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Fashioning (part 2)

Sunday, 15 November, 2009

I realise I canvassed a fair bit of Bible in my last post and that it was probably confusing. Reading over it, it looked like I was “writing aloud”—thinking while writing, the way that some people think while they're speaking. (Depending on how they do this, this can seriously annoy me, so apologies if my printed meanderings irritated you.)

But anyway, I take consolation in the fact that blog posts are not articles; they're allowed to read like unfinished drafts or notes towards some greater literary incarnation. (Read between the lines: I'm not going to write a proper introduction to this post the way I would if I were writing for, say, WebSalt.)

But I suppose it might be worth recapping a few things about my previous post to hammer my points home. It seems to me that I've been arguing that the whole business of clothing oneself has arisen because of sin—that, in order to protect us in our vulnerable and sinful state from one another, God dressed humankind. The dressing was firstly with garments made of fabric (animal skins, and then eventually, as technology allowed it, linen, cotton, wool, etc.) But of course, like all earthly things, his created provision is not permanent (and arguably was never intended to be as such); instead, God's great provision for us is to clothe our shameful nakedness with Christ—with Christ's righteousness, with the immortality Jesus won on the cross, with Christlikeness in godliness and good works. This sort of covering or atonement deals with our sin once and for all.

The big question now is how to dress like a Christian. Yes, that will mean clothing oneself in godliness, righteousness and good works, as my last post demonstrated. But what does it mean for our physical wardrobes? When we wake up in the morning and prepare ourselves for the day, what should we wear? After all, human sinfulness and social standards mean that we must all go around clothed; so how should we be clothed? We are not ascetics who shun or mortify the flesh; we are not like the Corinthians who foolishly thought that the body counted for nothing because it is only the spirit that matters; and we are not like some extreme Muslims who seek to obliterate the female form by making women wear burqas. (Interesting side point: the word “hijab” is Arabic for “cover”, “veil” or “shelter”.)

Furthermore, we have a lot of freedom in what we can wear—especially in the West and especially compared to earlier generations. Women do not have to wear corsets and hoop skirts. Men do not have to wear waistcoats and cravats. We can if we want to (and obviously there are those who do—like Matt Preston, goths and modern dandies who love Victorian three-piece suits), but we don't have to. And we certainly don't have to dress like each other; most of us aren't in school any more, and though uniforms are a great leveller (in that clothing should not separate the poor and rich as they get educated together in the classroom) and uniforms are helpful in certain contexts (e.g. the military or the police), it's lovely that we are at liberty to express our individuality in the way we dress.

So what should we wear? And what shouldn't we wear? Can the Bible give us fashion tips, or are we to defer to the wisdom of the world on these matters? Do we need to heed the command in Deuteronomy 22:11 and not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together? (Actually, I don't think I can answer that last question.) Allow me to explore the topic and what I think the Bible says about it under the following headings:

Assets

As I mentioned in my last post in reference to passages like Exodus 22:25-27 and Judges 14, clothing was an asset. The same can be true today for certain kinds of clothes—in particular, luxury brand names. The resale value of, say, something by Chanel is incredible—especially when you consider that we're talking about secondhand clothes here. It brings to mind the bit at the end of The Devil Wears Prada (the book, not the movie) when, after Andrea Sachs quits her job, she resells all the clothes and merchandise she gained from her time as Miranda Priestly's assistant to a resale shop and walks away with close to a year's salary for her trouble.

Now, I'm sure most of us don't think of fashion in those terms—that is, in terms of investment and resale value. (Well, I certainly don't; I expect to wear just about everything I own until I either wear it out or it doesn't fit me any more. [And I don't mean “wear it out” in the Jerry Seinfeld “men wear their underwear until it absolutely disintegrates” sense!]) I'm also sure that most of us don't worry about clothes the way that ancient near eastern people in Jesus' day did: with resources scarce and poverty rampant, perhaps they wondered how they would replace that fraying garment or that moth-eaten cloak. I think this is why Jesus says to them,

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And 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? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:25-33; cf. Luke 12)

This applies equally to us, but also slightly differently in that we do not experience the sort of deprivation they did; most of us own more than one shirt and seemingly do not rely on God in the same sort of way that they did. No, our problem is a little different. Because we are richer than they ever were, and because we have more choice than we ever did, the temptations for us vary slightly. Our “worries” about clothes are usually not to do with having nothing to wear in the literal sense; our “worries” are more about thinking we have “nothing to wear” when our wardrobes are packed full of all manner of garments. We worry about what we wear because

Note that these are all things that the “Gentiles” (who, in the context of Matthew, are the people who are not God's people) seek after. All these concerns can be answered by the Bible:

It seems to me, then, that clothing should be seen not as an asset or investment, but a tool: something to cover one's body and protect it from the elements.

