Fashion Theology: A Review

Fashion Theology. Robert Covolo. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020. 216 pp. $49.99.

That the earliest fashion critics were theologians will probably come as a surprise to the average Christian and the average fashionista alike. Far from being estranged disciplines, fashion and theology have grown up together, their interests and incentives intertwined. The theologians who shaped Christian thought over the centuries often had much to say about the meaning of our attire.

In Fashion Theology (Baylor University Press), Robert Covolo becomes the first to map out this colorful, tumultuous conversation between theology and fashion. A subject this neglected necessitates covering quite a lot of ground, and although Covolo’s book comes in at little over a hundred pages, it is highly condensed, supported by nearly sixty pages of footnotes, and spans the nearly two millennia that lie between Tertullian calling for headcoverings for women “as the Devil’s gateway”, and “The Devil Wears Prada.” Like a detective looking at different “crime scenes,” Covolo proceeds from one fashion-theology intersection to the next: examining evidence, presenting overlooked conversations, “mutual investments, conflicting interests, and hotly contested terrain.” (2) The five intersections Covolo explores are fashion theology as tradition, as reform, as public discourse, as art, and as everyday drama. For each intersection, Covolo invites us into dialogue with theologians as they wrestled with questions around Christian dress. Should Christians dress to reflect the glory of man or the fallenness of man? Is clothing an unnecessary luxury or a good gift to be enjoyed? To what extent should dress reflect social hierarchies?

Tertullian had much to say on dress, his fashion theology focusing largely on the importance of affirming nature. For Tertullian, “whatever is born is the work of God. Whatever, then, is plastered on is the devil’s work.” Having introduced sin into the world, women should therefore dress in a “garb of penitence.” (5) Dyed fabrics were an aberration against nature, as God never made “sheep to be born with purple and sky-blue fleeces.” Man’s desire to seek glory through clothing reflects “the devil’s own inordinate lust for undue glory.” (6) Further, Tertullian saw uniformity of custom as being the only way to achieve unity within a rapidly growing church. Tertullian’s energy as a fashion theorist was therefore directed toward fashion prescriptions for all Christians. (If Tertullian’s fashion theology had taken hold, it’s very likely that head-coverings would have become normative for Christian women.)

Fortunately, Augustine’s moderation and desire for synthesis won the day over Tertullian’s totalizing instinct. Augustine originated the now oft-repeated maxim that Christians should “plunder the Egyptians,” taking whatever was beautiful and good from pagan literature, culture, and of course, fashion. Augustine was cosmopolitan by birth and education, and this no doubt shaped his understanding that fashions will vary by time and place. Augustine understood that the language of fashion is semiotics, and that the coded meanings in dress are actually necessary for society to operate smoothly. For Augustine, “…there are useful and necessary institutions, established with men by men; such things as the conventional differences in dress and in bodily ornament, designed to distinguish sex or rank, and countless kinds of coded meanings without which society would function less smoothly, or not at all….” (10) Christians should therefore, as participants in society, ought to study and “commit to memory” the fashion prescriptions of their particular context. Covolo says, “Augustine, having been credited with playing a seminal role in fields such as autobiography and phenomenology, adds yet another title to his credentials: father of fashion theory.” (10)

“Where Tertullian connected women’s dress with Eve’s role in the fall, Calvin proposed that men and women alike should dress in humble garb to acknowledge their rebellion against God.”

For Aquinas, dress was centrally about temperance and truthfulness. To dress temperately means taking others into consideration; to dress immodestly is to provoke inquisitiveness in others, which could lead to concupiscence or unchaste behavior. When discerning how exactly to dress temperately, Christians should pursue social harmony, and that requires dressing truthfully. While shifting fashions were not rooted in nature, they would be informed by nature. Dress should therefore reflect the norms of both the Church and of culture, and in such a highly hierarchical medieval context, that meant that clothing should reflect a person’s station in life. A nobleman who dresses below or above his station is guilty not just of imprudence, but of deceitfulness, for “outward apparel is a token of man’s condition.” (17) Aquinas avoided the excessiveness of Tertullian’s totalizing prescriptions for Christians, instead focusing on avoiding excesses in both directions: caring too much or too little for your dress are both to be avoided. (17)

Perhaps the most surprising section is on Calvin, whom Covolo introduces in chapter two, “Fashion Theology as Reform,” as “an unlikely ally.” Calvin saw clothing as a gift from God, like food, one that ought to be received not only in response to need, but also for the beauty and joy it brings to our mundane lives. Covolo sees in this Calvin’s humanist instinct “to praise that which elevates human life and his unguarded embrace of creation’s delights as gifts from a sovereign Creator.” (23) Since clothing is a good gift from God, it should be enjoyed as all God’s other gifts: with “neither undue rigorism nor license.” (23)

But despite Calvin’s appreciation for fine and attractive clothing, he never forgot that clothing was only necessitated by the fall. Where Tertullian connected women’s dress with Eve’s role in the fall, Calvin proposed that men and women alike should dress in humble garb to acknowledge their rebellion against God. Calvin even saw God’s choice of animal skins over linen or wool garments as significant, “because garments formed of this material would have a more degrading appearance than those made of linen or of woolen.” Animal skins for our newly disgraced parents would serve to remind them of their sin. (From Commentary on Genesis, 181-82/FT, p. 132) To dress to display your own glory was therefore to dress deceitfully. To dress “truthfully” meant to dress humbly and simply. 

For Calvin, the Christian life should be characterized by self-denial, a discipline that would drive out the many sins encouraged by luxurious dress: deceitfulness, effeminacy, unchaste behavior, pride, and more. Calvin wanted to bring the simplicity of monastic life to the common Christian (he asked, “what would the anchorites do” today? (p 134)), and therefore luxury simply had no place in a Christian’s life. Self-denial would lead instead to radical generosity and good stewardship (24). 

