Storytelling Clothes
Storytelling Clothes

Storytelling Clothes

Faithful fashion in an over-consuming culture.

December 1 st 2010
Appears in Winter 2010

"Our safeguard is in the shallow things," writes Oswald Chambers. "We have to live the surface common-sense life in a common-sense way; when the deeper things come, God gives them to us apart from the shallow concerns."

For many of us, clothing is a shallow thing. But, like the food we eat, it is a daily necessity and a part of God's larger story. Consequently, it is worthy of our attention.

We may be surprised to learn that God himself pays attention to our clothing. He concerns himself with every detail of the story we are telling with our lives: our words, our actions, the food we eat, the relationships we foster, the clothes we wear. He is a God of love, of relationship, and of details. He is so interested in the details that He expressly directed the elaborate design of the priestly garments described in Exodus 24:

Artistically woven according to the workmanship of the ephod you shall make it: of gold blue purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen . . . It shall be doubled into a square: a span shall be its length, and a span shall be its width. And you shall put settings of stones in it, four rows of stones . . . And the stones shall have the names of the sons of Israel, twelve according to their names, like the engravings of a signet, each one with its own name; they shall be according to the twelve tribes. You shall make chains for the breastplate at the end, like braided cords of pure gold.

Clothing is a topic to which we pay little attention except, perhaps, when the conditions in poorly ventilated sweat shops make the front page news. Like us, God cares about the woman behind the serger, and He also cares what we put on our backs. We seldom remember that the first garments were made by God for Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Teresa Smed, a jewelry designer who recycles vintage and antique treasures, shared her thoughts on God's concern with clothing. "I definitely think what we wear matters to God. I like to think about where everything comes from. Everything has a price. If your shoes are made by a child in a sweatshop in China—that has a cost. If I can clothe myself and my kids with recycled clothing—it matters. I love fashion. I love accessories. People would call me 'fashion forward.' It's about self-expression, and that's okay. But where your treasure is your heart will be also."

The story we've been telling

God never commanded us to get dressed. When he came looking for us, we were crouched in Eden's thicket hiding. We chose to cover parts of ourselves up because sin revealed impropriety.

"That's how clothes can be," comments designer Paul Hardy, a Christian anomaly in the world of high fashion. "It can go either way. In fashion, as in any other creative field, imagination can be used as an expression of edification or can prey on the insecurities of others."

Fashion is public and clothing tells a story. It's easy to spot a working man: torn jeans, work boots, plaid. An artist may wear hand-dyed silks. A business woman: a sharp three-piece suit. A student: Birkenstocks, skinny jeans, and a sarcastic T-shirt. You know the trendy tech guy by his thick-rimmed glasses and uniform of black. In the same way, our wardrobe leaves clues about the people we are and the lives we lead—but in ways few of us realize.

We may be using our favourite pair of Levi's or tailored suit to hide away imperfections, amend our appearance, and put on a guise, or we may be using them as a point of expression, revealing more of ourselves and more of who God is. What kind of story do you think you're telling through the clothes you wear? Are you telling God's story—one of openness, humility, grace?

Working with what we have

"Fashion matters to us all because we're humans living in this world. In truth, I don't see a big difference between how Christians and non-Christians dress, but I think we should. I think the first step is to work or rework what we already have. A little creativity can go a long way," comments Smed, whose vintage jewelry line, Dotted Loop, is made from found objects.

Open your closet. What piece of your story is missing?

"You may have more than you think," explains Zhivana Zivkovic, manager at Vancouver's Ingenue Fashion House, a small boutique specializing in organic, locally-made garments. Here Zivkovic and her team of designers provide a free wardrobe consultation service, revealing new ways to wear items and reengineering pieces through their custom tailoring service.

No matter how we've approached clothes until this point, we are called to steward what we've already been given. There is the story you've already been telling through the clothes you own. You may want to tell a new story, and you can do just that, but don't throw it all out. Work with what you have.

