Why Fashion Matters in the Mission Field

First off, I hate the term “mission field”. It’s too closely related to battlefield which makes mission feel like some kind of war. But in this case it provided some nice alliteration, so why not.

Secondly, some may say I’m beating a dead horse by returning to a subject so many got offended by once upon a time. Over a year ago I started this blog with the post 10 Biggest Fashion Mistakes By Mission Teams and Aid Workers. And to this day it remains one of my most popular posts ever, but also one of my most hated. “Why do we have to be fashion models when we’re just trying to do something good in this world?” Commentors have questioned. So okay, I moved on to more critical analysis of nonprofit structures and mission approaches. But I’ve had some more conversations with my Haitian peers lately that have brought the subject back into light and demonstrated how really fashion does relate to everything else going on here. It’s about much more than just looking good. And apparently there are enough people that decided my advice was insignificant, and it continues to have an effect on their quality of service offered to the Haitians. So, I’m returning. Those readers who are already annoyed can turn back now. Those who love this stuff can read on, and know that I’ve got a couple more posts coming on this subject.

I know, it can seem petty to consider that coming to a poor country one might have to worry about being fashionable. One of the biggest reasons I hear people give for their fashion choices in a country like Haiti is that they don’t want to wear nice clothes because they think that if they wear nice clothes a) it might cause anger or jealousy from the locals who aren’t able to afford nice clothes, and b) they don’t want to be targeted for a crime because they look like they have money. Which are both, actually, very good reasons, one would think, to make more modest fashion choices when in a place that is more materially impoverished.

But the strange thing is, that wearing less attractive clothing actually has the opposite effect, because trust me, if you’re white, you’re not going to fool anybody by wearing different clothes. Even if you’re not white, at least here in Haiti, you’re white. No matter what clothes we wear, people assume we have money if we come from a more developed country (like I don’t know, the USA). So we might as well take pride in our appearance and look good too. Because the simple act of traveling suggests the presence of money enough to look decent so it becomes offensive if we don’t put in any effort. If they, who don’t have any money, still make an effort to look nice, why on earth would one who has a job with an income and department stores on every corner still choose to wear such boring rags?

Here’s how it was explained to me by a Haitian friend of mine recently: if you wear crappy clothes then you must have more money because you’re obviously not spending it on clothing. A Haitian will look at someone who wears cheap looking clothes and assume that they have more money than someone wearing the nicest “fresh-air” as they call it here. Because someone who spends their money on nicer clothes has less money to keep in their pockets. But someone who is clearly wearing only hand-me-downs, thrift store swag, and free church or school t-shirts, probably has more extra money in their pockets.

And honestly, it’s not even just white folks (whiteness just gives more weight to the assumptions). But Haitians actually judge each other this way too. If they go to a soccer game or a club or even to church, they assume that the guy with the most expensive looking fresh-air there is probably the one with the least money on hand. There’s actually a fine line of looking good enough to still be respectable but not going so far as to make it look like over-compensation.

And we as visitors to this country need to allow ourselves to get to know the real culture beyond the mission myths that we were told in our orientation. If we think we are only going to encounter poor people, lost people, hopeless people, less fortunate people, we are going to make poor clothing choices ourselves. But we need to realize that there’s much more to the culture we’re entering. We need to go to those soccer games and those dance clubs and those churches. If we just go to the food distribution site or the construction site, and then back to our isolated mission base, then we’ll never get to see what the people are like within the parts of their culture that they enjoy most. It at the beaches and the parties and the concerts and the bars that the real Haiti shows itself. This myth that poor people (or people in countries considered to be poor) don’t wear nice clothes is absurd. And anyone who’s taken the time to actually look, and see, when they visit one of these places will notice that. But the idea that they would actually be offended by nice clothes is even more ridiculous.

The same way that we expect people providing us with certain services in the States to look professional, the people receiving our services in a foreign country expect us to look professional too. Putting on decent clothes provides credibility to whatever mission we have. Otherwise we become just some other schmuck who chose to spend money on a plane ticket but would never spend money on a new outfit. Doesn’t seem like a person that has much common sense let alone the qualifications to contribute effectively to community development.

And here’s where my seemingly irrelevant fashion obsession comes full circle for this blog. Mission teamers and short term volunteers would never have these skewed ideas on mission clothing in the first place if we who are leading the nonprofits and the mission organizations would quit portraying poor people on our websites and brochures through naked children, beggars in rags, and dirty peasants. That’s not the real world that we work in. It’s inaccurate and offensive even if it does bring in dollars. If we all who work in aid, mission, philanthropy, etc, would quit trying to think of ourselves as the heroes out to save the world, then our egos wouldn’t be so inflated that we miss the fact that we actually look like we couldn’t even help someone cross the street if we had to. If we would open up our eyes and begin to realize that our skin color alone is not enough to prove us to be qualified to help someone else, then maybe we would start to think a little more about the other aspects of our appearance that are going to be responsible for our reputation among people who can’t speak the same language as we do. Sure, a smile can go a long ways but only if people aren’t so distracted by ugly shoes and knee high socks that they won’t even look up to see the smile.

No one expects us all to wear the latest fashions straight off the runways of Paris and New York, but can we at least wear something that didn’t come out of the lost and found? Is it too much to ask to wear shirts with sleeves and pants with zippers? Something not stained, faded, or with holes in it? Something that doesn’t look like it was designed by a 6-year-old or a 90-year-old? This is all I wish for my humanitarian fashion revolution. Oh, and on that note, unless you’re actually in the military, can we please try to avoid looking like we are going into combat? Although I may be waging a war on bad fashion in the mission field, you won’t be catching me in any camo and big boots. Want to join me in the revolution? I’ll be offering a change to register soon.

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One comment

  1. “If we all who work in aid, mission, philanthropy, etc, would quit trying to think of ourselves as the heroes out to save the world, then our egos wouldn’t be so inflated that we miss the fact that we actually look like we couldn’t even help someone cross the street if we had to..” love it. Dying laughing. So true!

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