Noelle McCarthy: Man makes the clothes

By Noelle McCarthy

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The Dalai Lama at Vector Arena on his visit to New Zealand in 2007. Picture / NZPA / Wayne Drought
The Dalai Lama at Vector Arena on his visit to New Zealand in 2007. Picture / NZPA / Wayne Drought

This is a column about style, which means it's about clothes, usually. The way we get dressed in the morning is a big part of how we present ourselves to the world. Your individual style can be formal, casual, fun, fussy, forward-looking or old-fashioned, depending on how you put an outfit together. You can tell as much as you ever need to know about a person by parsing their ensemble: style is a form of semaphore, I've written about this already.

But certain people transcend clothes entirely. Such people tend to be made of powerful stuff, one way or another. Their personal magnetism is such that their outfits take a backseat to their demeanour. The Dalai Lama is the most obvious example of this. He wears the same clothes every day, like millions of his fellow monks do. But he's the one who has made red and saffron robes synonymous with enlightenment. Likewise, red and yellow are an energising combination of colours, but it's from the man wearing them that those robes get their powers.

I had proof of that last year, when he came to Auckland. I spent the day trailing him which, as it turns out, is a test of endurance. For all his talk of stillness and meditation, His Holiness rocks a full itinerary. Two hours into the visit, and he'd addressed about 500 people in three languages. As the afternoon wore on, and he charmed huge crowds and presenters in TV studios, I trudged along behind him, exhausted. As the afternoon wore on, and my feet got sorer, it was only the bright robes that kept me going. I'd see a patch of scarlet among the crowd, or a flash of yellow somewhere in front of me, always in front of me, and I'd refocus.

Now I know why that was; not just because red and yellow is an invigorating combination of colours, but also because I was practising transference. Those robes cheered me up because the man wearing them was so powerfully happy and funny. Every time I caught a little glimpse of them, I knew he was close by, and my spirits lifted. Later, in the hotel, when he bumped into Tana Umaga in the lobby, I saw another great advantage; the colours of the robes really pop in photos.

There's a metaphysical basis to all of this, too, I know. Those robes are sacred among Buddhist monks, and these particular ones were the property of one of the world's great spiritual leaders. I'm sure I probably wouldn't have been as taken with them had they been worn by an individual less charismatic. But they also have their own symbolic power. What would our reaction be if His Holiness started getting around in three-piece suits, I wonder? Or boat shoes? Would he still have the same aura of enlightenment and holiness? Possibly. Certainly, the natty little sun-visor he sometimes wears onstage doesn't dim his allure any. He's the best proof I have that sometimes, clothes only matter because of the person wearing them. I loved his robes that day last winter, because they were his and no one else's.


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