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If the Devil wears Prada, what should Christians wear?

April 6, 2011

A few months ago, Bob Covolo suggested we consider fashion to be a legitimate form of theological investigation – just as we examine our relationship to food from a theological lens, so may we examine our relationship to the clothing on our backs.  This post explores what the obligations of Christ-minded individuals might be as consumers of fashion.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is a film that focuses on a person who knows nothing about fashion working as a personal assistant for one of the biggest names in the industry. In general, I’m not a fan of the movie, except for one part. Anne Hathaway’s character admits that she’s still trying to learn about fashion in order to do her job, but beyond that, she doesn’t see what it has to do with her. Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) replies with this explanation:

You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff. (emphasis mine)

Miranda emphasizes the interconnectivity of the fashion industry as merely one example of how ideas, products, and decisions made years and miles away trickle down to the consumer and affect our lives. The idea that fashion (or food, electronics, furniture, etc) has “nothing to do with me” is outmoded and based on incorrect assumptions.

In an increasingly global community, where I can talk with my friends in New Zealand and Canada simultaneously while sitting comfortably on my couch in South Dakota (USA), where I can get in my car that was made in Japan and drive down the street to purchase candy created in Germany, the idea of being truly independent and unconnected is a laughable one. Fashion is merely one example of how truly interconnected and dependent on other human beings we all are.

Fashion, too, is one of those industries where being ignorant of the interconnectedness of the human race is problematic at best, and a willful sin of omission at worst. Now, I’m not talking about knowing where that color of blue came from – if you’ve ever seen me in person, you know I don’t particularly care how fashion looks. But the method by which that particular blue sweater came to be in the discount bin matters because it speaks to the interconnectedness of human life, and particularly suffering in human life.

There are terrifying stories all over the world of treatment in the production lines for American factories. Nike workers in Indonesia forced to work 16 hour days with little food and no break, for barely enough money to buy dinner. Children as young as 7 working to sew shirts together in back rooms in factories in India. Equally small children in Uzbekistan picking the cotton that goes into making those shirts. Each piece of our clothing represents a massive number of hands – from the picking of the raw material, from the molding of that material into fabric, from the sewing of that material to its shipping to the world where it ends up purchased for $5 in Wal-Mart. In just one sweater, the tale of interconnectedness is so self-evident it is remarkable that we’re able to ignore it.

A more socially conscious Miranda Priestly might have amended her speech in this way:

That sweater represents tens of hands and immeasurable hard work and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was made for you by hands that could never afford it.


Image Credit

Dianna Anderson has a Master of Arts from Baylor University and a BA in Theology & Philosophy from the University of Sioux Falls. She currently lives in Sioux Falls, SD.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Watkins permalink*
    April 6, 2011 8:43 am

    Dianna, thanks for this great post, and for reminding us that the fashion choices we make have consequences that extend far beyond ourselves, and even beyond our circle of friends. I also agree with you that being aware of how our cloths are made, and who made them, is an important part of responsible shopping. Sadly, it is often difficult to know everything about the complex process that is involved in making, say, a sweater from Gap. So, I have a couple of questions. Do you know of any resources that consumers can use to be more knowledgeable about the products they buy? Also, what do you think Christians should or should not wear? And do you ever think that Christians should not wear something purely because of the appearance of the clothing, or is the most important factor how the clothing was made?

  2. April 6, 2011 9:07 am

    The latest episode of Niall Fergesson’s Channel 4 documentary series ‘Civilization: is the West history?’ examined the history of consumerism through clothes and fashion. He looked at how Western styles of clothing have spread across the globe, and suggested that jeans helped bring down the giant curtain!

    It was really interesting to see just how culturally significant clothes are. I also think that Christians should be very concerned about the homogenisation of global culture – diversity of culture is one of the ways we glorify and reflect God more richly. Pentecost redeems Babel, but doesn’t negate it.

  3. April 6, 2011 6:45 pm

    Fashion blogger here. It makes me laugh that that’s even a label in the world today. There are heaps of women whose sole purpose is to blog about the things we wear, and alas, I am one of them.

    Responsible shopping is so important. I think it’s easier to point fingers at the garment industry because fashion can be downright ridiculous. Your end quote can really be applied to most things: The [computer/ sweater/ tea] you’re [using/ wearing/ drinking] was made for you by hands that could never afford it.” Hardly anyone talks about being a responsible shopper when it comes to the luxuries we now claim as NEEDS… like the MacBook Pro I’m typing away on right now or the Mazda I’ll be driving later.

    Responsible shopping for clothing is a great way to start. Thanks for this food for thought!

  4. April 7, 2011 2:16 am

    Hey guys, thanks for commenting!

    Jim, to answer your questions:

    1. The non-profit Free2Work has some good starter resources. There are a lot of different responsible shopping guides online, but generally, it’s good to research parent companies before going shopping – a simple Google search will usually turn up some news stories and information. I have certain brands I know to avoid (Mossimo, for instance), and that comes from researching. There’s also a good guide called “The Better World Shopping Guide” done by a PhD (I forget his name), and it makes an attempt to chart major companies based on various categories of corporate social responsibility. Really, though, a lot of it is paying attention to the news and to the history of certain companies. For example, when it comes to chocolate, Nestle, Hershey, and Kraft are bad, but Cadbury has really good ethical company practices (and let’s hope they’ve kept those practices up since being bought by Kraft last year).

    Another good tip is to look for companies who are open about their production lines. If they are, for example, fighting transparency laws in the states, it’s probably not a good company to buy from. Many companies have started supporting Fair Trade, so in the US, on certain foods, you can look for “Fair Trade Certified” labels. Oh and thrift stores. Thrift stores are good because you’re supporting the local business, not the larger company.

    2. I don’t ever think there’s a line of what Christians should and should not wear in terms of fashion. It’s not that simple. I, for example, since living in Japan, have developed a higher interest in what I wear and how I present myself, and I don’t see that as conflicting with my identity as a Christian. The lines about modesty and fashion are so varied from person to person that I think it’s a thing left up to personal style. I wear things (in fact, I’m wearing one right now) that would be considered immodest in some Christian settings, but I feel good and fashionable in it. So, no, there’s not really a line when it comes to appearance of the clothing.

    There is, however, a line when it comes to whether or not it’s ethically made. When we preach about helping the poor and the suffering in the world, while wearing things made by the poor and suffering, there’s a contradiction. It may be because it’s sort of a pet project for me, but I think there is an obligation on the part of Christians in America (and all over the world) to be responsible about how they shop. It’s impossible to shop completely responsibly, but it’s good to make an effort.

    On a separate, fashion-related note, one of the best companies I’ve found is People Tree in the UK. I just got a BEAUTIFUL, well made dress from them, for a pretty reasonable price, and, because the company is open and transparent, I know exactly where it was made, and in what conditions. So, those of you readers in the UK: Check those guys out. And OxFam – OxFam shops are also really good.

  5. Michelle Roise permalink
    April 10, 2011 6:23 am

    May I suggest that “feeling good and fashionable” in certain clothing, while admitting it might be considered immodest, is not the most reliable standard for Christian modesty? I’m all for responsible Christian shopping, but I believe it is our heart’s intent, whether shopping for or wearing our clothes, with which God is most concerned.

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