The internet is full of fast fashion, and full of people denigrating it. Hundreds of shopping sites over the past several years have sprung up to churn out cheap, trendy clothing at an astonishing pace; so, too, has a parallel cottage industry of influencers explaining why fast fashion is destructive.
“Fast fashion is gross,” sums up Luke Meagher on his YouTube channel, elaborating on several common criticisms: “But it’s really gross because of the ways companies go about designing, producing and selling their clothing. Fast fashion has killed thousands, it’s hurt small and independent fashion brands, it’s contributed to global pollution in an astronomical way and recently it has been deemed as a modern form of slavery.”
So what, if anything, does Christianity have to say about this?
Many Christians would stumble here, struggling to connect fashion and faith. Our faith affects everything we do, and yet our discussions of how Christianity impacts what we wear is usually restricted to discussions about modesty. A few of us would leap to ethical concerns, decrying the impact of the consumption of fashion on God’s creation, or pointing out the poor labour standards that are necessary to keep the industry moving at such a relentless pace. And yet while ethical issues are important, they do not really discuss fashion as fashion. If all ethical and modesty-related issues were removed, would fashion then have no connection to our faith? Would we be free to wear whatever our heart desired? Or would it still be deeply connected to what we believe, revealing more about how God created his world to be?
Fashion matters, because fashion speaks its own language. More than any other form of creative expression, it points away from itself to another object—to the person wearing the clothes. The showiest clothes that capture all the attention are meant to say something about the wearer (that they are daring, or extremely fashionable, or influential in setting trends that others follow). And insofar as it communicates who the individual wearing the clothes is, fashion communicates something about the God who created that person. Fashion has become a type of communication one cannot opt out of, as long as one wears clothes. We are not all fashion designers, but when we dress ourselves each day, we unavoidably design ourselves.
Therefore, if fashion is speaking to the world around us, we can evaluate what it is saying. As Christians, we can look to the current trend of fast fashion specifically and analyze the meaning of the messages it sends. If theology’s proper sphere is the God who creates all things, then insofar as it speaks of God, theology speaks of all things in a secondary manner. Theology should impact everything we do and think in life – even fashion.
What’s the most prominent feature of fast fashion? It’s in the name, of course: speed. Speed in production, but also speed in the revolution of trends. What’s in one day is out the next. Fast fashion relies strongly on this sense of freshness for its appeal, and some of the trends that are most bizarre to those of us who are not up-to-date depend on their distinctive, different-than-you’ve-seen-before ability to catch your eye. But since so much of fast fashion’s appeal relies on this initial visual impact, once the newness wears off the clothes can seem garish and cheap all too quickly.
As Mina Le, another YouTuber, explains, “the people who buy $900 Shein hauls, who throw out their clothes every two months, who take a dump on people for wearing outdated trends—how do we justify that? And it all becomes a vortex because people who genuinely love the trendy pieces that they get… you’ll probably be shamed or pressured into throwing it away by other TikTokers who are cosplaying as the most popular girls in school.”
Fast fashion has to rely on “churn” to function. Of course, this speed underlies much of the ethical complaint about fashion. But is this constant change a bad thing in itself? Aside from ethics, what does this ceaseless revolution of trends say?
As Robert Covolo points out in Fashion Theology, Christianity is not opposed to “the new.” God declares that he can do a new thing in history, and he can make us new creatures as well. But the speed required for any sense of freshness in an internet age, made possible by the latest methods of factory production, has reduced this newness to absurdity. How can anyone tell what’s new if it is always changing? As Covolo goes on to explain:
In the twentieth century, the new-now logic has reached a feverish pace of style replacement. Whereas changes in style used to be identified with a given season, the frenetic speed by which new styles have been introduced has led to a collapse of the linear history of previous fashion dispensations, thereby challenging the veracity of the new-now… Indeed, younger generations may never experience the dramatic revolution of a new style like previous generations. So, while the ideal of the new-now remains, the mechanism that gave rise to this ideal begins to undermine the new-now…To the degree that the new-now is divorced of a larger drama from which to invest the meaning of any given moment, the new-now takes on a repetitive and, therefore, inconsequential nature.”
The very speed of change in fashion has reinforced a sense of futility: change for the sake of change, newness for the sake of newness. Fashion no longer involves a search for something specific, for qualities such as beauty or fine workmanship. Rather, it seeks what is eye-catching in the moment due to its novelty. Fast fashion is futile, for the trend of the moment will always be swiftly replaced by another. It echoes our culture at large: a ceaseless search for nothing in particular.
Rather than showing respect for the wearer, fast fashion transfers this sense of futility onto the person who wears it. It (apparently) announces an individual identity, yes—but an individual identity that is unfixed and able to change on a whim. There is no real sense of personal choice because each change is easily changed again, and every look is a fleeting experiment. There is no defining who you are, only putting on and taking off many potential selves.
