The Fashionable Suspicion of Fashion

Giles Lipovetsky has observed that, “The question of fashion is not a fashionable one among intellectuals.” The dearth of anything close to a theological examination of the sartorial confirms that theologians may be the chief of all sinners. This, of course, is not without reason. After all, didn’t Jesus warn about excessive concern for trivialities such as clothing (Mt. 6:25-29)? Isn’t too much worry about what we’re wearing itself a sign of “folly and vanity,” unbecoming to those who would flee the lust of the eyes (1 Jn. 1:15-16)? And didn’t the apostle lay down his own view of “fashion” when he said that women must not let their “adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or putting on of clothing” (1 Pet. 3:3)? For many Christians, thinking about fashion involves a distilled via negativa, limited to a handful of apophatic statements such as: “clothing should not distract us from the Kingdom of God” or “clothing should not be too immodest.” Yet a more careful reading of these texts reveals that the warnings are not about dress per se, but about deeper issues of anxiety, inordinate love and character: we are to trust our heavenly father for the necessities of life (Mt. 6:25-29); we are not to be captivated by a covetous heart (1 Jn. 1: 15-16); spiritual character is to take precedence over other pursuits (1 Pet. 3:3). That said, could it be the theological imaginary’s fixation with a via negativa approach to fashion is much greater than exegetical? And if so, how have such hermeneutics of suspicion offered little more than marginal help for those who actually live in real cultural texts?

Behind this approach is the confusion that one should treat clothing like one treats other idolatrous vices – with avoidance/disregard. Yet (unlike gambling and cigarettes) complete abstinence from clothing, like food, is not a solution. To assume that one could do away with the problem of fashion (and note now that fashion is a problem to be solved) if every Christian man wore khakis and polo shirts and every Christian woman wore Laura Ashley dresses is to ignore the actual choices one is making within the world of fashion. After all, these items were, at one time, so fashionable that they are still a live option today.

Ulrich Lehmann comes closer to the issue when he reminds us, “The profound and eternal are considered worthy of intellectual analysis; what is transient and fugitive will nearly always be equated consciously or unconsciously with the facile and futile.” Those whose occupation is to analyze “the profound and the eternal” often carry this sentiment forward with something of a vengeance when dealing with what appears to epitomize the trivial or mundane. Yet as the recent controversy of France’s relationship with Muslim head-coverings has demonstrated, fashion is the carrier of deeply political, social and religious inter-textuality. For theologians to detach themselves from an awareness of the symbolic power and cultural import of this multi-billion dollar industry is to develop a language game removed from the real world. Such intellectual rags stand in stark relief from the glorious wardrobe that our heavenly Father promises to robe lilies, and- if we would dare risk- a threadbare cultural awareness of the theological importance of clothing.

Bob Covolo is a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary working on a dissertation in theology and fashion.

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5 Comments

  • tim says:

    Bob –

    I’m a recent graduate of Fuller’s Theology and Culture program. I’m happy to see someone is working on fashion. There’s much work to be done there. I assume you’re working with Barry on this? I can’t imagine a better fashion mentor, not to mention theological 🙂

    Those were nicely formed thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.
    I wonder if the Muslims in France, though, would consider their head coverings a matter of fashion, or would they think such a designation was a Western trivialization of a spiritual reality. Perhaps, though, this is your point – perhaps you are elevating fashion to a place of spirituality??? If so, I’m not sure Muslim head coverings are the best example. I’m not sure someone can clarify the spiritual significance of a new fashion trend by referencing priestly garb, unless of course the fashion trend references priestly garb. I guess what I mean, more simply put, is that the spiritual significance of head coverings is quite a different matter from the spiritual significance of runway fashion. One is considered a command from God, the other an expression of self. Both are spiritual, but an argument that builds the significance of runway fashion on top of the significance of head coverings simply doesn’t work, at least not for me.

    Another way of putting my question would be – is it the fashion of head coverings that carry the political and social significance, or is it the religious command that is significant? Alas, perhaps I am guilty of making the separation you are arguing against. Please help.

    tim basselin

  • Wes says:

    Thanks for this post, Bob! I am glad to hear that you are researching such an important topic?

    What is your response to the “fashion statement” of those who join a holy order and therefore only have one piece of clothing that they wear as a symbol of their devotion? Do you see this as a legitimate response to an obsession with or anxiety over clothes? Is this one way to be in the world but not of it?

