—Lynn S. Neal
In a recent “Thank You Notes” segment of The Tonight Show: At Home Edition, Jimmy Fallon thanked socks for becoming the new shoes, while John Krasinski hosted “Some Good News” wearing what appeared to be a three-piece suit. Only at the end of the episode did Krasinski reveal the shorts that accompanied his suit jacket and tie. Memes and cartoons showcasing America’s “work from home” attire joke about yoga pants and casualwear. Facebook exchanges resemble this one: “Suddenly find myself in need of more pairs of sweatpants,” to which another responded, “Not me! I’ve been preparing for this moment for years.” As Americans work from home or grapple with the implications of unemployment during this global pandemic, our (some might say excessive) embrace of casual clothing not only provides us with a source of humor, but also a tangible sense of comfort.
Comfort highlights one of the most basic functions of clothing—to provide the body with shelter and protection. In her book, Fashion: An Introduction, Joanne Finkelstein explains that “clothes, decorative masks and rituals of anointing the body…appear to be universally similar devices for protecting the body.” The current debates over whether or not people should wear masks and the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical personnel highlight this dramatically. Less dramatic, but still important, are the ways people are finding emotional protection through the physical wearing of comfortable clothes, whether yoga pants, a favorite T-shirt, or an old ball cap. In the midst of stay-at-home orders, ebbing and flowing anxiety levels, and dire daily news, putting on a favorite clothing item worn soft with age and repeated washings that accommodates a few extra pounds gained or less than perfectly coiffed hair, makes comfort real and tangible.
The history of the verb “to comfort” emphasizes precisely this point. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its current meaning is “to sooth in grief or trouble; to relieve of mental distress; to console, solace.” Wearing a favorite clothing item that evokes happy memories or makes you feel good does just this. This common definition, though, also relates to two older and lesser used physical and spiritual meanings of the word “comfort” that are interesting to think about as we shelter in place, work from home, or engage in essential work. Historically, comfort meant “to strengthen (physically), support; to make fast, secure,” as well as “to strengthen (morally or spiritually); to encourage, hearten.” If we think about these historical meanings in terms of clothing, it not only emphasizes its protective function, but also the materiality of clothing, comfort, and religion. Clothing is not simply or only a language to communicate dimensions of one’s social identity, but it is also a material form that mediates. The embrace of comfortable clothing makes one feel the sensation of the fabric and the tangible support it provides.
For some, comfort clothes may also mediate religious presence and assurance, as in the second historical meaning of the word. This past week one of my colleagues expressed some surprise that the March 22, 2020 issue of The New York Times Style Magazine featured designer clothing inspired by “ecclesiastical” dress (think priests’ cassocks, monks’ robes, and nuns’ habits), but it made sense to me given my research for Religion in Vogue: Christianity and Fashion in America. Chapter 4, “Innovating Religious Dress,” examines the long history of this trend and the supernatural aura attributed to this kind of clothing. The chapter concludes with the story of Emily Prager from the early 1990s. In her highly personal account, Prager shares the way her “heart leapt” upon seeing a cassock-inspired garment. As she reflects on buying a black coat with a “clerical look,” Praeger describes the unsettling “chilling” and “terrifying” news of the time. She then recounts how putting on “the garb of those who have traditionally dealt in matters of conscience,” made her feel—“as if by wearing priest’s robes I might be both protected and purified, savior and saved. At the least, I might no longer feel helpless.” Religion, as scholar Birgit Meyer reminds us, “becomes concrete and palpable through people, their practices and use of things.” And today as we face unprecedented “chilling” and “terrifying” updates about the impact of COVID-19, putting on a T-shirt from a fun-filled vacation, wearing a cross necklace gifted by a beloved relative, or lounging in the perfect pair of stretchy pants, helps make physical and spiritual comfort concrete.
Lynn S. Neal is Professor of Religious Studies at Wake Forest University. An award-winning teacher, Neal’s work focuses on the mediation of religion, with special attention to popular culture. Previous publications include Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction (2006), Religious Intolerance in America (2010, co-edited with John Corrigan), as well as articles on religion and fashion, as well as religion and television. Her latest book is Religion in Vogue: Christianity and Fashion in America, available from NYU Press.
 Malcolm Barnard, Fashion as Communication (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 47.
 Joanne Finkelstein, Fashion: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 14.
 “comfort, v.”. OED Online. March 2020. Oxford University Press.
 Lynn S. Neal, Religion in Vogue: Christianity and Fashion in America (New York: New York University Press, 2019), especially Chapter 4, 119-153.
 Emily Prager, “The Going Got Tough,” New York Times, September 26, 1993, 10V.
 Birgit Meyer, Mediation and the Genesis of Presence: Towards a Material Approach to Religion (Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht, 2012), 7.