body, the bar mitzvah, departing from this life -- it strikes me that distinctive dress may not be inappropriate.

What a church leader is identifying with in those moments is not necessarily the common humanity, the idea that “I’m just like you,” but actually the common mystery of entering and departing this world.

So it’s perfectly natural that there should be a distinctive dress at that point of entry into a special state, whether it’s being born or the bar mitzvah or the initiation or the departing stage of life. Somehow a special form of dress seems fitting.

Q: You also write that this relationship between dress and law even extends to the law’s search for truth. How so?

There is a very dominant metaphor of “discovering truth” -- the idea that you take a cover off and truth is revealed.

That’s a common scientific metaphor, that science discovers truth. And then you have a corresponding religious metaphor that truth is found by revelation.

I started to think about the law and the way lawyers refer to “discovering the truth” -- say, in a criminal matter. But I didn’t buy it.

What happens in legal trial is not the discovery of truth. I don’t think any lawyer will say that’s what they are really engaged in.

In a civil case, you can win if your evidence shows that your claim is 51 percent likely. It’s the balance of probabilities.

This is nothing that’s going to support a claim to absolute or revealed or naked truth. What you’re really saying is, “Looking at that which is evident, that which is evident on my side is marginally more likely than that which is evident on your side.”

We call this process the process of proving. Etymologically, that’s the same word as “probing.” So what we’re really saying is, “Let us probe the external appearance, the set of facts that I present to the court, and the judge will probe the evidence.”

If the judge cannot probe through because there is no better, deeper level of truth, the judge says, “I have probed the external evidence. I cannot see anything better underneath, and therefore, what I have probed, what I have proved, I now say is proof.”

It’s really the same language as saying something is waterproof or bulletproof; “I’ve tested it, and I can’t get through.”

But this is not a claim that we’ve discovered absolute or underlying truth. We’ve merely said, “I’ve tested it, and what I’ve discovered is now satisfactory to me.”

It never produces a finding of underlying, absolute or naked truth. It only ever says, “We’ve produced a satisfactory superficiality.”

It’s probably the same in science. Science doesn’t have the project of trying to discover or reveal absolute truth. It merely says, “We will go through a scientific process. We will produce a proof, and until you can probe through it, that counts as truth.”

Truth, scientifically defined, is merely facts which have been so proved, so probed, that they resist all doubt. Science is not about discovering truth but about deflecting doubt, and so is the law.

Where does that leave any notion of absolute truth?

Absolute truth and underlying truth is never the human project. It is only the project of the one who has the power to reveal it. So absolute truth is a God project, and what we’re engaged in as lawyers, as scientists, as inquirers, perhaps as religious inquirers, is to find some satisfactory proof and to keep probing.

That’s what a proof is. You keep probing, and you hope to get through, but if you can’t get through your scientific proof, if you can’t get through your legal proof, it satisfies you.

To me, the positive thing is that it leaves the realm of absolute truth still a mysterious one, still a hoped-for realm.