Perhaps my favorite fashion comment from Calvin comes with his warning against “mixing and matching styles,” a practice that would “inevitably result in ‘bringing all things to confusion’ and is, itself, a ‘disorderly dealing.’”

Another reason Calvin encouraged simple dress was to emphasize the social responsibility all Genevans–and perhaps by extension, all Christians–had toward one another. For Calvin, to hoard belongings was to break the commandment against murder. “It followed for Calvin that social obligations regarding choices of clothing were to be taken quite seriously, lest beautiful garments translate into covering oneself in ‘the blood of the poor.’” (26) This injunction for simplicity and generosity leveled medieval hierarchies and erased the connection between dress and social class distinction (contra Luther and Aquinas), bringing in “a new form of openness and freedom, one where God’s people were given a fresh call to be authentic in whatever social roles they had,” (26) 

Finally, Covolo demonstrates Calvin’s fashion allyship by showing us that “Calvin’s God is lavishly dressed.” If man must dress simply and humbly to remember original sin, God displays his glory in the sartorial splendor of the very fabric of the world. The world is a dramatic theater in which the glory of an otherwise invisible God can be seen. (27) Covolo points out the contrast this creates to the way God was made visible within the framework of the medieval Catholic imagination namely, the Mass. For the medieval church, the Mass was the mystical intersection between heaven and earth. “Calvin’s idea of the world as ‘God’s dress’ or ‘God’s theater’ was no accident but a careful theological move on Calvin’s part to displace the Mass’s altar-bound reenactment of ritual sacrifice as the unique nexus to another world. In making this move, Calvin sought to reframe the celebration of the Eucharaist as ‘a once-for-all event freeing the faithful for engagement in vocation in the midst of the world.’” (27) For Calvin, theater replaced spectacle as laity participate not only in the Eucharist and liturgy, but in their ordinary lives and vocations outside Church walls. By infusing the mundane and ordinary with divine participation and drama, Calvin gave a Protestant answer to the medieval Catholic imagination, and by infusing the ordinary with spiritual meaning actually paved the way for the rise of fashion. “Calvin’s contribution to the rise of fashion is both momentous and unexpected.” (28)

“If man must dress simply and humbly to remember original sin, God displays his glory in the sartorial splendor of the very fabric of the world.”

After the French Revolution, the hierarchical fashion sensibilities of early modernism gave way to an unprecedented egalitarianism. The rise of secularism together with the rise of  capitalism, with new innovations in textile industries, ushered in sartorial opportunities never before available to the middle and lower classes. It was in this new milieu that Abraham Kuyper began to wrestle with the many problems and tensions introduced by secularism. Like Aquinas and Calvin, Kuyper saw fashion as a means to pursue social harmony. But notably, Kuyper departed from Calvin in the particulars. Far from condemning immoderation or encouraging simplicity, Kuyper grieved to see the loss of cultural distinctives under modernity’s flattening influence. He longed for the “luxuriant dress of the past,” and lamented men abandoning “the brilliant styles of the French court” for “the dour darkness characteristic of English bankers,” (32) and the women of his native Netherlands trading their traditional Dutch dress for modern Parisian styles. For Kuyper, wherever cosmopolitanism entered a culture, monotony and uniformity were not far behind. 

Kuyper saw in secular modernity a great flattening and erasure of what’s needed to live a flourishing Christian life: it flattened time by rejecting God’s sovereignty over history; it rejected God’s moral sovereignty, inviting unseemly and lewd behavior (for example, the influence of French courtesans as fashion icons), and it erased cultural distinctives, inviting a soul-numbing uniformity. But we should not mistake Kuyper for lamenting the loss of hierarchical distinctives in dress. It was to the Americans that Kuyper looked as the ideal for Christian fashion. On a trip to the U.S. in 1898, Kuyper “purchased a whole new set of gentlemanly clothes, including new shirts and colors, a white under-suit vest, and diamond buttons.” Kuyper was fascinated with American dress, which he saw was much more stylish than the Dutch. He saw that Americans paid close attention to details in their clothing no matter their class or station. He considered whether Americans’ ambivalence toward class structure in their dress “might reinforce a better harmony within family relationships.” (35)  In fact, he was so impressed with the way Americans dressed that he could only attribute it to their Calvinist heritage. Calvinist theology, he said, produced “only well-dressed people.” (35) 

To pick up any thread in so dense a book is to neglect a dozen others. Dr. Covolo has given us a skillfully distilled, richly researched introduction to what I have no doubt will become an important new sub-discipline of Theology. Covolo is skilled at demonstrating how each theologian responded to new questions and tensions introduced by developing industries, evolving societal realities, and political unrest. Aquinas’ theology of fashion was shaped in part by the implications of the exploding textile industry in Middle Ages Italy. Calvin’s fashion theology was in large part a response to the desperate need to establish order in politically turbulent Genevan. Kuyper’s fashion theology reflected the dizzying transition from a Christian West to a morally and sartorially drab West. Each theologian examined the realities at hand and, shining the light of Scripture on the problem, offered a new perspective that would provide fodder for engagement for the next generation. It is Robert Covolo’s hope that someone will pick up these many threads and take them to new places, including responding to the needs of this fashion generation. 

In the twenty-first century, fashion has been highly preoccupied with the tensions of sustainability and justice against fast fashion, the rise of wearable art, the need to answer societal trends toward gender fluidity and androgyny, and the relentless drive to infuse every part of life with technology. Amid these pressing questions, and in a discipline that ultimately affects us all, will this generation of Christians have anything to offer?

Robin Harris is a Bible curriculum writer based in North Carolina. She can be found on Twitter @robinjeanharris and on Substack at


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