[I started writing this last year, and, in the spirit of cleaning out my drafts folder, refuse to change any of the anachronisms.  You’re welcome.  Also, still in the middle of answering comments, but thought I’d get this out while it’s on my mind.]

I’m taking you to Sunday School today, reader: we’re going to talk about shibboleths.  Now, the contemporary dime-store definition of a shibboleth is that it is a password, or a means of distinguishing one group from another.  The contemporary dime-store definition sucks.  Here’s how the story goes: We’ve got Ephraimites and Gileadites, who, much in the style of the Jets and the Sharks, do not get along very well and live separately (there was a war, a ford was captured, bing bang boom: we’re got a rift).  The Gileadites have possession the neighborhood’s Jordan River crossing/s, so whenever an Ephraimite escapes Ephraim and wants to get out of Dodge, s/he has to pass through Gileadite territory.  Ruh roh.  The Gileadites, when faced with someone trying to make a crossing, say, “Cool.  Just one thing: Say shibboleth.”  Sad story, though: Ephraimites can’t pronounce it.  Sadder story: the Ephraimites would then get killed.  This is the Old Testament, after all.

What’s the moral of that story?  The hell if I know, reader.  I’m not a theologian.  My point is, it isn’t that the Ephraimites didn’t know the password, but rather that they couldn’t say the word.  This is not a  matter of knowledge or skill, but one of basic, constitutive identity.  Here, the individual was inextricable from his/her nationality.  An Ephraimite couldn’t change into his/her Gileadite costume and call it a day.  A shibboleth isn’t a way of saying, “I understand you,” but rather, “I am one of you.”

Bee eff dee, Charlotte!  Actually, reader, HUGE eff dee.  Let’s talk about clothes now.  It’s on-campus recruiting sea-soooooonnnnnn!  (That was my Oprah voice.  The more I use my Oprah voice, the more like Oprah I will become.  It is science.)  I was in the waiting room this morning, waiting to be interviewed, and I couldn’t help but look around at my fellow applicants.  Black poly-blend suits (no wrinkles, y’all), button-front shirts, black shoes, vinyl portfolios.  I wore a navy wool skirt suit, a bronzed olive silk blouse, and kept my papers in a recycled paper folder that cost a nickel.  That’s just how I roll, reader.

The first time I went to buy an Hermès scarf (which I mention specifically because I hate it when people are coy about this sort of thing.  I bought a fancy scarf.  I can’t decide if it is more obnoxious to mention it, or to avoid mention for fear of. . .seeming as if you bought a fancy scarf?  I’m socially tone deaf, so forgive me, either way), I wore track pants and a heathered gray t-shirt.  I was seventeen, and was so excited to buy myself something that nice.  But, the people at the store were less excited about me.  Well, not excited at all, quite frankly.  Then after quite a bit of throat-clearing and my best attempt at eye contact and a level tone, a sales associate summoned this gem of a woman (truly), who was the regional expert in scarves or somesuch.  She spent an hour with me, poring over the book, telling all of the scarves’ stories, and helping me pick just the right one.  At the end, she handed me my bag and said to me, “Next time you come in, wear your scarf.”  Shibboleth.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it is really difficult not only know that you don’t know a language, but knowing that you, being you, can’t speak the language.  I cannot walk into a store wearing that store’s wares just because it will make the sales staff like me, or wear a poly-blend black suit (mostly because I’d sweat my makeup off) so that I can arrive wrinkle-free and banker-like to an interview.

This post originally contained parts of what would become “Difficult Women” and “Written on the Body,” and I suppose the issues overlap.  Do we sew to transcend the shibboleths, the Gordon Gartrells, or do we sew in order to gain a whole new set of codes with which to operate?  Am I the only person plagued by this question when I’m on Instagram?  The difficulty is, for me, that the non-sewer world isn’t fluent in makerese (makance languages?), and this is where the problems start.  (All that preface for this?  Yup.)


6 thoughts on “Shibboleth”

  1. This really does cross a few areas of thinking. There’s the ‘signal to the incrowd’ that can be a Hermes scarf or a Invader Zim tshirt (I own one and not the other, but they function the same). Then there’s the ‘the black suit is the camo of the western world’ (my own teen son told me that one last week), allowing you to penetrate…uh….sneak in past the guardians.

