4 March 12 // Fashion and Theology


If I confess – even to myself – that I am concerned about fashion, am I not admitting to superficiality, to my failure to be practical, quiet and sober, a man who can build empires of achievement of the sort our continent and generation so eagerly prizes? In short, if I am concerned about what I wear, am I admitting to failure by the Modern Evangelical Standard? Let’s admit it. This is what we’re thinking underneath the clothing of our cultural identities. Am I really a big fake? Empty inside?

A couple of years ago, I was watching Dr. Phil and he summed up the differences of our genders like this: The man wonders whether he is enough, and the woman wonders whether she is too much. Our fashion reflects this; the way we dress ourselves and appear to the world is not a matter of whether modest is indeed hottest, but are we representing ourselves honestly. And is it good enough? As a race, we have struggled with this question since our origin through the rise of civilization. Egypt may have given us the first evidence of evaluated beauty, but fashion, even for utilitarian function, is arguably the first creation of humans. Today, this discussion is framed not only by our location in North America as a Protestant, Evangelical, academic institution but by our proximity to the deep dichotomy of need and excess, power and oppression, celebrity and the disenfranchised of Los Angeles – not just the punditry of popular ministers and octogenarian biblical scholars who claim authoritative understanding of gender and the “right” way to live.

I would propose that there is absolutely a theology of and for fashion. While I may be pressing the issue by proposing this, in Genesis, we have a passage about God (yes, The Creator) making clothes. Whether you see it whimsically, as Jim Carrey did at the VH1 Fashion Awards (’97), or with gravity (“God chose to make a gift for the sinful inhabitants”), Genesis 3:21 is a strange verse loaded with significance. God is the first fashion designer. And for those who would blow a raspberry and phoo-phoo on the topic entirely (ex: When have you seen people at Fuller caring about this? Is there a “cool” crowd at Fuller that has better fashion style than others? This seems out of place. You may want to have an article about Pinterest. That’s the real trend right now), I would counter with the story of Joseph’s coat of many colors in Genesis 37:3, the necessity of Moses’ veil in Exodus 34:35 or the importance of clothing as a pledge of identity in Exodus 22:27 before my next blink. The Torah alone references clothes and clothing over one hundred times. Fifty before we even leave Sinai. If we can spend years analyzing and commenting on the coloration and cut of a tabernacle, I think we can manage at least a handful of articles in a bi-weekly magazine talking about something intimately related to how humans understand and express themselves.

It wasn’t so long ago that Abercrombie & Fitch was the vogue witch-hunt of Evangelicals. Last year, there was an outcry over a Jours Apres Lunes lingerie line for 4 to 12 year old girls. This isn’t a social justice issue, nor are these headlines about the exploitation of youth alone. Something within us, some inherited trigger says, “Right fashion, wrong image.” As a heterosexual fan of lingerie for non-sexual reasons, I confess a long-held appreciation for the cut and stitching of a fabric, the way a cup can accentuate a woman’s breasts and hips into something divine, the way a tailor suit makes a man out of boys, and the way certain blends are necessarily seasonal. While my contemporaries speak of nature providing proof of God’s existence, I need look no further than the design of the human body – though let me not lose my point here and be labeled a humanist. Be that as it may, the thought of a child wearing lingerie makes the fashion itself appalling and yes, unholy, not because of the immediately recognizable danger inherent in this but because it is simply not fashionable. In the same measure, when I see a male classmate of mine continually wearing a wrinkled shirt with a beer logo on the left shoulder cuff, I find this too is unfashionable – and why is that? Because like you, there is an implicit guideline we operate by, a certain appreciation for style that, when transgressed, affects how we look at another human being.

Deuteronomy 22:5 provides a perfect example of this. Note that I am still within the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and not performing some sort of systematic acrobatic. This verse is often a proof text against transgendered people or crossdressing, and while I was raised as a conservative (my father cried when Reagan left office. Kid. You. Not.), I would still err on the side of God’s love for humanity rather than how they are “detested.” Let’s face it, Annie Hall made it fashionable for women to wear slacks in the same way Pirates of the Caribbean made it okay for men to wear mascara. If we’re going around claiming to “just” try and live out what scripture says, there’s a great many of us who are violating this verse. And so, whether by scripture and tradition or whether by fashion and culture, we see people in a certain light and live that out in our community.

But what is that theology which informs our fashion? Do we even know? That is – can we grab a handful of scripture or cross-reference every time an article of clothing or hairstyle appears in scripture (good luck with Song of Songs and the attention given to the jewelry of a woman, the sensual sights and scents of the bedroom, and how clothing quickly drops out of the narrative entirely), run it through a machine and develop a systematic concept of how God wants us to dress? Absolutely not. Why? Because God created each of us with a different style, different personality, attractions, tastes and interests. And He also takes notice of where and when we deviate from that. The Nazarite vow or John the Baptist’s counter-cultural apparel, Paul’s discussion on hats and head coverings, the white robes of Revelation and yes, dare I propose this, the clothing Jesus wore to his death which, whether studded with gen-u-ine diamonds (baby!) or a bloody and cut-up terrycloth, was still something worth tossing a few dice for. I think God cares about our fashion because, since Eden, He has known it is how we see ourselves. When I read that passage in Genesis about God clothing Adam and Eve, I see great care. Not for hyperspiritual reasons about how the covering was a “type of Christ” or for shameful reasons about how God “couldn’t stand to look at their sinful, awful, wicked, corrupted flesh, those damnable, shameful, perverted (dot, dot, dot).” I see it as God characteristically making the first move and saying, as with all of creation, “This is important to Me as well and I’d rather you understand that I care about you enough that you don’t have to hide behind tree leaves and berries. If you’re going to hide your bodies from one another and from Me, here’s a start.” Instead of beginning with the belief that religion has nothing to say about fashion and working from there, maybe we should pause for a moment to remember it was important enough for God to have a hand in it and think about ways that we can participate in that, reclaim fashion, and stop being ashamed.

