The comedian Jerry Seinfeld was once asked by a reporter why he wears a suit onstage every time he performs, since the whole world has decided that dressing down is the normal way to live these days. "It's a signal," he replied. "I'm not loafing up here."
I posted what became a notorious picture on this blog about six or seven years back. In it, a handful of brand new Master Masons were posing for a group photo after having all been raised to the Sublime Degree on the same day. A Grand Master from another state sent it to me to express his dismay over the lack of any sense of decorum in the unnamed lodge. All of the new Brethren were dressed in rumpled or torn tee shirts with a variety of logos and sayings on them. Some wore jeans, but others had baggy cargo shorts and sandals, while one prominent Brother in the front row sported ripped up pants with both knees torn apart. Aside from wearing white aprons, they might have been inducted into a local motorcycle club or posing for a group photo before getting to work laying floor tile. They certainly didn't look like anything special had gone on that day.
By the time the photo was sent to me, it had been fashioned into an early Internet meme style called a "de-motivator," which was a parody of the brief fad of motivational posters at the time. The headline read, "Standards. It's nice being reminded that you still have them." The goal was not to shame the new Brethren in the photo who had obviously just taken their degrees. It was really to call into question just what kind of standards the more seasoned members of their lodge were teaching them and to express a desire for higher expectations. That's what a mentor is partially supposed to be teaching new members - to remind new Masons who don't know any better that yes, we do indeed have standards in this fraternity. We're not loafing in here.
I blocked out the lads' faces, thinking I was being appropriately circumspect, while still making the point. And I can honestly say that less than 24 hours after I hit the send key, all hell broke loose.
The two angry groups of commentators immediately divided into their separate camps: those horrified over their slovenly appearance at such a solemn, once-in-a-lifetime event, versus those horrified that any Mason could under any circumstances possibly object to the way any other Mason would dress. The battle was waged with the sort of religious vehemence usually found only in Middle Eastern geopolitics or NFL playoffs. The aged canard was fully stuffed, inflated and flapped about like a sputtering zeppelin: "It is the INTERNAL, not the EXTERNAL qualifications that Masonry regards!" That wretched misapplication of a perfectly fine philosophical lesson got belabored, flogged, and dragged across the aether so many times that I was convinced hundreds of angry Masons had a speed key set to punch out the phrase with a single keystroke. Right next to the 'Fixed income!' key.
After three days, a member of the unidentified lodge in the photo contacted me and was dutifully apoplectic. That photo had pierced these new Brothers straight through the heart, he said. At least they had showed up, he said. And now they'd probably never be seen again, thanks to my cruel and un-Masonic post, he said. I should be ashamed of myself, he said. Someone should have me up on charges, he said. Plus, I didn't have anyone's permission to post the photo, so I was violating copyright laws, a Constitutional Amendment or three, and probably International Maritime Law. He said.
Finally, like the compassionately craven milksop I was at the time, I licked my surgical scars and removed the post.
I was admittedly biased against slovenly appearance in lodge myself. I recalled in my first go round as a Master of a lodge we were called to perform a funeral service for a fallen Brother and pay our final respects to his family and friends. All of my officers and regular attendees arrived at the funeral home appropriately dressed in black or dark suits and ties, without being asked. But at the last minute, in loped a member none of us had ever seen or met before (or since), gave a grudging nod to the rest of us, and signed in to the minute book. He was dressed in sweat-stained yellow golf shirt and cargo shorts, a Nike swoosh cap, and his sock-less feet sported a ragged pair of Sperry topsiders. It appeared as though we had interrupted a hot afternoon of polishing his boat. I thanked him for coming, but told him he wasn't properly clothed for a Masonic funeral service. He immediately lunged for a white apron, but I told him that wasn't what I meant. His angry parting shot as he stormed out of the room was, "At least I showed up."
Well, just like everything else in life, there's more to Masonry than merely showing up. If there isn't, we're doing it wrong.
Now it seems that someone else - no less than a grand master - has also lamented the plunging level of standards of decorum in Masonic lodges in his own jurisdiction, and he's decided to do something drastic about it. MW Michael H. Wilson, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Georgia F&AM, has just issued an edict, and it's a beaut. In it, he says that Brethren have been attending meetings, degrees and events "wearing attire much too informal to maintain the decorum of a Masonic Lodge."
|Grand Master Michael H. Wilson|
|Click image to enlarge|
His order is scarcely draconian or out of the realm of practicality. It's not some outlandish demand for sartorial extravagance. It's not even what any rational human being with any common sense (or standard upbringing in any other decade) would regard as remotely "snooty." Per his edict, henceforth all Georgia Masons of any degree are expected to be "properly attired" at all meetings and events, including cornerstone ceremonies and funerals. And then he lays out exactly what he means: No shorts, no un-collared shirts (i.e. tee shirts or sleeveless 'wife-beater' undershirts), no exercise clothes, open-toed shoes, sandals, or flip-flops (unless necessary for medical reasons). And don't even think of putting on an apron or an officer's collar if you show up that way.
What's astonishing is that this had to appear in print.