    And then there’s this weekend, where I wore the super sewist shirt (wax print, audacious placement, perfect fit) to the performance of the show I stitched for, mostly as my audition piece for more work. Do I have that now? I will in about an hour, after the matinee starts. I gotta go and find another shibboleth to wear, but I’ve got some chewy thinking thanks to you. Thanks!

  2. Hold it, no no no non. An Hermes scarf is not an “it” thing. It is a little 90 cm work of art. The woman who waited on you in Hermes knew that a 17-year-old in sweatpants with the moxie to buy a scarf at Hermes was a gal who needed to know how much goes into designing, screen printing, and hand-rolling (gaa) the hems of these fab things. As much as I hate the Kardashianing of Hermes bags, the scarves are a signifier of a gal who knows a thing or two. They’ll get you in the door in a multitude of cultures.
    I get mine on eBay, and they are just the best thing if you’re wearing some crappy outfit and feel like hell but need to be taken seriously. Basically it’s the only retail thing I collect.
    (P.S. I did buy one at the Paris store when the Franc was 10 to the dollar, and they treated me like crap, too.)

  3. Can’t it be both?

    Most of the time, I present myself in what I think of as Normal Drag. I don’t want people to know who I am without getting to know me, so I make myself look as conventional and non-threatening as possible, in terms of dress. It’s mostly effective, in that it takes people meeting me a few times before they start to clue in.

    But there are times when people want to include that signal. It could be something small, like a detail on a shirt or a handbag, or something quite big like dyeing your hair purple and wearing a vintage-style dress covered with toasters. It’s something you can fake to outsiders, but not to insiders: insiders will recognize the designer who made the fabric, the dress pattern, the colour of manic panic dye. They’ll know. Outsiders will see weird dress + purple hair = crazy lady.

    Or maybe the toaster-print just went into the inside collar and button placket, so you’d have to get really close to notice it (eg. the entire SBC world using scraps of Liberty to make pockets and waistband facings for handmade blue jeans). Then I think we’re getting into “both” territory: “Here is my well-tailored business-like white button-down shirt, signalling that I belong in this professional workplace; and here is the little bit of toaster print peeking out at my neck, for those of you who recognize it, so you’ll know this isn’t who I really am.”

  4. I’m not gonna think too hard today, so I will just tell you this heartwarming story (it was drilled into my head in history class, I don’t have to think about this one).

    During the Middle Ages, the Flemish and the French didn’t get along… One night in 1302 the Flemish people in Bruges (made even more famous by a younger Colin Farrell *sigh*) stormed all the houses that were known to board the French and they made every guy (I don’t think feminism and gender equality was a thing back then 😉 …) in the house and made them say ‘Schild en Vriend’ (Shield and Friend). Now as a fluent French speaker you surely understand that the French could not pronounce this the Flemish way but made it sound like ‘Skilt en Frient’. Those who couldn’t pronounce these 3 words in the desired way, were killed on the spot…
    Now I know where the Flemish got their inspiration…

    For further reference: the Schild en Vriend Shibboleth is the first in the list:

    And PS. I think showing up in a non-black non-poly blend suit makes you stand out in the best way possible. You still conform to the form of the suit, but at the same time manage to show you have personality and sense of quality. I like it and I would hire you!

    And PPS: I totally think that the more you talk like Oprah, the more you will be like her. I believe in science, y’all!!!

  5. Well, I’d like to write a clever response, but all I can’t stop daydreaming about a heretofore unknown-to-me great-great-aunt leaving me her beloved Hermes scarf, preferably the one I saw recently with a leopard motif. Miracles can happen, right? I think I remember something about that from Sunday School…

  6. Well I just love that you went to Hermes to buy a scarf in your sweatpants. You are who you are! I do get it about shibboleth, though. My husband took me to DVF to buy a wrap dress and I felt totally out of place. I love the dress but I still wouldn’t wear it just to go buy another one and feel like I fit in. I think even when Kardashians go in to buy ridiculously nice things they don’t fit in. They are only fawned over because people know they have money and fame and will be seen all over the place with the items. They are faking it more than any 17 year old in sweatpants ever could.

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