A Theology of Fashion

For the past 6 months or so, I’ve been feebly attempting to address a subject I know little about. I’ve written just twice on the subject, but I’ve got a gracious friend who sees it from a different angle and has been challenging me to reconsider my stance. I’ve been sifting through these ideas and trying to come to some reasonable, practical conclusions. This is what I’ve come up with:

A Theology of Fashion,

humbly submitted to the bustling carnival of ideas that is the internet in the hopes that it will attract even a few interesting responses so that I can further refine my ideas…

1) We need clothes. We’ve needed them since Adam and Eve ate the fruit and discovered they were naked. God, seeing them immobilized by fear in the shrubbery, clothes them in animal skins and sends them out to work the land. God provided what they needed to cover their nakedness and their shame.

CLOTHING COVERS OUR SHAME: (I borrow some of this from Tim Keller) One of the reasons we’re obsessed with fashion is that we don’t like what’s inside. We think if we can dress up our outsides, it can draw attention away from our personality, our insecurity, our flaws. The word fashion has two meanings, and of them is “to make into a particular form.” Fashion can be a form of deception and marketing.

Tim Keller talks about clothing more eloquently and convincingly here.

CLOTHING IS NECESSARY: We can’t simply disregard fashion or functionality. We need a covering for our bodies and certain coverings (in this case, skin) are better than others (fig leaf loincloths!)

2) And yet, we do not want to worry too much about what we wear. Jesus specifically tells his followers this in Matthew 6:25-33, saying “Do not be anxious about… your body, what you will put on. Is not…the body more than clothing? …Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

CLOTHING SHOULD NOT BE A MAJOR CONCERN: Practically, I don’t know what this looks like. If you’re familiar with the above passage, you know that Jesus addresses both food and clothing in this part of the sermon. We know that we must spend SOME time considering food–we must either grow or buy it, prepare it, and store it. All of these things take some time and effort. So we must spend some time considering how we will dress ourselves and our family. However, it must not cause us anxiety or take over our lives.

This passage ends with a lovely (if somewhat difficult to live out) thought from Jesus that is worth meditating on: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” But what does this look like in practical terms? It is a practice of the heart. There are no shortcuts or methods that will get you here. It is a prayer to keep praying.

CLOTHING CAN BE BEAUTIFUL!: God apparently admires the beauty of the flowers and of Solomon in his splendor and is not intending that we look ugly or unadorned. This is where I’m taking a little bit of an exegetical risk (and I’d be happy to hear your challenges on this, or any, idea.) I don’t think we have to be fashionable, but I do think we should be well-dressed, provided it doesn’t cause us to obsess over fashion. (I explain that disctinction here.) The Proverbs 31 woman is dressed in rich colors, so I don’t think we need to specifically look out-of-date or frumpy.

3) But we do not have to be beautiful or well-dressed to accomplish kingdom work, so don’t use that as an excuse to dress well. Jesus had “no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:3). Men and women were not drawn to him by the sheer force of his good looks. They say that looks have had an ever-increasing impact on political campaigns during the television era but Jesus was not a well-dressed, well-coifed politician who was the kind of guy people wanted to be seen with. We sing about him being beautiful, but that is only an inner beauty of humility and generosity and holiness that we are praising.

WE DO NOT HAVE TO MARKET THE GOSPEL BY BEING BEAUTIFUL: I’ve been asked whether we need to consider being a pleasing aroma (which would suggest putting on a pleasing appearance to appeal to the culture.) But I refer back to the verses about the “aroma of Christ” for some clarity: We are to be “the aroma of Christ to God among those are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16). We actually smell like death to those who are not believers! We smell like the living sacrifice–constantly burning up but never consumed–that Paul commands us to be in Romans 12:1. We are not to make our appeal by being good-looking (or nice-smelling!) We actually may be off-putting in our appearance or in our first impression because we are sacrificing our desires to the kingdom and accepting gifts from his hand.

We do not have to help market the good news by being Christ’s good-looking ambassadors. We don’t need to use our clothing or appearance to open doors for the gospel. I’m not saying that we can’t, but I’m saying we don’t need to. We can’t use that idea as an excuse to keep up with fashion.

4) I studied James intensely during some of my most impressionable years, and I’ve never been able to get over the words of James 5:1-6 which condemn the rich for failing to pay fair wages to the laborers who took care of their fields. James condemns the rich saying “You have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” and “The wages of the laborers…which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you , and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.”

WE SHOULD PAY WHAT OUR CLOTHES ARE WORTH: This may solve almost all of my fashion problems, personally. I tend to justify purchasing clothing by spending less money on clothes. If I can get a really good deal, I can get more “fashion credibility” for less money and I don’t feel very guilty about dressing well or keeping up with the world’s standards. But am I ripping off the laborers, even indirectly, by participating in this disposable fashion culture? The answer has to be yes. Why else are clothing factories in Bangladesh being built several stories above their legal limit then collapsing on the workers who slave away in them? Because Americans have an appetite for cheap clothes. I have been convicted that I need to spend my money at thrift stores, where I am not the one ripping off the poor laborers overseas.

But perhaps I need to go a step further and buy quality items made by ethical manufacturers at their full price so that I ensure that all the workers get paid fairly. I’m haunted by this question: Who is losing when I score a great clearance deal???? As it stands right now, I know I am condemned for living in luxury and self-indulgence while the workers who made my clothes cry out for their fair wages.

If I paid full price for my clothing, I would be less likely to buy things I don’t need and less likely to see these items as disposable when they don’t suit the current trends anymore. I would buy timeless pieces of quality clothing that could last me a long time. And I wouldn’t need to go shopping every season.

5) Ultimately, I want to make sure I am spending more time, money, and effort clothing myself in “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col 3:12). For me this means putting prayer time before shopping time, giving my money away before I spend it on myself, sharing generously what I have, not seeking to look better than others when I get dressed, not envying others their great pieces, not being overly worried about an outfit getting dirty or ruined by my children (or whatever), paying a fair market value for my clothes (and therefore buying less), and not looking to worldly standards (fashion) to determine whether or not I look nice, but making how I look secondary to how I treat others. I want the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:3-4).

And now that I’ve declared this, I hope you’ll hold me to it.

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4 thoughts on “A Theology of Fashion

  1. Katie M. says:

    I’ve had a new take on the price of clothing since I learned how to sew a couple of years ago. I have much less of a hard time justifying a higher price for a well-made, classic item. (Although, I do still buy lots of stuff on clearance.)

    You might be interested in this book, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.” Here’s the website for the author, Elizabeth Cline. http://www.overdressedthebook.com/aboutelizabeth/

    I heard an NPR interview with her and I want to read the book myself; some of the things she says are really eye-opening, and she addresses ways you can change your clothing-purchasing habits. The website even has lists of stores that sell more sustainable, garment-worker-friendly items.

    • That book sounds perfect! I’ve been looking for good information on the fashion industry. I will add it to the reading list! I have always been into buying clearance things too… Especially for my daughters who are constantly outgrowing things. This is more a theory in process, something I’m going to pursue this year to see if it is a practical solution to help change my mindset about clothing. I am always exploring how my theology should impact my practical decisions and this was one thought I’ve been having. Thanks for reading and helping me think this through!!

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