Not too long ago the only writing one would find on his or her clothing was the name label a concerned mother sewed into each garment before sending a child off to camp. Nowadays, it seems that most of us have succumbed to the trend that American writer Alison Lurie calls “legible clothing.” We have become walking advertisements for the manufacturers or retailers who have sold us their wares, message boards for a wide range of causes, or happy travelers all too eager to boast of their latest destination.
Social anthropologists who like to study such phenomena offer several explanations for this trend. Some have suggested that we wear designer labels to impress others. Alternatively, we may be trying to compensate for our insignificance. Or it may be that political activism demands that we promote our favorite cause. In any case, the messages we send through the vehicle of clothing are really statements about ourselves and what we hold dear.
The trend towards legible clothing actually antedates us by some three thousand years.
The Torah reports that the skilled craftsmen assigned the task made a frontlet of pure gold to be worn by the High Priest. On it were engraved the words “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36; 39:30). Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, RaShI’s grandson, adds that the very name in Hebrew for frontlet – “tzitz” – was derived from the fact that it was worn prominently on the forehead so that it could be “legible” to all.
But this item of the priestly wardrobe was not merely as statement about the High Priest and his personal significance. According to Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, it refers to all Israel. Through God’s acceptance of the sacrifices offered by Israel through the High Priest wearing the “tztitz,” all the people are sanctified. By seeing the frontlet always before them, the Israelites were reminded of their mission, namely, to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This still remains our mission though it does not appear on our sweatshirts, tee shirts, or running shoes.