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.