  • Bob Covolo says:

    Tim-

    Great to get a very thoughtful and perceptive response from a fellow Fullerite. I think your question is well taken in that fashion seems to be caught up as part of the modern imaginary and therefore expressing the distinct sartorial dialogue implicit in a world captured by the values of individual freedom, conspicuous consumption and what Charles Taylor has identified as “the authentic self”. Exactly the degree to which “mode” is implicit in “modern” is an enduring question, one that drives the anthology “The Rise of Fashion” by Daniel Purdy. Many of the writers in this volume would want to agree with your suspicion that it is impossible to talk about “fashion” regarding movements not part of the distinctly modern sartorial ritual (i.e. cat walks, etc.). Yet in a trip to Le Bon Marché in Paris this summer I was shocked by how many Muslim women in fancy hijab had invaded the designer shoe department. Has fashion no boundaries?

    In Graham Ward’s book “The Politics of Discipleship” he points out that the banning of the full hijab was “a clash of ideologies”. Given the Stasi’ Report’s use of “the principle of secularism” as the basis for banning the hijab it appears this conflict over fashion is really a struggle over the relationship of theological sartorial expression to the secular public square. One has only to connect the relationship of the secular to its Christian roots to see how deeply theological such non-theological statements are. So, on one level, my use of hijab to amplify the theological nature of all sartorial decisions (including fashion) was a meditation on Ward’s own development.

    Again, I really think your question was very insightful. Has my response been any help?

    Oh, and I’m studying with Bill Dyrness and loving it…though Barry is indeed wonderful.

    Wes-

    A very interesting comparison can be found between priestly garb and Calvin’s use of professorial robes for Reformed pastors. Here we see a contrast between two very different theologies of the role of a minister within society as well as society itself. This is even more fascinating when analyzing the use such garments play within different theologies of culture. It seems clear to me that Anabaptist hermeneutics which place the church in a different relationship (than Reformed or Catholic hermentuics) would never produce professorial robes or priestly vestments. The difference is theological.

    I’m guessing priestly garments can be of help for personal anxiety, though doubtful these could be warn without tipping one’s hat to a particular ecclesiology. Would you agree?

    -Bob

  • Pinon Coffee says:

    “…complete abstinence from clothing, like food, is not a solution.” That line made me laugh.

    The above comments strike me as interesting, because in a way, they illustrate your point: which is that fashion per se is often dismissed as theologically unimportant. The commenters (who do raise good points) mostly omitted practical fashion. Head coverings and historic priestly garb are not precisely central issues to women wondering what to wear this morning. Though perhaps that’s more mundane than you were intending to talk about.

    My perspective is that of a Christian young mom and grad-school-wife who enjoys keeping up with Vogue and similar style-setters, while personally dressing in a much more affordable, practical, and I hope theologically coherent manner. High fashion interests me because designers take clothing every bit as seriously as any other artist. Craftsmanship, material, every stitch and fold matters deeply, and frequently has meaning, references, and historical context. Also, their work showcases their philosophy as much as any other art form. What they wear comes wrapped up in an entire lifestyle and mental world. For instance, the concept of “beauty” is often shelved or at least re-imagined through other values, such as individuality. The ironic cost is that the really high-end designer clothing is often… monstrous. Not always, of course, but often.

    And then, as you pointed out, Christians often feel like clothes are a problem to be solved. Shopping is frustrating and taste is hard. There are a gazillion factors to bear in mind, from body type to social norms to the weather. Unless you’re willing to spend a _lot_ of time and usually money, you’re going to fall back on pretty much whatever your family and peers are wearing, and come out pretty bland. To go back to your food analogy, unconsidered fashion is kind of like living on TV dinners and macaroni and cheese. Not everybody is called to be a chef or a fashionista, but some people should be, and it’s better to do it well than badly.

    The slow food movement is growing: in Christianity I want to see a slow fashion movement. 😉

    What does dressing well mean? To what extent is this culturally determined, versus individually, versus eternal standards such as beauty and goodness? In your dissertation, are you going to discuss some practical positive philosophical points about approaching fashion, in contrast to the via negativa you described above? I’d be interested in a further post.

  • Bob Covolo says:

    @ Pinon Coffee-

    At the beginning of “For the Life of the World” Alexander Schmemann writes:

    “‘Man is what he eats.’ With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature. In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.”

    My dissertation attempts to do for clothes what Schmemann did for food. Namely, show that the modern fascination with the power of the sartorial as an insight into the macrocosm of the world t is, after all, a theological trope. Although one will have to wait to read my dissertation to determine if it succeeds, we might expect something of the sort given Christ’s claim that “what you shall eat or what you shall wear” belong together.

    So, by all means! You have hit on some of the questions that my work seeks to explore- foremost being to give positive philosophical direction about fashion as one of the most theological things we do.

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