Clothes & fashion
Clothes (dussa or vattha) are pieces of fabric tailored to fit over the body and worn to protect it from the elements and for the sake of modesty. In ancient India cloth was made out of cotton (kappāsa), wool (uṇṇa), silk (koseyya) or various plant fibres. The most expensive cloth was the brocade of Kāsi and Kadumbara linen (A.I,248; Ja.VI,500). The Buddha mentioned that when he was a prince his turban (veṭhana), jacket (kaṭcuka), undergarments (nivāsana) and robe (uttarāsaṅga) were made only of Kāsi brocade (A.I,145). Men and women wore loin cloths around their waists and a long strip of cloth wrapped in various ways around their upper bodies, and sometimes a jacket. Men wore turbans and women a veil over their heads. There were no buttons. Pieces of cloth were knotted together. There were no pockets either. Small articles were knotted into a corner of a garment.
The Buddha wore a yellow or tawny-coloured robe and stipulated that his monks and nuns should do the same. There is no record of him advocating that his lay followers wear any particular type of clothing but they are often referred to as "lay disciples dressed in white" (adātavasana, A.III,10; M.I,340). So it seems that from the time of the Buddha himself, lay Buddhists favored clothing made out of plain undyed fabric and this would have only been appropriate. Such clothes would symbolise purity and simplicity and also emphasize the equality between Buddhists by diminishing the distinction between rich and poor. In Sri Lanka very devout people still prefer to wear white. In Sri Lanka and in Thailand also, those observing the eight or ten Precepts often wear white clothes. However, the most important thing is not what type of clothes one wears or their colour, but the quality of one’s heart. The Buddha said: "Even though being finely adorned, if one is peaceful, restrained, committed to the holy life and harmless towards all beings, he is a true ascetic, a true priest, a true monk" (Dhp.142).
Significance of clothes in Buddhism
Although there is no requirement or suggestion about clothes for lay people, it is clear that clothes are important in Buddhism. The opposite of wearing clothes would be nakedness and this was not uncommon in ancient India.
The monks of the Jain and the Ājīvakas sects went naked and the Ekasāṭaka ascetics only wore small cloth over their genitals. Nakedness together with tearing the hair out, never cutting the hair and nails, allowing the hair become matted and never washing, were all believed to show complete detachment from the world. The Buddha considered nakedness another extreme and advocated following the cultural customs of the land you live in, thereby clothing is important. There is even a theory that the reason the monks wear their robes with one shoulder on and one shoulder off is so that it represents a 'middle way' between the extremes of too much clothing and going naked.
The Buddha made it a rule that monks should never go naked, even within their private quarters (Vin.II,121). He said: "Nakedness is unbecoming, unsuitable, improper, unworthy of an ascetic, not allowable and not to be done" (Vin.I,305). He objected to it on two grounds. The first was because like all austerities or outward changes nudity does not lead to significant inner change. He said: "Not nakedness nor matted hair, not mud nor fasting, not lying on the ground, being unwashed or squatting will purify one who has not passed beyond doubt" (Dhp.141). He also objected to nudity because it contravened the norms of polite society for no good reason. Lady Visākha once saw some nuns bathing naked and commented; "nakedness in women is ugly, abhorrent and objectionable" (Vin.I,293) which seems to have been the general opinion. The Buddha wanted his monks and nuns to abide by the normal standards of decorum and good manners, the better to be able to communicate the Dhamma to others. The Buddha was also anxious that his monks and nuns should be distinct from those of other sects, outwardly as much as inwardly. Because many of these other ascetics were either completely or partly naked or wore whatever they liked, the Buddha stipulated that his ordained disciples should wear a distinct and easily identifiable robe.
The robe was so important for monastics that the Buddha allowed the monks or nuns to request for a new one from lay people if their robe became lost, stolen, or ragged (Vinaya, Suttavibhanga 6, 29). Whereas, normally monks and nuns are not allowed to ask lay people for anything.
In the Vimanavatthu and Petavatthu there are stories of departed beings who have gone to good and bad destinations in the Buddhist cosmology. Moggallana through the powers of the mind with meditation visited these regions to inquire what deeds led them there. The woeful states were inhabited by beings who were described as naked, while those residing in heavenly mansions were described as possessing beautiful clothes. In the Theravada commentaries (DA ii.427, DhSA, 33) one of the signs of a deva's (heavenly being) imminent death is that the clothes becomes soiled, which again points to the significance of clothes in Buddhism.
Lay people have no specific requirement about clothing and unlike Western converts to such Eastern movements as Hare Krishna, Buddhists do not need to wear any robes, white or any other color or paint their foreheads. Buddhists follow the culture of the land they live in and are not asked to follow a foreign culture just because the founding teacher is from another land.
In spite of this, some lay Buddhists like to wear yellow (color of Buddha's robes and yellow also represents 'middle way') or white, but in the style of modern clothing, not robes. This is a voluntary color choice of some Buddhists and not a requirement. Some like to wear the modern clothing of their culture but in one of the colors of the Buddhist flag; yellow, white, orange, blue, or red.
At Dhamma centers most Buddhists wear simple, modern clothing that is comfortable to sit in for the meditation sessions. This includes t-shirts, halter tops, dress shirts (regular shirts with buttons and collars), jeans, flannel shirts, polo shirts, and sweat suits.
Fashion, for many is considered an art and for some Buddhists, art is seen as another attachment. While it is clear that a fully enlightened arahant may have little use and no attachment to mundane things like art, for other Buddhists and those interested in Buddhism, art can be a wholesome action and interest. The Buddha saw its value because he said monks and nuns could beautify their monasteries by painting them different colors and decorating them with various geometrical and floral designs (Vinaya 2. 117). As Buddhism spread in the centuries after the Buddha's passing his teachings gave an impetus to all the arts - painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and to a lesser degree music. There are Buddhist Vinaya rules against monks and nuns indulging in arts, shows, and games, but this rule does not apply to lay people. Monks and nuns are supposed to devote their lives to the study and teaching of Dhamma and it would look unseemly for them to be seen by lay people engaged in such things as watching movies, painting pictures, discussing creative chess strategies, or fashion.
Fashion can not only be an acceptable interest in the arts, but also a skilful means for acquiring more interest in Buddhism. For many non-Buddhists, there is the false belief that Buddhists, similar to Hare Krishnas and other religions or movements based out of the East, must wear Indian robes or other robes from Asian cultures. Lay people wear what they like and Buddhists who wear modern clothing and especially those who wear fashionable clothes in artistic ways, demonstrate that Buddhists adapt to their local cultures and are otherwise no different than most other people in the dominant society. For those that follow the fashion trends, it can be an opportunity for practicing other Buddhist teachings (besides Skilful means), including that of Anicca (impermanence), letting go, and non-attachment (as the styles change). And then there maybe the chance for generosity (dana) as those who change some of their wardrobe can give it to the less fortunate.
In December of 2007 (buddhist channel, msnbc) Japanese monks held a "fashion show" with monks walking the cat-walk wearing colorful and elaborate robes instead of the old gray and black robes of the past, in an effort to get more young people interested in the possibility of ordaining or interested in Buddhism in general. This is an appropriate use of the skilful means method to acquire more interest in Buddhism.
- Clothes in Ancient India. S. Mukerjee, 1980.