Favouritism

This will be a shorter point than the last one. It touches a bit on what I've talked about earlier, and that is people judging you by your clothing. It's unfortunate that we live in a world where this happens—where you are scrutinised from head to toe by the shop assistants when you walk into a clothing store as they assess the likelihood of you spending money in their establishment and therefore whether it's worth their time serving you. I guess there's not much you can do about that but expect that that's going to happen and recognise it for what it is.

But on the flipside, we must be careful not to let the attitudes of the world colour our behaviour. If we follow suit (pardon the pun) and start judging others on the basis of their dress, we are as guilty as the Christians James wrote to in James 2:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (Jas 2:1-4)

Avoiding this sort of error can be more difficult than you'd think. I suspect it's because dress these days is far more an expression of individuality and personality than it used to be in, say, the 19th century. It means that some people do dress to alienate (e.g. by pulling their baseball caps down low so they shield their eyes; by sporting chains, ripped jeans, tattoos and piercings, and so on). When you go out to talk to people about Jesus, it's very tempting to avoid those sorts of people because they look scary or angry, and their clothes scream “GO AWAY!”. But we must not exercise favouritism—especially when the news we share is so good and the imperative of the gospel is so urgent. (Of course, we must exercise wisdom, but don't let those sorts of caveats distract you from the thrust of what I'm saying ...)

Social justice

This is also a small clothes-related point stemming from Matthew 6 and the idea of clothing being an asset. Giving clothes away is a way of loving our neighbours and serving our communities. It makes me think of Matthew 25:35-36 where Jesus talks about the Son of Man blessing the righteous:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Clothing the naked removes their shame and humiliation, as well as protecting them from the elements. It strikes me that this act reflects God's act of clothing us in the atoning work of Christ.

Environmentalism and good stewardship

This may seem a bit left-field, but when thinking about the topic of fashion, it's good to think about the environment and good stewardship of our world. The creation mandate to humans in Genesis 1-2 (“[L]et [mankind] have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”—Gen 1:26 and “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it”—Gen 2:15) implies that God gave humans the world to look after and rule over (cf. Ps 8). I don't intend to launch into a detailed explanation and exploration of the Bible and environmentalism (if you're interested in reading that sort of thing, check out Lionel Windsor's WebSalt article and some of the other WebSalt material on that topic). But I just wanted to make a few comments on how the environment relates to what we wear.

(Mind you, I probably wouldn't even be thinking about this were it not for this exhibition I saw at UTS called Fashioning Now that drew my attention to these sorts of issues. It featured this great documentary by a Masters student looking at fashion and sustainability. But unfortunately I can't remember the name of the documentary or the name of the student, and the exhibition website isn't being very helpful. But anyway, let us continue ...)

Firstly, there's the environmental impact of washing our clothes in the amount of water we use. Most of us do laundry every week. Some households do laundry every day! Laundering is necessary for removing stains, sweat and smells. Oh yes, and dirt. (I wonder when humans first decided to wash their clothes; did the book of Leviticus have anything to do with it? [Unclean Israelites had to wash their clothes and remain unclean until evening.]) Now, much as I hate doing laundry, I'm not against it. But I wonder sometimes if we over-launder. Provided it's not offense to the human senses, it's usually okay to wear something several times before you wash it. That documentary at the Fashioning Now exhibition also talked about alternative methods of laundering—for example, using steam (by hanging your clothes up in the bathroom while you have a shower and letting the steam get rid of the smells), or freezing your clothes. (It will be interesting to see whether these methodologies influence the future of washing machines.)

Secondly, there's the environmental impact of waste. According to Environmental Health Perspectives (an academic journal devoted to the impact of the environment on human health), “Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year, and clothing and other textiles represent about 4% of the municipal solid waste” (source). That's approximately 31 kilos, which is pretty insane! (I'm not sure what the stats are for Australians; cursory Googling hasn't revealed the answer.) Some of that might be recycled, but a significant proportion would end up in landfill, which is pretty sad. Returning to the concept of fashion as asset, another aspect of idolising and serving fashion is the tendency to completely change your wardrobe every season—buying what's in style and disposing of what's no longer in vogue. The less fashion-conscious among us will rightly question whether this is really necessary (because how many clothes does one person need?) Since environmentalism has almost become the new religion, it makes me wonder whether this, more than anything else, will check the rampant consumerism and slavery to taste that characterises western society.

