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Re-Dressing A Threadbare Faith: Fashion Theory for the Uninitiated

To think carefully about fashion is not for the intellectually and theologically faint of heart.

In a post on the Cardus blog earlier this year, Kyle Bennett lamented the dearth of reflection on fashion among Christians. However, Christians are not the only ones who have neglected fashion. Although adornment of the body pre-dates all other known forms of decoration, fashion has traditionally been discounted as a serious line of enquiry in the broader academy as well. Absent of any serious reflection, society has been left to the mercy of pundits known for spinning fashion as the definitive proof of our hell-bent, witless vanity—or, conversely, for praising the latest fads as consonant with our very raison d'etre.

This long history of neglect, however, is finally meeting its end. In the last four decades, serious academic work on fashion has begun to emerge, offering careful reflections on the subject. One clear example of this—Routledge's recent four volume, 1500 page production simply titled Fashion—stands not only as a testimony to the breadth of the discussion but simultaneously reminds us of the stark contrast between the academy and the state of Christian reflection on the subject. In light of this challenge, the following is an initial sketch of some issues discussed in this burgeoning field. These are offered with the hope that more Christians might add their voices to this new theoretical discourse. Call it a fashion theory for the uninitiated.

The following question is a vital starting point for this discourse: what are we talking about when we talk about fashion? Two things are very important in this regard. First, although cultures have always adorned the body, properly speaking, fashion refers to the distinctly rapid interplay of clothing that has emerged in last several hundred years within modern Western countries. The dress for an ancient Greek or Roman was both static and uniform. In contrast, we change our styles and garments daily (some even multiple times in the same day). A second helpful distinction is between fashion as something we do with the body and the wider phenomenon of change in modern cultures. While it is true that fashion theory intersects with the constant change that marks the modern period, fashion theory's primary concern is with the adornment of the human body.

Now that we have at least a working understanding of the subject matter, our next task is to determine the kind of discussion in which fashion theory belongs. Traditionally, fashion design has been identified as an art and costume history has been understood as a branch of art history. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least being that fashion involves the creation of artifacts that are crafted with an eye to aesthetic interests. Yet to this day, fashion theorists are not in agreement on whether or not fashion should be thought of as art. Even those who acknowledge fashion as an art of sorts are not always ready to allow the contemporary museum to have the final say on fashion. This is true not only for those who dislike the downgraded distinction by elitists who draw a sharp line between "high arts" and "decorative arts" or "applied arts," but it is also true for thinkers, like Yves Michaud, who see fashion's influence as working its own revenge on the modern museum. For Michaud, fashion has uniquely influenced the way moderns experience the world. Rather than producing disinterested viewers ready to contemplate, fashion has filled our museums (and other institutions) with street-savvy flâneurs. Given the record crowds that stormed the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past summer to see the fashion of the late Alexander McQueen, Michaud appears to be on to something.

Of course, fashion is as much about performance as it is about artistic production. The context in which one wears a garment is just as important as the garment itself. This reminds us that fashion works as a language within a conversation about social performances. But what is this language, and how does it work? As much as we want to talk about what message our clothes give, clearly a dress or a hat (without print on it) can't say something discursive, such as "I like hiking in the Appalachians" or "my best friend is from Brooklyn." Whatever it is that is communicated, it is communicated through non-verbal means that rely more on connotation than denotation. Additionally, garments are texts with multiple authors and receivers. Not only those who wear the garment, but the various hands the garment has been touched by in the course of production and marketing speak to the difficulty of finding an author of this text. In like manner, the receivers of the message are not always clearly defined when one puts on the garment before starting the day. As these three observations suggest, theories about exactly how "fashion statements" generate meanings and what exactly is communicated is a complex matter requiring formidable hermeneutical expertise.

The practical implications of fashion's ability to communicate have been employed in some very interesting proposals that get to the heart of our public life. One of the more fascinating of these is Charles Taylor's claim in A Secular Age that modern fashion has transformed public spaces. In contrast to previous societies, Taylor sees fashion in modern societies as allowing us to move into public spaces with the intent of mutually determining the social-decorum—a move that, in turn, reinforces our collective actions. If Taylor's analysis is true, fashion operates in society in a way akin to social media, creating new public spaces of mutual display free from authoritarian control and thereby redistributing social power. Given recent crackdowns on protestors in Iran, could this be at the heart of what really concerns the fashion police that patrol the streets of Tehran?