Here's what the edict DOESN'T demand. GM Wilson doesn't say Masons can't show up at lodge in jeans, or even overalls, in collared golf-shirts, or wearing a medically required piece of clothing. He doesn't say anywhere that Masons must wear a jacket, tie, and buttoned-down shirt. You'd never know it from the splenetic reactions online, but he also doesn't demand that they wear gloves, an Armani suit, a tailored tuxedo, a hand-tied bow tie, an English morning suit with striped pants and tails, Gucci alligator wingtips, spats, or anything else even remotely "formal." He leaves that entirely to the discretion of each Master over his own lodge and the taste and desires of the members. But he DOES demand that Masons come to lodge and events looking better than a day of spraying Roundup on the kudzu or skimming the leaves out of the pool.
It's interesting to note this development because it's related in a way to Nebraska raising its proficiency standards earlier this year. Dwight L. Smith wrote back in the early 1960s that he feared that the "era of the common man" in Freemasonry may have become too common. After almost 60 years of what really has been the "common era," perhaps some of our leaders are finally agreeing with Dwight after all.
So naturally the online shriekists are already blanketing Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and everywhere else electronic Masons lurk. According to the loudest howlers, Grand Master Wright is being elitist, dontcha know. I'm considering putting that 'controversial' lodge photo back up again. And the first joker who burbles out and misconstrues that "INTERNAL not EXTERNAL!" twaddle again will get a face full of overcooked green beans. Because it's bollocks.
If you travel outside of the U.S., or even just spend a little time looking at online photos of Masons in other countries, you'll quickly discover that Americans are just about the only Freemasons in the world who don't generally demand a dress code in lodge. Some are stricter than others, but it is only the U.S. and perhaps some Canadians who don't uniformly expect their Masons to show enough respect for each other and the higher standards of the institution to show up appropriately dressed for an important occasion. There's a whole raft of reasons why that has been so for three centuries just about everywhere but here. The most basic reason is exactly opposite what you might think it is. And it's not empty high-falootinism.
|English Masons have had standards of dress all along.|
Masons in the United Grand Lodge of England are required to wear a black suit or black jacket with grey trousers, a white shirt, and either a black or an officially approved Grand Lodge tie. In the U.S., most Prince Hall lodges demand the same sort of uniform look. Both do it for the same reason, and elitism has nothing to do with it. If twenty Masons show up dressed exactly alike, there's no outward way to determine whether the Mason next to you is a bank president, a surgeon, a lawyer, a transcendental odontologist, an expressway toll booth attendant, or a garbage collector. Some jurisdictions also require identical white gloves to hide the hands of everyone so you can't tell at a glance who's a rugged steelworker, a plump-fisted tax accountant, or a dilettante who never hit a lick in his entire pampered lifetime. Every last bit of it comes down to making sure that all Masons meet on the same level in the lodge. Uniformity of dress in lodge is done for the very same reason Catholic grade schools have demanded it for centuries. It actually STOPS the unintended envy of the well to do or scorn of the less advantaged. And in an age when you can pick up a suit at Kohl's for $69 or order a tuxedo online for $79 versus paying half that for a new pair of jeans and twice that for a new pair of cross-trainer shoes, the old caterwaul about extravagance just doesn't carry much weight anymore.
|No, everybody doesn't have to look like Oklahoma's Lodge Veritas 556.|
But more Masons around the world do than those who don't.
Lots of the bellyachers are comparing lodge to their very informal churches. Even if your church welcomes everyone on a come-as-you-are basis because God doesn't care how you look when you pester him over your lost car keys, that sentiment doesn't apply in a Masonic lodge. We're not God, we're men. And our stated purpose for being in lodge is to be BETTER men. And you don't become a BETTER man unless you have a certain level of expectation to live up to that's higher than what you're finding outside the lodge room doors. The lodge room itself is supposed to be a sanctuary from the outside world, and we do things differently in there on purpose. A BETTER man is a whole package - honor, behavior, manners, civility, deportment, language, temperament, and - yes - appearance. Because, while Masonry regards what's in a man's heart as far more important than how he looks, the rest of the world doesn't spin that way. The rest of the world cares very much how you look, and judges you accordingly - just as the world judges the craftsmanship of an operative Mason by the finished quality and appearance of his work. So there's no place better to start picking up better habits than right in lodge. Masonry is supposed to influence society by example, not be dragged down by ever-lowering societal expectations.
Unlike operative Brethren, we don't carve ashlars or statues. We chip away at our own personal ashlar and endeavor to achieve perfection in all ways. If we never achieve it, it's still a standard to reach for, and it's a higher standard than the run of the mill profane members of society live up or down to. We're supposed to be the whole package. If you look like an uncaring slob, that's an image you'll have to overcome in the eyes of most people. And if you're wearing a hat with a square and compass on it, do you really want to be seen in public wearing a tee shirt that says, "I really don't give a f—!" as I saw last month in a Hardees? Really?
There has always been an added side effect of uniformity and formality of dress that Masons have enjoyed when we are seen clustered together in a large clot out in public. It still happens today. When crowds of people are in a restaurant enjoying their dinner and in walk 25 Masons all dressed in black suits or tuxes who stroll through and close themselves up in the back room for their festive board, heads turn, people look, and they ask the waiters, "Who are those guys?"
"It's the Freemasons," comes the answer. And you can tell just by looking at us, we're not loafing in there.