"It's about how you look at it," Zivkovic explains, wrapping a simple leather band around an old dress, "Take an Erin Templeton Obis belt, for example. Belts and other accessories such as a scarf or piece of jewelry are perhaps the best tools to reinvent a shirt, dress, or jacket."

And you may find clothes, and inspiration, in the most unlikely places.

"Fashion can be enormously wasteful for the environment and financially, but, when you're looking, it's amazing the things you'll find. In fact, today I'm wearing a sweater from a bag of free sweaters my boyfriend found in the alley. It has this amazing over-sized neckline that hangs down to my waist. It's straight out of the '80s, and I just saw one exactly like it in Flare [magazine]."

"The primary purpose of all creation is twofold," writes Philip C.L. Gray of Catholics United for the Faith, "to give glory to God and to serve man's needs in preparation for the beatific vision of heaven."

It's the creative mindfulness Gray speaks of that inspires Hardy and Smed to create collections year after year, and that motivated Natalie Purschwitz, the designer behind the conceptual Hunt & Gather line, to wear only things she had made for an entire year. In a project called Make Shift, Purschwitz hoped to tangibly examine the role of clothing as a form of cultural production.

"Initially this may seem like a reasonable task," she chronicled on the Make Shift website where she charted her progress, "but it will include all of my clothes, socks, shoes, underwear, coats, jackets, hats, bathing suits, accessories and anything else I might need to protect my body from the elements while trying to lead a fulfilling life."

On Day 55 she realized a top she had made could also double as a scarf. "Today's accessory is a jersey trapeze-style top that I'm wearing as a scarf. Knowing that I can do this with practically any t-shirt or sleeveless top has just expanded my accessory possibilities tenfold."

By working with what we have, we are cocreating with our Maker, redeeming an area of life typically overlooked. Working with the clothes we own is also a direct affront to our over-consuming culture.

"How we look shouldn't matter a lot to us, but of course it does. People will always have their first impressions, and we should feel free to express ourselves through the way we look, but we shouldn't be buying new clothes each season— it's simply unnecessary. I believe that what does matter is how we spend our money. The problem isn't fashion—it's spending too much money on fashion," reflects Smed.

"It's a good practice to learn to live with less and to let go of the mentality of needing more and keeping up with the Joneses. That corrupts anyone—everyone—but, making sacrifices and living with less, that's a way we can stand out."

Think about what you have, consider a clothing swap with your friends to come into some new clothes free of cost, or invite over a creative friend and let him or her loose in your closet. You never know what you might find. Retooling your wardrobe is an opportunity for creativity and relationship-building—don't go it alone.

Investing in relationship has its rewards

There is a dress I'd like to make. But first I have to find some fabric, a zipper, a few buttons. Then I'll have to borrow a sewing machine, thread, needle, and a serger. I'll need to measure my arms, waist, and chest. I'll need a measuring tape. I'll also have to get a good pair of scissors, and some chalk, I think, to mark the measurements. And then, of course, I'll have to learn to sew.

Clothing comes from somewhere. Someone made all of the layers you're wearing, and chances are good it wasn't you. A person wove the fabric, harvested the cotton, beat the leather. A person chose the colours, the fit, and the inseam. A person sourced the clothing, stocked the shelves, and manned the cashier at the department store.

You're wearing someone else's story.

In Philip Gray's view, "Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbour, including generations to come. Because stewardship is collective, the service provided to man by a particular resource is not intended for only one man. Rather, the resources of the earth are intended for all humanity, and our use of them should reflect this solidarity. In other words, it's not just what we use it for—it's also how we use it. For example, a car is intended to get us from one point to another. If we run stoplights and race at excessive speeds, we endanger the lives of others. In the same way, when we use resources for our own good, we must always keep in mind the common good."

There's a difference between the mass-produced, homogenized stuff we see in suburban strip malls and the made-in-the-image-of-God beauty created by an individual person. When we approach clothing in search of relationship— befriending a shop owner, supporting the work of an artist, buying quality clothing for a friend or child—we become carriers of memory, a harbinger of stories.