Also accenting the political implications of fashion are those theorists claiming democracy is the lingua franca of fashion. As these theorists point out, being able to choose what to wear has been critical to the rise of fashion. Representative of this view is Gilles Lipovetsky. Lipovetsky has seen in fashion the power to create a habitus (practice) of choice that he believes is critical to the health of a democracy. Further, he claims that the ever-multiplying options in fashion—the decentralization of fashion centers and the rise of street style—enhance a unified society by obscuring class distinctions. For Lipovetsky, liberal democracies thrive in a world of knock-offs.

Not everyone has been optimistic about the power of fashion to produce social equality. Lipovetsky, for example, is responding to the long line of theorists who have seen in fashion the sin qua non of class conflict and fragmentation. American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen is one such theorist. In Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, fashion is held up as the distinct expression of a pecuniary culture. For Veblen, fashion is one of the most important ways that the leisure class distinguishes itself from lower classes, providing the possibility for higher classes to display their resources through conspicuous waste. On this account, planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption isn't just an unfortunate side effect of fashion. Rather, fashion is about these things.

While we may not want to reduce fashion as Veblen and other theorists have, it is hard to ignore that fashion can be complicit in the destructive power of inordinate market forces. One of the unexpected places we hear the echoes of Veblen's critiques is in the children's literature of Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). In Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches, naïve creatures, who "never will learn," become obsessed with displaying stars on their bodies ("stars upon thars"). What results is an endless game between those who are "in" and those who are "out." (Thank you Heidi Klum.) Keeping up with the Joneses results in an oppressive cycle manipulated by market forces all too eager to play off of class warfare to drive up production. Similarly, in The Lorax, Dr. Seuss tells the story of a greedy Once-ler who, irrespective of the larger impact, invents a "Thneed" ("It's a shirt. It's a sock. It's a glove. It's a hat") that everyone wants but nobody needs. Like the fashion industry itself, the Once-ler lives off of a fad that plays into our worst consumptive drives to buy things that will go out as fast as they came in. As with all those given to planned obsolescence, the Once-ler is himself fated to become obsolete.

One reaction to the power of market forces in fashion has been the emergence of sub-cultures that refuse to participate in the system. As with punks whose fixed uniforms are accessorized with non-commercial found items (e.g. pins, plastic clothes pegs, or even a lavatory chain), these sub-cultures seek to opt out of fashion's perpetual returns. Alongside punks, one could also add not only other contemporary sub-cultures, such as Goths, but also religious orders and communities, such as the Amish and some Mennonite sects. Fashion theorists call such static approaches to dress "anti-fashion." For these groups, the rejection of the typical interplay of clothing provides the means to distance, challenge, and (in the case of the punks and Goths) even transgress dominant culture. By creating an alternative uniformity to predominant dress, these sub-cultures reinforce their value for an oppositional reading of the world. Critical for such "anti-fashion" is limiting the degree of individual expression within the sub-culture. The more these sub-cultures remove individual options, the more they are able to undo the necessary balance between uniformity and individuation necessary for the rapid interplay of dress that is characteristic of fashion.

Of course, our choice of clothing is shaped by more than whether or not we belong to a given sub-culture. People adorn their bodies for a number of reasons. Our choice of ensembles considers not only material issues (like finances, protection from the elements, functionality, and comfort), but also how one desires to communicate regarding cultural concerns (such as class, status, sex, gender, ethnicity, race, age, modesty, attraction, social role, and so on). Given so many choices, it seems strange that shopping is not a more complex act. Part of the reason these choices are not as difficult as one would think is because we are typically acting as responders rather than inventors. In other words, fashion is far more about maintaining stability than one assumes. While fringes and textiles may come and go, boy babies tend to be dressed in blue and girl babies in pink. And although hemlines change, the male suit and the female ball gown have remained identifiable for years. In other words, fashion is as much about supporting the continued existence of institutions, practices, and products as it is about responding to social and political changes. This is why Thomas Carlyle famously quipped, "Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon Cloth."