When we speak of theology and fashion, we are not speaking of whether to wear a zipper or button – but something more. The veritable “thing behind the thing.” For the Hebrew, there is an informed theology behind the prescription of Num. 15:38-40 and Deut. 22:12 to wear four tassels on the edge of the coat. Without it, these would be very odd commands taken together with the Torah’s other odd commands about how to butcher animals. With this theology of “something more,” we, Jew and Christian alike, approach scriptures we do not understand with freedom to see something more than butcher marks and grossly out of date fashion trends. To continue denying a theology behind our fashion is tantamount to throwing away our tradition for something… less.

Again, if we can write commentaries on the cut and color of a tabernacle – a practice not even Jews continue with Sukkot and only apocalyptic Christians have done for novelty – why are we so reluctant to admit the possibility of God in the quotidian?

The reason why people of faith are recalcitrant to the intersection of fashion and religion is rooted in a long held ambivalence to humanism and hedonism. After the various changes of intellectual and social modernity in the last three centuries, we tend to create and operate in binaries where fashion is seen as excessive at best and threatening at worst. We promote ethics and morals for the internal life and wonder why we feel guilt in actually enjoying the external – appreciating the impermanence of art and beauty, the quasi-orgasmic delight of culinary satisfaction, or the combination of sensual evocation in dancing. These, we have been taught, are sinful; no “good” Christian actually enjoys this life for heaven’s sake. Rooted in the Protestant West is a deep-seated culture of guilt and shame by which we police ourselves under the auspice of election and grace. Clothing then, is a utilitarian mask or cloak by which we protect ourselves from one another lest we lose our footing on the sensual slope. The more pleasing something is, the more guilt we feel; it is no wonder that the last decade of entertainment has given us competitive entertainment on eating, fashion, music, and dancing. These satisfy a deep pornographic desire in us to enjoy life, to find something salvageable in creation, in the safety of our living spaces. And here too we should pay attention to what this says about us as individuals within a particular epoch. The question of whether fashion matters in theology seems preposterous given our predisposition to say publicly, “Does this really matter?”

Of course it matters – isn’t our clothing an extension of who we are? Where Barry Taylor writes about how clothing can make us feel better, it can also be said to construct meaning. We become the symbols we take on. For the frat boy in the Budweiser tee, he becomes a veritable walking billboard for a company and by association is seen as affordable at best, cheap at worst. Middle class. For the small child sporting the Ray Bans, his appearance indicates that his parents want the world to know they can afford temporarily accessorizing their “product.” Expendable cash. If fashion did not matter, why would a fiancé care whether she wore cubic zirconia rather than the 8kt diamond? Because it indicates economic prospect obviously, and so it is that when we “dress up” we are communicating competence and organization. Whether this is an accurate assessment or a shield to block the passerby from knowing our inner tumult is inconsequential; what matters is how we appear. As film theorist Kaja Silverman puts it, clothing “articulates the psyche.” Silverman links the exchange of identity and dress to Freud’s interpretation of the ego as a “mental projection of the surface of the body.” Also interacting with Freudian psychological understanding, J.C. Flugel wrote in 1930’s The Psychology of Sex that our sexuality is advertised by what we wear. For Flugel, our availability is not simply indicated by our lack of modesty, despite the punditry of contemporary theologians. Instead, it is just as readily communicated when we are dressed well, proving the lyrics of ZZ Top to be accurate. Girls do indeed “go crazy for a sharp dressed man.”

And now we come to the ultimate question: can Jesus be found in fashion? Many are afraid to go so far as John Cobb did in the latter end of the last century, arguing that the Christ is a “transformative reality” to be found in cosmic realities: psychology and future hope as well as the arts. In accepting that God is, indeed, everywhere, we will cry “Pluralist!” until cerulean in the face. God is to be found in what I wear? Egad, old boy, what a preposterous idea! But is it?

The traditional commentary on the clothing God made for Adam and Eve is that it prefigures Christ, a sacrificial covering for us until the Edenic is restored. So while we have been conditioned to “find Christ in the cloth” we deny this very thing in us today. We deny that He empowers us, even as a well-tailored outfit is wont to do. We deny that he gives us dignity. We’ll even go so far as to parse out the true meaning of the word “covering” (which, for the purpose of this article at least, I compel you to do). Yet this has nothing what all to do with fellow believers or me.

We are a generation so bound up in defying and defining our irony that we frequently lose the simplicity we say we want. Whether you choose to agree that God can be found in the tzit-tzit or the head covering, the scarf or the belt, the shoe or the sunglasses is really a matter of personal conviction and I would be reluctant to buckle and button you in an ill-fitting thought though to deny that there is something there would be an equally unfashionable prospect.

In the end, it is like Jesus’ final promise. You will be clothed with God’s Spirit (Luke 24:45-49). If that makes you uncomfortable, wear something else.

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