Worse, the relentless pace of these trends leads to the inconsequentiality of fashion itself—robbing it of the fun. It becomes anxiety-provoking rather than an enjoyment of a goodness God has put in the world. “Tired of looking for something to want,” is how one YouTuber describes her feelings as she spent hours browsing online stores.
What antidote is there to this ceaseless churn?
Christianity offers a challenge to fast fashion’s construction of personal identity: it declares that while the present does have meaning, so do the past and the future. Perhaps we can look to the past and respect the clothes we find there, not as a collection of “looks” that we can cannibalize to find the “next big thing,” but rather as a way to tell where we’ve come from and who we belong to. Perhaps we can appreciate the present by acknowledging the “now,” by being interested in what’s new without being enslaved to it. And perhaps we can demonstrate we have hope for the future by treating fashion as something to build on, by investing it with meaning and building it with beauty and good quality, and even by allowing ourselves to find in fashion a sense of individual expression.
Fashion and Identity
Ultimately fashion speaks about our identity. If we grant that our fashion points away from itself to say something about us, then our knowledge of who we are becomes intensely important. Because we direct our lives towards God, we want our clothes to be ultimately directed to him as well. As Ambrosio puts it, “Speculative theology must consider dress and fashion as an opportunity for examining the visible image of the Invisible God.”
Our identities can be very complex, and the fun of fashion is that it can give expression to our different “sides”—our professional side, our feminine side, our athletic side, and so on. The fun of fast fashion is how it allows us to try on different identities with little commitment. We can try out something new for cheap. But the problem with fast fashion isn’t that we express different parts of who we are with it; the problem is the nihilism underlying it, as if putting on and discarding looks that say very little about who we really are doesn’t matter very much. But for Christians, who we are does matter.
Knowing who we are can be one of the strongest defenses against getting carried away by the ceaseless trends. Many YouTubers who discuss fast fashion talk about not knowing what they were truly interested in, while they were filling their closets with more and more clothes. However, by resting securely in the knowledge that we, as creatures, are God’s, and by applying that knowledge to even the apparently insignificant dimensions of our lives, like fashion, we can focus on ourselves less. When we know ourselves, we begin to trust our own judgment without reference to the currently “cool”.
Identity is often overplayed these days, presenting each human as completely self-directed—Carl Trueman’s recent book on The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is one work that traces how the self became overemphasized. But as Trueman makes clear, our consciousness of ourselves as individuals also grew and developed in the context of Christian history, and having an identity of our own is not something we need to avoid entirely. At the same time, fashion is often used to communicate about the communities and ties we have—black eye makeup for goths, or cowboy hats for westerners, and so on. Our place in our community, and our group identities as Christians, employees or employers, or as fathers and mothers and children, can all be communicated by what we wear, just as well as our expressions of our individuality.
We can chase the feeling of a whole new look through endless purchases, and find ourselves continually facing the deep letdown of a makeover that doesn’t actually make us new. We can continue to hope clothes have more power than they really have. Or we can get to know ourselves as we truly are in Christ, the unique individual whom God is restoring to be a new creation, and be unafraid to let that shine through what we wear. We can keep fashion in its place while holding onto the joy and blessing it brings into our lives.
Having made these considerations about a Christian approach to fashion in and of itself, we will consider the question of ethics and fashion in a follow-up piece later this week.
Harma-Mae Smit is a Canadian writer who loves connecting theology to all of life. Her writing has appeared in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Reformed Perspective magazine, and The Globe and Mail. You can visit her website here.
- Luke Meagher, “Fast Fashion Is Disgusting,” https://youtu.be/8ox72V4DM2w. ↑
- Mina Le, “tiktok is kind of bad for fashion,” https://youtu.be/JR3z8lq2cNM. ↑
- Robert Covolo, Fashion Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2020), 94. ↑
- Covolo, Fashion Theology, 94-95. ↑
- Christina Mychas, “Why is it so hard to stop shopping? 5 reasons you may not think of,” https://youtu.be/sdQ0OB75Vvw. ↑
- See Covolo, Fashion Theology, 97-98 for a more extensive treatment of Augustine’s ideas of time in relation to fashion. ↑
- Ambrosio, “Invisible Dress,” 419. ↑
- Mychas, “Why is it so hard to stop shopping?” ↑
- Developing ourselves as individuals can be part of our journey of faith, as long as it is not the ultimate end: “[T]he interesting thing is the self is not the ultimate project there. The way I put it in class is, Augustine moves inward, Paul moves inward, simply so that he can then move outward more effectively and locate himself relative to God. I think you’re absolutely correct in saying that the self as a sort of constructed project is a later phenomenon.” Carl Trueman, “The Triumph of the Modern Self: A Conversation with Theologian Carl Trueman,” https://albertmohler.com/2020/12/10/carl-trueman. ↑