Witch wear: Religion as performance art?

What do Witches wear? And why do Wiccan authors devote so much space to this?

In more than one book I’ve reviewed recently, and in even more that I’ve taken a cursory glance at, the question of what Witches wear is given serious discussion, often towards the beginning of the book. One or two instances of this I passed off as the authors’ personal interests, but the more I see this topic treated as a serious issue, the more baffled I am. I’m also inspired by Mary’s recent re-posting of her piece on clothes and geek feminism. Although I won’t examine the geek perspective (although there is intersectionality between geeks and Wiccans/Witches), I’m going to use some of the points in her post as references. Although there are some legitimate questions to be addressed with respect to what Witches wear, I think the final answer is that entirely too many authors and Wiccans alike are approaching their religion as a kind of performance art.

The two obvious reasons to address the question of what Witches wear are that one, Gardnerian Witchcraft conducted most coven work “skyclad” (that means nude), and two, if a contemporary newbie Witch is nervous about going to an open ritual for the first time, “What do I wear?” is one of the ways that nervousness manifests itself. But the attention given to the topic of clothing in these books isn’t really about either of those matters. Yes, some books discuss the issue of skyclad practice; but in today’s general American eclectic Wicca, skyclad practice is the exception, not the rule, and is almost entirely restricted to extremely traditional Gardnerian or other British Traditional Wicca covens. This was legitimate for the Farrars to address when they were trying to explain their practice of Alexandrian Wicca back in the 70s, but it’s hardly a topic that’s relevant for the beginning Wiccan today, and none of these books are aimed at an advanced audience, at an audience of traditional Gardnerians, or at an audience that’s considering practicing in a formal coven structure at all! Indeed, none of these authors were discussing skyclad or coven practice.

They also weren’t motivated primarily by describing how to sew one’s own ceremonial robe, although that may have been mentioned offhand. There are good psychological and magical reasons to have specific clothing for ritual, or even to practice skyclad, but none of that was the major concern addressed by these authors. There was a little bit of discussion that might have been reassurance about what constitutes appropriate dress for an open ritual, but that wasn’t really explicitly addressed either. No, the authors seemed to think that the reader was asking, “If I want to be a Witch, what do I need to wear?” and trying to answer that. I don’t understand why this is a question that needs asking in the first place.

Clothing and grooming do have a major effect of advertising in-group/out-group status, as Mary points out for geek women. Wiccans tend to have in-group/out-group concerns anyway: a lot of Wiccans are people who are already outside the mainstream, either because they choose to put themselves there, they are forced there by “othering,” or they find themselves there and choose to claim and celebrate it for themselves. And, let’s face it, Wicca isn’t a mainstream religion, not yet. So I find some of these concerns very understandable, especially the question of what a new Witch should wear to an unfamiliar open ritual. Additionally, a lot of finding one’s place in Wicca involves creating an almost alternate persona; we take Wiccan names and most rituals of initiation reference the theme of symbolic death and rebirth into a new life. Clothing and self-presentation (what is sometimes called “the theater of the body”) can play a big part in that.

I appreciated that Dugan approached the topic with her trademark common sense: she reassured teens interested in Witchcraft that they should wear reasonable clothing that they were comfortable in. But the other two authors I referenced above gave me a very specific sense that this was a very important question to them, and a major part of Wiccan identity; they both left me with the impression that Witches are cool (“hip” is Fiona Horne’s term) and that it’s important that Witch clothing also be cool. They approach their definitions of cool in different ways, relating to their backgrounds, but the impression I got was that Witches – whether practicing alone or in groups, or simply appearing in public as a Witch – need to be attractive, admirable, edgy – but not too edgy! – and all-around awesome. References to wearing black, what jewelry looks best to advertise one’s Wiccan status, and possibly, just maybe, emphasizing “natural” inclinations in one’s clothing – without being too hippie – were all present.

This really makes me angry. For one thing, it’s encouraging beginning Wiccans to judge themselves, and by extension others, according to what they wear. This is wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. It’s wrong magically: power comes from within, not from what you wear. It’s wrong psychologically and socially: the authors are likely to give already impressionable young Wiccans, especially young female Wiccans who are already laboring under a tremendous burden of difficult messages about appearance, the idea that adherence to what Naomi Wolf called The Beauty Myth is actually a religious requirement! Most of all, it’s wrong theaologically. It encourages the idea that religion is a sort of performance art. It encourages a perception of life as empty and meaningless without social approval: I have to pay attention to how I present myself, because I don’t know who I am until other people respond to me! If I say a prayer in the forest, and don’t post about it on Facebook, did I actually make a noise?

It’s true that Wicca is about our relationships, but one of the strengths of Wicca is that those relationships aren’t just with other people. Wicca encourages us and challenges us to live in relationship with the land, with nature and deity, and with ourselves. This is why daily practice and living in relationship with the land should be part of the core experience of Wicca. Wicca isn’t just about big dances and feasts at Beltane and Samhain, any more than Christianity is about chocolate at Easter and presents at Christmas. If we truly believe in immanent deity, then how we live our daily lives is part of cultivating our relationship with deity and part of experiencing that immanence.

It’s true that our external presentations of ourselves are a tool for shaping ourselves and our interactions with others. But starting with the tool is the wrong end of things: it’s like starting with a hammer and assuming that therefore everything you encounter is a nail. Start with the immanence of deity, start with a relationship with yourself, start with an awareness of nature. Start with the relationship with others – let the relationship, rather than your engineering of the relationship, be the important part. The proper ways to use the tool will flow naturally from there. If you’re grounded and centered in those, it will hardly matter whether you’re nude, or wearing ten pounds of silver jewelry, or the coolest SCA costume ever, or the jeans and t-shirt you threw on before your afternoon class. Don’t confuse the results with the tool that produces them. And remember that you’re not, ultimately, dependent on your tools. You are the only tool you really need.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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