Review: Fashion Theology

Robert Covolo, Fashion Theology. Baylor University Press, 2020, 200 pp. $39.95 (hardcover).

In an article published by Transpositions in 2010, Robert Covolo (Ph. D. VU Amsterdam / Ph. D. Fuller Theological Seminary) put forth the still-relevant observation that theologians—and Christians more generally—are subject to subtle yet strong sartorial suspicion that fashion is too worldly or frivolous for Christians to ponder.[1] Despite Christian theology’s artistic and anthropomorphic engagements, Covolo suggests that it has become almost fashionable to avoid serious theological considerations of fashion. Ten years later, although ‘theology and the arts’ represents a burgeoning interdisciplinary field, fashion (which is concerned with both utility and artistry, the museum display and the everyday) appears to remain an outlier.[2] While books such as Gavin Hopps’ and David Brown’s The Extravagance of Music increasingly advocate more ‘hospitable’ theological engagements with popular aesthetic experiences, fashion has yet to be afforded such a charitable and focused theological examination.

First suggesting this theological blind spot in 2010, Covolo has since prepared a persuasive, thorough, and (I dare say) stylish exposition of the historical and cultural correlations between fashion and theology to suggest their potential for productive conversation and collaboration. Even the design of Fashion Theology, published just a month ago by Baylor University Press, supports the necessity of a theological account of fashion. A model graces the cover, decked in regal red and ornamented with an elaborate (and literally piercing) hairpiece suggestive of familiar Christian imagery. Thus, Covolo’s meticulous research and compelling argument is itself beautifully dressed, visually supporting the reality of a fruitful relationship between fashion and theology—if only theologians and fashion enthusiasts will consider it.

Although Fashion Theology does not neglect pragmatic questions of modesty, pride, and excess, it extends beyond mere questions of morality to provide an inclusive and informative exposition of the interaction between theology and fashion as tradition, reform, public discourse, art, and everyday drama. Throughout each of these five core chapters, Covolo interweaves theological and sartorial terminology and imagery to present his thesis as an intricate tapestry that is at once faithful and fashionable. He begins with three chapters that demonstrate the parallel historical and cultural development of these seemingly disparate fields, and that shed light on how Christians today can and should faithfully engage culture through dress.

Covolo’s meticulous research and compelling argument is itself beautifully dressed, visually supporting the reality of a fruitful relationship between fashion and theology—if only theologians and fashion enthusiasts will consider it.

The fourth and fifth chapters, ‘Fashion Theology as Art’ and ‘Fashion Theology as Everyday Drama’, most directly enter the conversation between theology and art. Covolo here explores how, like art and theology, fashion affirms that ‘beauty matters’, even and perhaps especially in the domain of the everyday. He concludes by drawing a striking connection between everyday routines and lifestyles as marked by changes of wardrobe and the liturgical rhythms by which Christians ‘put on’ Christ. Concluding with this incarnational approach, Covolo considers briefly how fashion, drawing upon theological tradition, may provide a way not only of ‘putting on’ but of performing Christ by communicating and embodying cultural engagement, hospitality, diverse unity, prophecy, and resurrection hope.

Not necessarily intended to provide definitive answers, Covolo’s book instead presents a provocative yet humble proposition: that theology ought to take fashion seriously and that fashion can be faithfully considered within a Christian framework. Rather than an ascetic rejection of or conservative ignorance toward fashionable dress, appreciation, and engagement, Christians ought to be, theologically, semper indutus est optimus—always the best dressed. After all, Christians are called to daily arm and adorn themselves after the pattern of Christ, and are destined to be clothed in radiant, resurrected righteousness.[3] Fashion Theology paves the way for future scholarship and creativity, revealing that fashion and theology have always been interrelated and urging readers toward further conversation and, perhaps, a more comprehensive theological account of fashion. Ultimately, Covolo suggests that Paris and Jerusalem may meet and interact fruitfully through the convergence of fashion and theology.

[1] Bob Covolo, ‘The Fashionable Suspicion of Fashion’, October 15, 2010. http://www.transpositions.co.uk/the-fashionable-suspicion-of-fashion/.

[2] David Brown and Gavin Hopps, The Extravagance of Music (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

[3] Robert Covolo, Fashion Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020).

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