Made Well: A Glimpse at the Theology of Fashion

Share/Bookmark Kristina Nishi Dec 16, 2013

Made Well2

Photography by Daniel Lambert

Say the word “fashion” and you will get a variety of responses. Some people enjoy it and voraciously flip through any magazine on the subject. Others shake their heads in dismay at the different and sometimes confusing trends. However, fashion is not just about clothing, but also style, mannerisms and customs -- it has much deeper roots and implications than you might think.

In the past four decades, fashion has exploded onto the scene, dictating the design of society. Now more than ever, people use fashion as a means of branding, to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Magazines such as Vogue, People Style Watch and InStyle fill newsstands in every store. Everyone seems desperate to create their own image. Fashion has evolved into a popular method of self-expression, and in many cases, a glorification of oneself. Fittingly, the word itself is derived from the Latin world factio, which means “to make.”

From the beginning: fashion

Fashion was not always about haute couture -- it actually has very humble origins. For Adam and Eve, the first people to wear clothing, fashion was a sign of shame and the death of true beauty. Mankind became disgraceful without adornment, and fig leaves were insufficient to cover the humiliation from the Fall. Every subsequent generation has since tried to recapture the former glory experienced in Eden, but all have fallen short, some more than others.

During the height of Christendom, art and faith were often merged together. Likewise, fashion either displayed the gloriousness, or the humility and somberness of God. Kings were believed to be celestial, divine beings and dressed accordingly, adorning themselves with rubies, diamonds and other precious gems. The monks and priests lived more simply, clothing themselves in simple, understated garb to show devotion and piety.

Fashion has also played a divisive role throughout history, as a way of separating different economic classes. In biblical times, only the rich could afford cotton, oriental silk and certain dyes, such as purple, scarlet and blue. Purple was especially important, as it signified royalty. Even the difference between the materials was significant in dividing classes, as the less fortunate wore more coarse and uncomfortable clothing.

During the Enlightenment, which took place in the 17th and 18th centuries, the contrast between social classes was painfully obvious. Particularly in France, the aristocrats dressed in ridiculous fashions, with sky-high wigs, gaudy lace, ribbons and absurd costumes. The French Revolution, during which the French people fought for equality, marked the beginning of fashion’s role as a political statement. Fine fabrics such as silk and velvet became nearly obsolete, and cotton emerged as the most common material among every class.

Lack of Christians in the industry

Robert Covolo, a professor at Fuller Seminary who has done extensive research on fashion and theology, says that fashion is deeply political, since it dissembles authoritarian control by giving people the option of popular sovereignty. The opportunity to express oneself through clothing finds its roots deep in democracy; personal, political and religious freedoms go hand in hand with other freedoms, such as the freedom to wear what you wish.

“There’s a reason why both Paris and New York are the fashion centers,” Covolo says. “Those are also the centers of the two major democratic movements in the world.”

Although fashion is one of the most visible aspects of society, it is often the most overlooked, especially by Christians. Covolo says it is a great tragedy that “there is no Christian voice in this emerging theoretical discipline.”

With the rise of fashion has come an emerging body of literature and attention from the media. Publishers have massive sections on fashion theory and the whole secular world willingly engages in the conversation. However, on this subject most Christians remain strangely quiet, except for the occasional comment on modesty. If God created everything and declared it good, including fashion, then why are Christians not discussing this topic publicly as well?

A God-glorifying capacity of fashion

Perhaps some believe that anything from the secular world is subversive to the Christian faith and that “typical” religious careers are safer in some way. According to Covolo, Christians need to think carefully about fashion, since it does indeed impact modern society in a significant way; we need to realize the danger of dismissing it as immoral or superficial, or embracing it simply as cultural creativity. Covolo argues that although fashion caused societal division in the past, it is also a good, God-given thing.

“Fashion has been seen as a great source of class conflict and warfare,” Covolo says. “[However,] fashion can heighten our sense and be used in a God-glorifying way...we do not want to dismiss that it is good to play with the aesthetics of the body.”

God, as the first fashion designer, made clothing functional and as a means of saving humans from the very start. He covered the shame that Adam and Eve brought upon themselves and all of mankind, but that was only a foreshadowing of the glorious garments to come. Jesus, when He sacrificed His life on the cross, gave humans the ability to forever shed their shame and accept the covering of His redemptive blood. Covolo says that fashion portends to our future glory -- ultimate righteousness only found in Jesus.

“A lot of what appeals to us in fashion is traces of revelation,” Covolo says. “We are meant to be more glorious than this…that this body was meant for more. You are meant to be beautiful, and you will be when you are united with Christ.”

Points to a future redemption

C. S. Lewis, in his book “The Great Divorce,” acknowledges that humans will be glorious in heaven. Lewis depicts those in heaven as clothed in white, the color of purity, which shows that fashion is not just something to be experienced on earth. According to Covolo, we as humans are torn between the past, present and future, and it is only in heaven that we will experience this no more.

“Fashion is about the now, and we can see that negatively, but Augustine said that it would only be in the resurrection that we will be reconciled with time and be able to live in the now,” Covolo says. “Fashion, in many ways, can give us a taste of what it would look like to actually belong in the now.”

How, then, can Christians engage in the fashion theory conversation? Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian and prime minister of the Netherlands in the early 1900s, famously said that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'" Clearly, Christians have an opportunity to glorify God with fashion, but they must tread carefully.

Should not distract from our ultimate prupose

John Calvin, in his book “Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III,” asks, “Where is our recognition of God if your minds be fixed upon the splendor of our apparel?” Although it is important that we enter the fashion conversation, we must make sure it does not consume us. Covolo expands on this, saying that Christians need to grasp the seriousness about the way fashion shapes society and our identities.

He also suggests that perhaps expressing ourselves is not as important as focusing on building community with one another. For instance, Covolo says that in our military, we “don’t want soldiers out there expressing themselves [through fashion statements]; we want them to obey commands. Do we want soldiers in the Lord’s army expressing themselves? Sometimes we need them just to obey the commands of our Lord.”

That is not to say that self-expression is bad. Covolo concludes that it is good to play with the aesthetics of the body and that fashion can heighten our senses and be used in a God-glorifying way. Ultimately, as Christians, we should bring honor to God in every aspect of our life. Whatever we do, whatever we say, and however we dress should show our unity with God and with each other, while we live here on earth and wait for our future glory in heaven.

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