Moshe Feldenkrais was no slave to fashion. His casual if not indifferent approach to clothing (loose shirts with pens and envelopes in the pockets) and untamed hair reminds me of that of my late father, also a physicist, who at times was oblivious to wrinkles, incorrectly buttoned shirts, a fly away mane and mismatched socks. I learned from one of Moshe’s American students that he never put on a suit and, perhaps in part because of his eccentric attire (“blue or grey long sleeved sort of tunic shirt out over grey pants and T’ai Chi slippers,” according to this person), he was not well received at Harvard University when he visited that institution.* Thankfully, one does not need to don a particular wardrobe or specialty fabrics to take a Feldenkrais class. Unlike many movement modalities, you can show up in comfortable street clothing to an Awareness Through Movement lesson without worrying about sweating and ruining an outfit. On a superficial or practical level, neither Feldenkrais the man, nor the method he created, has anything to do with fashion. That’s a relief.
Still, there is more to it than meets the eye. The other evening I plucked Dressing Your Truth, Discover Your Type of Beauty, from my bookshelf. I purchased it a few years ago, thanks to an acquaintance who recommended it for people who had a closet full of clothing but “nothing to wear”. That described my situation exactly. The author’s premise is that each person naturally embodies a certain type of energy or movement, and we look best in clothing that reinforces and reflects our inner self, whether it’s more active, light, flowing or still. Dressing this way means not matching clothing to eye and hair color or being draped according to the seasons, but finding hues, shapes and fabrics that are congruent with one’s personality. The idea is that the clothing should not dominate the woman (or man) but complement inherent beauty so that the person shines through and is seen and heard. It was that final bit, about how clothing that suits us will allow more of us to come through and be heard, which grabbed my attention and interest. Being heard, or feeling received, was more important to me than appearing stylish for its own sake.
Before reading that book and purchasing a supplemental course, I shopped à la carte, buying items I thought were funky or cool in their own right, without giving much thought as to how they interacted with each other. Dressing up or trying to look “put together” involved a frantic cobbling together of clothing and accessories, leaving me with a nagging feeling that something was “off” without knowing how to address it. For years, I chose to tolerate that discomfort as I wasn’t committed to assembling and maintaining a wardrobe; I preferred to invest my time, energy and money in other creative pursuits. That people complimented me on various shoes, scarves, or jewelry offered momentary gratification but wasn’t quite equivalent to being seen. Sometimes, people interrupted me to compliment me on an item, which might have made them believe they were being polite and friendly but, for this introvert, didn’t feel honoring.
In Feldenkrais, we practice moving while keeping our attention generalized on our whole self. Teachers often ask students how they’d include more of themselves in what seems like a small or even localized movement, rather than get too fixated on a certain area to the exclusion of everything else. With practice, movement can become more coordinated, integrated and smooth, as we learn to weed out so-called “parasitic” or unnecessary actions that interfere with ease. We do this by experimenting with many different ways so we can choose what works best and what feels comfortable, exploring and refining our self-image in the process. “Elegant” is the word Moshe Feldenkrais used to describe movement that didn’t include extraneous effort or action. We say a movement is “well organized” when nothing stands out.
An elegantly clothed person is, likely, not wearing extraneous accessories, nor does anything stand out awkwardly. There is a harmony between who they are and their attire, so that we’re drawn to them as a whole. The details they’ve selected are part of the entire look. In my experience, when someone dresses in a way that both suits them (whether they are in a suit or not) and the context they’re in, it’s easier for me to take them in and hear what they have to say. And that’s the point of Dressing Your Truth. Being attired in a way that’s not honoring of who one is can cause a disconnect if what that person says and how they say it are at odds with the impression they’ve created, wittingly or not, through their dress. The purpose of clothing is to support the person, whatever their shape, size or age, not the other way around.
Since it’s spring, I’m again weeding out what I’ll now call “parasitic” clothing from my closet, unworn items I purchased out of a compulsion to get a good deal, or clothing I’ve held onto because of its uniqueness or quality. Because my habit to keep stuff, especially well made things, runs deep and is very strong, I wanted to reread Dressing Your Truth as a reminder of what I’m aspiring to: a functional, comfortable wardrobe that increasingly approximates my interpretation of elegant. I see periodic sorting as part of an ongoing “Awareness Through Mufti” practice, a way of experimenting and refining to find clothing that feels good on and is congruent with who I am. I want dressing each day to be as effortless and natural as moving lightly, rather than feel that I’m putting on a uniform, a costume, or mimicking those around me.
Which, apparently, is why Moshe Feldenkrais wore T’ai Chi shoes to a meeting at Harvard. According to his student, the thin soles and unconfining material helped him sense the ground beneath him, allowing him to move with greater ease. Back then (late 1970s or early 1980s), such slipper-like footwear was probably viewed as inappropriate if not outright ridiculous by Ivy League faculty. Given enough time and iterations, purely functional attire can become, if not fashionable, at least familiar. Today, minimalist shoes are more mainstream. Of course, there are those who flaunt or defy the sartorial conventions of their time. That, too, is a fashion choice. And what’s more Feldenkrais than having choice?
*The Harvard story is, I’m told, from Kolman Korentayer, Moshe Feldenkrais’ “roadie” at the time.