I once dressed up as a Jehovah’s Witness for a Halloween party. The invitation said guests’ costumes should reflect a “road not taken” — we should dress up as who we might have been, had we made different decisions in life.
This was the first time I had ever dressed up for Halloween (Halloween was something forbidden on my other road), but it seemed fitting that I pull on a long skirt and slick my hair back in a bun. I made a cardboard Jehovah’s Witness display cart, stapling on the Watchtower magazines I had taken from a Jehovah’s Witness lady in the subway. On top of some Armageddon artwork at the top of the placard I pasted the headline: “You Are All Going to Die.” That’s essentially the message you would find in a Jehovah’s Witness magazine, if you ever bothered to read one.
I sat on the subway on the way to the party, ten years since I had been a real Jehovah’s Witness, and noticed the way people looked at me. It was how they used to look at me — curiosity mixed with aversion, lest I start preaching to them. I had spent ten years deprogramming, shedding the modesty I had been told for 33 years was my imperative. Yet here I was, just one blouse and below-the-knee skirt away from that person I used to be.
I don’t like costumes, but I love clothes. I always have, though when I was a real Jehovah’s Witness, I tried to pretend to myself that wasn’t true, since loving anything in this world was considered materialistic and wrong.
Because I was a preacher who spent most of my time looking for converts and supported myself with part-time jobs, I never had much money to buy clothes anyway. I was very devout, but that didn’t stop me from wanting them. You can’t stop loving the things you love, even when you’re brainwashed. Ask any gay ex-Jehovah’s Witness.
On the rare night where I didn’t have a meeting at the Kingdom Hall or preaching quotas to fill, I would get in my husband’s beige 1982 Volvo station wagon, the one he used for his part-time window-cleaning business, and drive to Value Village, a secondhand store in Vancouver that was as big as a supermarket. Inside were racks of used clothing priced from 99 cents up to $7.99.
The store smelled the same as any other thrift shop on the planet. The stench of things no longer wanted — things thrown into bags, things out of date, things left behind by the dead. Their orphaned state equalized them: The once-expensive cashmere sweater or Sonia Rykiel skirt may have been priced at an outrageous $9.99, but it, too, had the smell. It didn’t bother me.
As a Jehovah’s Witness, I looked for a certain kind of clothes. There were a lot of restrictions as to what we could or could not wear as women. It was important not to draw attention to our femaleness. It was also important that we didn’t dress too masculine, either, since that was what lesbians did. We were supposed to look different than “worldly people” — cleaner, more holy.
I followed these rules because I didn’t have a choice. I believed it was the true religion and these were the rules of engagement. If you didn’t dress modestly, you’d start getting in trouble.
Later, some rules on clothing extended to men (tight pants were too “homosexual”). But when I was a Jehovah’s Witness, tight pants for men were not yet in fashion, so the women got most of the counsel, as we did in many other parts of our lives, too. Skirts had to come below the knee. Shoulders should be covered. Cleavage a definite no. Pants, no matter the cut, were also out for women when we were attending a meeting or out preaching. Yoga pants eventually became a target of derision, too. Too tight, even for exercise — doubly so, since yoga was another thing that was forbidden. Meditation would clear your mind too much, leaving room for Satan.
Because there were so many rules about what was considered immodest, it was best to look on the racks for the things you weren’t allowed to wear, since those caught your eye most easily anyway. Pushing aside the loveliest things, it became easier to find the few modest gems within what was left on the hangers.
A couple times, I picked out a slinky minidress or halter top to try on. There were no mirrors in the changing rooms, so I had to emerge in front of strangers — usually a long line of them waiting — to look at myself, immodestly. It was strange to see the body I was taught to hide more exposed than covered by these garments. I was secretly pleased with the shape of my legs, the smooth skin on my back. But I never bought any of these things, not even for wearing around the house, even if I liked them. They weren’t who I was.
By the time I was in my early 30, I had moved to Shanghai. I was preaching underground, because my religion was illegal in China. Here, clothing temptation was everywhere. I was an undercover Jehovah’s Witness, so I had to dress more like I was fitting in, rather than stand out in dresses and suits. This meant new clothes, though still modest ones.
Luckily, I was the right size to fit the Chinese clothes, and clothing was cheap here. Almost Value Village cheap, but more interesting than the clothes at home, because here the stores’ offerings were a hodgepodge of local designs, factory seconds, samples, and knock-offs. The shops of Shanghai faced the street as proud as their counterparts in Paris, though their wares were largely made up of the fashion industry’s forsaken.
For the first time, I could afford new clothes, clothes that smelled of factory chemicals and had labels still attached, destined for stores in Seoul or Barcelona, clothes which somehow fell in a factory pile rejected and turned up here. It was a refreshing break from preaching to go into a cool, air-conditioned store. And because I preached to people by befriending them before telling them my real reason for pursuing them, a clothing store could be legitimized as a part of my ministry, as long as I chatted with someone. Later, I found the fabric market, where any image ripped out of a magazine from home could turn from two-dimensions to three in a matter of days. I brought photos of the immodest clothes I loved to the tailors, asking for an extra inch or two of length.
While I was wearing my modest clothes, my life began to change. I began to change. It happens: Wearing a shirt you had on last month, you realize your life as you know it is over. Make certain changes — talk to the wrong person, start asking the right questions, come to understand you are living your life for something untrue — and in a matter of days, still wearing your same clothes, you can be falling asleep in an entirely different room, sitting on different furniture, doing different things with your time, having sex with a different man. That is, if you really blow things up, like I did.
Moving my things out of what was now going to be my husband’s apartment in Shanghai, the only thing I took was the clothes. I was a new person, with a new life, a new future, and what was left to remind me of who I had been were these modest clothes. The clothes I had worn to preach, I wore to my first nightclub. The first time I went to a birthday party, I was in them. The first time I made out with a man other than my husband, it was these clothes I took off.
When I left China, I couldn’t afford to ship my things to New York, where I began my life as a non–Jehovah’s Witness, so most of the clothes stayed behind. I sent word to my girlfriends back in Shanghai, when I decided I wasn’t coming back, to go into my storage and take what they wanted.
My friends were happy, since they had always admired my knack for picking out the best things in a pile of junk. They split those that fit among themselves. The rest of the clothes were dumped outside my old apartment in a box, they said. Who knows where they ended up; there are no Value Villages in China.
Now, when I get dressed, I miss some of the clothes I left behind. I think of the cream-and-black brocade shift dress I wore in London, on the last trip I took with my husband, before either of us knew that we would never see each other again. It was too short, but there was no one to reprimand me there, on holiday. My Jehovah’s Witness husband, accustomed to the modest clothes, had found it sexy.
I can wear whatever I want now. I have a little bit more money than I did then. But still, I can find the best thing in a sea of junk on eBay. I go to Value Village whenever I visit my old hometown. And no matter how hard I try to wear miniskirts or tank tops, I’m always just one blouse, one practical shoe, one purse big enough to hold a bunch of Watchtower magazines away from looking in the mirror and seeing my old self. It’s difficult to leave the religion you were raised in. But it’s more difficult to walk away from the person you once were.
Amber Scorah is the author of the memoir Leaving the Witness.