Beyond the Figleaf

This week’s post was written for and published in PRISM magazine (page 5). Make sure to flip through the rest of the issue for more great articles—I especially love the piece about Redeemer church and the Center for Faith & Work.
god clothing adam and eve william de brailes christian fashion
God Clothing Adam and Eve, from a Book of Hours by William de Brailes

Take Christians out of the development of music, and you deprive the world of Bach. Take Christians out of the history of painting, and you sacrifice the Sistine Chapel. Take Christians out of modern medicine, and you lose the leader of the Human Genome Project. Take Christians out of the contemporary fashion world, and you get… the contemporary fashion world. If Jesus’ people have left a treasured legacy in so many spheres of culture, why such a negligible impact in the realm of fashion?

For decades, this question represented a non-issue, as fashion was generally dismissed in both secular and religious circles as shallow and trivial. But as respected scholars begin to appreciate the study of clothing for its contributions to anthropology and history, and well-known art museums begin to grant couture exhibits space in their coveted galleries, it is becoming harder to ignore the massive role that fashion plays in both influencing and mirroring culture.

Strangely, the Christian world seems to be doing just that—trying to ignore a multi-billion dollar industry that provides jobs to millions and inspiration to countless others. Those justifying this attitude of dismissal fall on a spectrum of belief that views fashion as unimportant at best, and downright harmful at worst. Many whose beliefs lie somewhere on this spectrum even have scriptural support for their viewpoint. Didn’t Peter warn against letting one’s beauty come from outer adornment, specifically “elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes” (1 Peter 3:3)? And Paul’s comment about clothing in 1 Timothy 2:9 is best-known for its admonishment towards dressing modestly. Neither of these references seem very compatible with the advice one would expect to find between the glossy covers of next month’s Vogue.

Nonetheless, a conversation about fashion dominated by these references is a deeply impoverished one. Moreover, it is a conversation that fails to do justice to the rich and holistic attitude towards clothing woven throughout the Bible narrative. If God meant for Christians to regard clothing as nothing more than a Fall-induced afterthought, he sure had a funny way of communicating it in his Word. He designed the first-ever garments himself, commanded that his Levitical representatives to the people be the best-dressed guys around, and according to John’s vision, won’t even do away with clothing in the afterlife. And lest any ill-informed misogynist decide that fashion only receives the Lord’s stamp of approval as long as it stays in the reasonable hands of men, let’s not forget that the woman described in Proverbs 31—often held up as an example of the ideal Christian woman—was herself a radiantly-attired clothier (Prov. 31:22, 24).

None of this is to say that fashion as an industry, or component of everyday life, is completely devoid of the seductive lies with which it is often associated. Fashion often parades hand-in-hand with consumerism, image-obsession and materialism, and the discerning disciple is wise to avoid these pitfalls.

However, one must remember that there are temptations unique to every industry. If all of Christ’s people were to avoid business because of the insatiable greed that may appear on Wall Street, or academic success because of the self-satisfied pride frequently found in the ivory tower, both the spheres in question and the Church herself would suffer. Like any other industry, involvement in fashion requires wisdom and determined fidelity in order to stay on the straight and narrow. The problem lies in the fact that the Christian majority has singled fashion out as a particularly mine-ridden field, and subsequently refused to touch it.

But the God that leads his faithful to pray “Lead us not into temptation” is the same God that gives his people “a spirit not of timidity, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). The Church does not need more Pharisees whose commitment to law-keeping causes them to forbid worthwhile pursuits they deem too risky. Instead, she needs creative believers who will venture into uncharted territory with boldness and discernment, whose commitment to excellence will challenge and revolutionize their chosen field. This means letting the Bible inform fashion in a manner far deeper and wider than a “A Breadcrumb and Fish” t-shirts and “John 3:16” on Forever 21 bags.

But in the end, the goal should not be to create a league of undercover agents who infiltrate the field with the sole purpose of leaving some kind of Christian mark on the fashion landscape. Not only would such an attempt likely prove ineffectual, it would demonstrate a skewed understanding of fashion as just one more art to exploit for the sake of evangelism. Jesus’ followers must learn to appreciate fashion for what it offers in and of itself. Only then will they be truly able to engage it in a way that points to the One forever clothed in holiness.

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