This is not to say that fashion merely reproduces social convention. Revolutionary dress exists. We often associate such dress with the runways of fashion week in fashion capitals such as Paris, New York, and Milan. Designers often use these events to challenge conventions—the prevailing forms, textiles and colors as well as its systems, structures, and ideals. Designers Olivier Theyskens, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan, and especially the late Alexander McQueen gained a reputation for conceptual pieces that questioned the industry's celebration of glamour, modernity, and standardized cannons of beauty. But revolutionary dress is also generated off the runway. Bras have been burnt and trousers dawned by women attempting to break out of conventional gender roles. The development of early Hip-hop fashion was fuelled by artists like Chuck D, Snoop Dog, and Run DMC, who connected anger over inequality in their music with the baggy garments and shoestringless footwear reminiscent of jail life. By dressing this way outside of the correctional facility, these artists sought to draw attention to racial inequalities that supported what they perceived as the "subtle apartheid" that still existed in the US. Ironically, such revolutions were eventually reclaimed by dominant fashion and enfolded back into the language of mainstream.

The enfolding of styles and the constant play with the signification of dress has led to the current ambiguity in much of today's fashion. Camouflaged patterned swim shorts reminiscent of military uniforms are used for poolside leisure, blouses in the form of peasant tops worn in Eastern Europe are given luxurious textiles and priced beyond the reach of the middle class, styles and colors are mixed and matched, exercise wear is paired with formal attire, and blue Jeans are worn with expensive leisure coats. Much modern dress is marked by undecidability. This mixing and matching of references has led to what some fashion theorists call "postmodern fashion." Theorists have used a number of images and conceptual schemes to refer to contemporary dress: bricolage, pastiche, masquerade, parody. Baudrillard has been the boldest, suggesting that such dress is a mark of simulacra, a hyper-reality that suggests a soft nihilism. Even if it might be a stretch to see the sporting of such styles as a tacit denial of faith, it is fair to ask how (if at all) such styles inform our current culture.

From here, our sketch of fashion theory could easily go a number of different directions. We have yet to say something about the role of expressivism for the development of fashion, the psychology of fashion including our sense of narration, and theories in the sociology of fashion that view fashion as complicit with the development of complex societies. Too many designers have been left out, important theorists are missing, and critical subjects left untouched. Anyone familiar with the field will recognize that the above is barely a preview of fashion theory at large. For they know that, far from a simple discourse, fashion is a thick knot comprised of a number of threads—from aesthetics, hermeneutics, and public space, to individual choice, the market, sub-culture, and social cohesion (to name just some of the contributing factors). As Malcolm Barnard, the editor of the new multi-volume reference Fashion states, "There is no one set of ideas or no single conceptual framework with which fashion might be defined, analyzed and critically explained."

So, coming back to our initial concern, what does all this mean for a Christian engagement with fashion?

Given the state of this rich discussion, Christians must abandon one-dimensional critiques, be they positive appraisals of fashion as a purely benign/attractive/useful act of cultural creativity, or dismissive of fashion as merely trivial/deceptive/exploitative compromise. Even more so, Christians must resist the temptation to view fashion through only one or two conceptual grids. An attentive assessment of fashion from a Christian perspective is demanding—requiring a theologically informed view of aesthetics, hermeneutics, public space, gender, the market, and so on. Undoubtedly, such a discussion will call us to rethink important Scriptures, such as God's gift of the animal coverings for Adam and Eve, the bedecked priestly garments used in temple worship, and the seamless robe of our Lord (John 19:23). We will have to re-read our Bibles regarding head coverings, develop a nuanced understanding of nakedness, and ask, in light of all of this, what it means that our heavenly Father cares what lilies wear (Matthew 6:28). In other words, to think carefully about fashion is not for the intellectually and theologically faint of heart.

But if we are willing to forego the facile pleasure of quick moralistic assessment the Christian community can help all of us who, like it or not, have to wear something. If we are willing to begin bringing our work within one or two of these tributaries to bear on fashion, a subject we would rather dismiss as superficial, trivial, and vain will no longer expose our own superficial reflection. In short, if we take fashion theory seriously we who are clothed in Christ can weave a much stronger faith.

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Bob Covolo Bob Covolo
Rev. Bob Covolo lives in Long Beach, California with his wife and daughter. ... read more »

Posted in Arts, Vocation.

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