It was the dream of restoring communities within the red-light areas of Kolkata, India, that birthed Sari Bari. Sari Bari is a safe home where women who have been exploited in the sex trade can have their dignity restored and experience new life in the making. Each of their products made from the Indian sari is marked with a woman's name, a woman who now has the opportunity to make a choice for freedom and new life. To symbolize her freedom, each product is marked with the name of the woman who made it. The organization takes recycled saris and makes them into something new— cast-offs become bags, scarves, and blankets.

Sari Bari is an extreme example of the physical presence of a person behind a piece of clothing. It is also a breathtaking reflection of the tapestry God weaves through our lives. One woman makes a scarf, we buy it and give it to a friend, we share her story, the story carries on and on and on. Every time the scarf is worn the fabric breathes her name. Imagine having a wardrobe like that.

The very first time I bought a piece of clothing directly from the designer was at Vancouver's Portobello West, a monthly craft market modeled on London's world-famous Saturday street fair. I chose a turquoise blouse, hand-stitched with rudimentary black and grey flowers and a thin black string tied at the waist. As I pulled out cash to pay the woman, I asked about the name of her label, Nap. She explained that she crafts clothes as her toddler son sleeps in the afternoon.

"It's the only time I have to sew," she sighed with a smile. I tell her story every chance I get. It's this first encounter that ignited my desire to connect with people through the clothing I wear.

This woman creates in the windows, in the small bursts of time afforded her. To me, this is the creativity God smiles on. God loves the beauty His children create, and He cherishes the use of imagination He's imparted.

Not only does buying clothes from a person connect us to their story, it comes with numerous other benefits. First, you know what you're buying and from whom you're buying it. Second, craftsmanship is top priority: the work is handmade, personally sewn, washed and tested for durability. The designer's personal name is attached to the clothing, so it is in his or her best interest to create the best garment possible. Third, if you have trouble with fit or a seam, you can often bring the item back to the shop where you purchased it (or contact the designer by e-mail) and the hands that made it will personally reshape your clothing at little or no cost.

The assumption that one-of-a-kind clothes carry a higher price tag than items off the rack is simply not true. And if you do pay a bit more for quality, the investment pays off.

"I remember my dad buying me a Burberry trench coat (back when they made only one model—the good one) that cost a thousand bucks in 1978," recalls John Stackhouse, Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College. "He had bought one in Britain twenty years before, and it still looked good. Mine looked good for twenty years, too, and I handed it down to one of my sons . . . Amortized over twenty years, it was a pretty smart purchase—and a Christian one, in just the terms you suggest."

Though today Burberry is a global brand with an army of designers at the helm, Stackhouse's story is one about generations. Impeccable quality enabled Stackhouse to share his coat with his son. When we buy quality, clothing lasts. When we invest in quality, we can buy less.

Here on in

Jesus implored, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions . . . Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:15, 23, 34)

How we choose to use our money matters.

In Biblical times food and clothing were produced nearby. There were no industrial sweat shops, black markets, or genetically-modified food. Today we live in a different world and God intentionally set us in this time. We must choose to live wisely. Gratitude and humility are right responses to God's gifts. As we steward our wardrobe, slowly building a collection of clothes we love that will last, we are following God's call to steward our wealth and honour creation.

The fashion industry, as with all advertising industries, is in the business of manufacturing need. It is up to us to choose the greater story, the one we, with God, are telling.

We needn't worry about trends. By knowing ourselves in Christ and investing in fashion we love, we can use clothing as a tool to cover ourselves, keep ourselves safe and warm from the elements, and express who God is—a God of creativity, of relationship, of generosity and propriety.

Topics: Arts Vocation
Christina Crook
Christina Crook

Christina Crook's book, The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World, has made her leading voice on technology and human flourishing. Through her writing and speaking she reveals how key shifts in our thinking can enable us to draw closer to one another, taking up the good burdens of local work and responsibilities. She writes about the value of focus, making space to create, and the meaning we find in more limited connections. She challenges the Western values of power, control, and success, revealing how wonder, trust, and discipline are central to the experience of being human and the keys to our joy.


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