A story is told – presumably apocryphal – about the time Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was scolded by one of the more officious members of the Kenesset for attending with an open collared shirt, no jacket, and no tie. Ben Gurion claimed that he had permission to dress informally. His nemesis demanded to know “Permission from whom?” Ben Gurion is reputed to have responded: “From Winston Churchill.” “Churchill?” asked the parliamentarian incredulously. “Yes,” Ben Gurion replied. “When I was in London and dressed informally, Churchill said to me: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, in Israel you can dress without a tie and jacket, but in London, you cannot.”
While the story is probably mythical, it does point to an underlying truth. How one dresses makes a statement. Formal attire conveys a sense of seriousness that casual wear does not. For esteemed members of government, dignity matters. That is why the Torah spends considerable space on describing the special clothing of the priests. According to the medieval source Sefer HaHinukh (Mitzvah 99), the special clothing of the High Priest would call attention to the fact that the finery of the High Priest conveys just how much God is to be revered and glorified. To put it somewhat differently, the elaborate clothing of the High Priest was not intended to impute sanctity to the man who filled the position, but to engender respect for the God the High Priest serves.
It is no accident that since the widespread abandonment of uniforms or dress codes in schools, respect for teachers and for the educational system has noticeably declined. The opposite is also the case. Teachers who dress as if the classroom is of the highest importance generally discover that students behave better.
Far from being an imposition of unctuous formality, fine clothing serves an important role in representing what is important.