The torn fabric of Purim: clothing styles throughout history

Clothing finally acts as a catalyst for joy in our reversal story

CLOTHING STYLES throughout history. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA COMMONS)
CLOTHING STYLES throughout history.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA COMMONS)
‘Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” quipped the famous fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. He walked the streets of New York City, photographing trends that he saw every day, believing that what people wear mirrors the times in which they live. We pick clothes to protect us but mostly to accomplish the dual, paradoxical role of revealing our identities and concealing them.
Clothing in the biblical Book of Esther plays much the same role. It mirrors the times in which the Jews lived, their dramatic story woven into fabric. Our first mention of clothing combines both the tearing of clothing upon confronting tragedy and the wearing of sackcloth to that same end.
“When Mordechai learned all that had happened, Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly” (Esther, 4:1). When a courtier exchanges one set of clothes for another, it’s a public indication that something has shifted that requires recognition and action. The armor of clothing is exchanged to signal vulnerability.
Tearing clothing has a long history in the Hebrew Bible. In the Joseph narratives, we find multiple examples. When Joseph was alone in Potiphar’s house, he rejected the advances of Potiphar’s wife, but, “She caught hold of him by his garment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside” (Genesis 39:12). The torn garment served as the false witness to a lie.
This will happen twice more. Joseph’s older half-brother returned to the scene of sibling crime but could not find Joseph in the pit. “Now Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit; so he tore his garments” (Genesis 37:29). Ironically, Reuben, along with his brothers, ripped a garment one more time when a silver goblet was found in poor Benjamin’s sack.
“Then they tore their clothes, and when each man loaded his donkey, they returned to the city (Genesis 44:13).” All of these are tears of deceit.
There are also tears of truth. When King Saul seized Samuel’s robe in a desperate attempt to hold onto his mentor, Samuel tore it, a sign that the King’s position would be ripped apart from him for Saul’s deceit. “As Samuel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore” (1 Samuel 15:27).
IN ANOTHER Saul story, a torn garment would once again tell a painful truth to this tragic figure. King Saul was in hot pursuit of his nemesis, David, but when Saul slept, surrounded by military men who were also sound asleep, David taught Saul a lesson. In the night, David crept up from his camp, tore Saul’s garments as evidence that David had been there, and spared Saul’s life, “Then David arose and cut off the edge of Saul’s robe secretly.” (I Samuel 24:5).
When we turn back to the Megillah, we find that Mordechai’s tear tells an unspeakable truth. True to its effect, when the Jews in Shushan saw Mordechai in public in torn clothes made of sackcloth, they also changed into sackcloth. Esther, however, did not put on sackcloth. When she heard the devastating news, she was upset for the wrong reason: “…for the queen was greatly agitated. She sent clothing for Mordechai to wear, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he refused” (Est. 4:4).
Esther, it seems, was not solely upset about the decree. She was troubled that her uncle wore the wrong clothes when approaching the palace. It will take a stern talking to from Mordechai to shift Esther’s priorities. But when she does, she wears royalty and courage, rising from a beauty queen to heroine.
The Apocrypha contains a different account, one where clothing is also significant. When Esther heard the news, she took off her royal raiment and prayed intensely, dressing and acting just like Mordechai and the Jews of Persia’s ancient empire. “And laid away her glorious apparel and put on the garments of anguish and mourning: and instead of precious ointments, she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she humbled her body greatly, and all the places of her joy she filled with torn hair” (14:2).
Clothing finally acts as a catalyst for joy in our reversal story. Only when the people saw Mordechai in his new, magisterial garments did the city break out in merriment. “Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries. The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Est. 8:15-16).
Because in our liturgical reading we repeat the verse about our newfound happiness, we risk ignoring the textual and contextual connection. Mordechai left the king’s presence dressed as a new man. The people immediately understood once more a truth told in fabric. They finally achieved more than security; they now had status.
From a torn garment to a royal one, Mordechai’s clothes told the story of our redemption, a story we blessedly keep telling. 
The writer is an associate professor at George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her latest book, from which this essay has been in part excerpted, is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile.