Problems with Christian Fashion Week

While most of the global fashion community has had their eyes fixed on New York Fashion week since its opening this past Thursday, a small group of designers, models and press have been gathering around a different runway in Tampa, Florida. The occasion? An event called Christian Fashion Week.

christian fashion week

According to its website, CFW exists to “create a series of international fashion shows and events around the idea of fashion from a Christian worldview.” What this means in practice is a two-day event in Tampa, where a few dozen designers—whose selection depends heavily on the perceived modesty of their clothing—showcase their work.

There’s a lot more that could be said about what Christian Fashion Week is, but the information above is enough to make me deeply uncomfortable. Here’s a few of the biggest reasons why:

1. Policing modesty is problematic.

If you’ve poked around Unwrinkling much, you may know how loaded I find the label “modest” to be (if not, check out my modesty series). Regarding CFW, I find myself wondering how “modest” is being defined by those selecting designers. As I pointed out here, modesty is contextual—showing belly may be normal in India but inappropriate in the Philippines, and so on. If CFW is truly aiming to be “international,” how are they policing the highly subjective and culturally relative concept of modesty?

2. Reducing the “Christian perspective on fashion” to modesty alone misrepresents the Bible’s broad and nuanced stance on clothing.

Many people are surprised to hear that the Bible has lots to say about clothing, but it does. Modesty is a tiny percentage of that. A valid portion, to be sure, but not by any means the largest or most important. As someone who cares deeply about fashion and loves the God of the Bible, I can’t help but be frustrated when people act like the only thing he ever had to say about fashion was that it needed to guard against inducing lust.

Water waste
Water waste illustration from Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign

When people are working for less than a living wage and dying in third-world factories so that Western consumers can have cheaper leggings, it seems ludicrous to think the only thing God cares about is our cleavage. When the waterways of this planet are being choked by the toxic dyes and chemicals used on our sweaters, it paints an odd picture of God when we act like he is more concerned with whether or not our shorts are long enough.

Why are we so intent on letting modesty dominate the conversation about fashion in the Bible? We’ve read Paul’s exhortations to dress modestly, but have we missed Isaiah’s and Jesus’ exhortation to care for the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner? Or what about the charge given in Genesis to care for the earth?

These issues show up much more prominently in the Bible than do any charges to modest dressing, and yet laborer’s rights or environmental issues were barely mentioned in connection with CFW.*

3. Creating an insulated Christian subculture accomplishes little.

On the one hand, I want to applaud the founders of CFW for trying to do something active about a system they see as broken but full of potential. However, I wonder what’s really accomplished by establishing an event that attempts to parallel New York Fashion Week while being completely insulated from the wider fashion world. Pastor and writer Francis Chan famously quipped that “Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.” I can’t help but agree. Aren’t we called to be salt and light in the heart of the places that most need it?

This leads to the next problem: that CFW, while trying to put itself “on the same level as NYFW” (in one of the founders’ own words), is a showcase of amateur designers. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with having fashion events that promote the work of inexperienced or entry-level designers. However, doing so and and then posing as if the event were of the same quality as something like NYFW feels disingenuous. To say that it’s the “Christian equivalent” of NYFW makes Christians look like subpar craftspeople and artists, which is just the opposite of what should be true if we take the Bible’s claims about excellence and hard work seriously. Though the organizers of CFW would say they are aiming for a “high production value,” everything from the typos on their website to the fact that many of the designers showcased don’t have real companies makes the attempt feel awkward and unprofessional.

CFW merch
Christian Fashion Week merchandise

I am aware that this is a harsh critique, and in truth I don’t think that CFW is completely devoid of value. They have encouraged a day of prayer for creativity and blessing in the fashion industry at large, which I think a great step for anyone truly passionate about seeing the industry change. They’ve also set up a fund (mirroring the CFDA’s fund) to help finance young or new designers, which I believe admirable. And hey, some of these dresses showcased last year are quite beautiful.

But overall, I think that the CFW as it currently exists is too problematic to last long. While I want to honor those involved as brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m frustrated by what seems to me a profoundly incomplete and therefore damaging representation of the biblical stance on fashion. Without a firmer grounding in the nuanced and rich way in which the Bible talks about clothing and a greater commitment to true excellence, I think it unlikely that CFW will be around for long. And while it’s easy to point fingers and admit that I won’t mourn the loss when CFW breathes its last, I know that I’m also implicated in the CFW’s failure to represent Christ well simply by being a part of the same Body.

I don’t think this is the best the Church can do.

Let’s do better.

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*I found one small prayer point claiming that CFW actively prays for “Reform in worldwide textile manufacturing practices that promote child and slave labor,” but could find no evidence that laborer care was a serious consideration in the process of selecting designers to showcase at CFW.

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