The Fashioning Now exhibition had various answers to the environmental problem of fashion; I'll talk a bit more about those later.

Modesty

I bet you're wondering why I haven't talked about this earlier! I was getting to it. No doubt a significant factor in determining what to wear has to do with modesty—particularly for us here in the West where often modesty is the last thing the trendsetters are thinking about. Modesty is important for the Christian not just because the Bible commands it (see 1 Tim 2:9-10 and 1 Pet 3:1-5, which are directed primarily at women, but I think corollaries can be drawn for men), but because, as I said in my last post, exposing one's nakedness (outside of marriage) and shame should never be viewed as a good thing because of God's judgement and holiness (see also Lev 18 where the Israelites were given instructions regarding sexual relations between family members). The world doesn't see things this way because the world does not love the things of God; according to John 3:19, “people [love] the darkness rather than the light because their works [are] evil”. So the world glories in nakedness—in sin—and encourages us to do likewise (e.g. by featuring lots of shirtless men in the trailer to the New Moon movie). It does not see the sadness of sin.

Modesty is also important because it embodies other-person-centredness. As a disciple of Christ, you'd want to dress in such a way that doesn't lead other people astray into sin. Like I said in my pseudo-introduction, we wouldn't want to go as far as some extreme Muslims would who insist that all women should go around covered up in burqas. But at the same time, we recognise that sexual temptation is real and that some people struggle with it. The world says more flesh is best because it's better to be sexy. But for the Christian, less flesh is best. Dressing modestly is a loving act towards our Christian (and non-Christian) neighbours. Who wants to be the stumbling block that capitulates the person with the weak conscience into the prison of sexual addiction and lust? All right, I exaggerate; one low-cut dress won't do it. But it's all part of a continuum—the thrust of the world being to see the human body as just that: a body—an object, not a person. Do we want to encourage that sort of thinking? I hope not.

This principle of other-person-centredness should, I think, ought to govern our wardrobe decisions. I don't just mean in the area of modesty, but also the area of relations. What we wear sends a message. It may be an unintentional message, but it's a message all the same: pay attention to me, stay away from me, don't mess with me, and so on. In certain contexts, the way you dress may not be an issue (e.g. when you're hanging out with your friends and you know each other well enough not to be put off by alienating fashion messages). But in other contexts, it may not be appropriate because it becomes a barrier to relationship. For example, it may put people off if you wear a suit in a casual setting. (It might not, but it's more likely to if you're mixing with strangers.) Or it may scare people off from talking to you in church if you're a minister and you wear robes. (Then again it might not; again, context is important here.)

The important thing here is the principle: let your outward adorning be a reflection of your inward beauty—the beauty of the righteousness of Christ (1 Pet 3:3-4). Love others in what you wear.

Creation and beauty

Here's one final area to explore as I meander around this topic of fashion: clothes are part of the creation. As created things, we can admire their beauty (if they are indeed beautiful; I won't go into whether there's a standard for beauty). We can admire the thought, design and craftsmanship that has gone into making a wool crepe suit or a pair of heels, and we can thank and praise God for those things. Like I said earlier, we're not ascetics; we don't shun the created world in favour of the austere. There's nothing wrong with wearing a purple skirt or a shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons or a hat with felted flowers. Paul reminds us that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17), and as long as we enjoy it with thankfulness, viewing it in its proper context (i.e. not as an idol), we're unlikely to be led astray by, say, a pair of Tiffany earrings.

However, as I pointed out earlier, part of the createdness of fashion is its bondage to decay and corruption (Rom 8:21). It's sad, but our favourite clothes will wear out, no longer fit, develop holes or get eaten by mould. (See how the Old Testament priests treated mouldy garments in Lev 13:47-59.) As long as we are alive, we will have to buy new clothes. (This fact of life disappoints me as I loathe clothes shopping.) It's a reminder that sin (and therefore death) touches every portion of our existence, no matter how insignificant.

Oh dear

Right, I seem to have blathered on a lot and yet only moved a little bit closer to answering the crucial question, “What should we wear?” I'll pick it up again in my next post—this time looking at things from a more practical point of view (stemming from the material in this post), as well as some of the wisdom I've gleaned in how I dress myself.

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Hi there,
Thanks for pointing out the shortcoming on our website. I’ll pass it on to my colleagues and hopefully it will be rectified soon.

The documentary at Fashioning Now was by Holly Kaye-Smith; I’d be more than happy to put you in touch with her if you’d like.

Again, thanks for the comment, much appreciate it!

Kind regards,
Timo Rissanen

Thanks for letting me know, Timo!



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