In our first piece, we noted how Christian considerations of fashion often limit themselves to ethical concerns: modesty, frugality, the circumstances of production etc. Before ethical concerns however, it was necessary to consider fashion as fashion from a Christian perspective. Having done so, we can now consider the question of a Christian ethic for fast fashion.
Many of us enjoy fashion with a touch of unease. Fashion is fun, but perhaps it’s vanity. It certainly is temporary. This feeling of enjoying fashion yet feeling reluctant to fully engage in it opens the door to fast fashion: a way to fully indulge without spending too much money or looking like you care too much; or a way to ensure we’re protected from the elements without having to think about it too much. After all, it wasn’t much money, and if the look doesn’t work, or it falls apart, you can toss it aside without being too crushed.
In a world in which many evangelicals view the arts as the territory of dangerous liberals, consider church buildings to be simply glorified rain shelters, and view work and vocation as simply a way to “feed your face”, it is easy to anticipate the objection that fashion is a waste of time—a vanity, even.
But if we accept that fashion communicates, and we want to communicate something different about ourselves and our God than what fast fashion communicates, then we need a different approach than downplaying and dismissing fashion as a whole. This begins by allowing ourselves to think about fashion as more than just frivolous.
Caring About Fashion
More than one Christian theologian has defended the theological study of fashion. “Fashion is part of the created order, as clothes are made by human beings, and worn by them, and so theology should also have something to say about fashion and dress,” writes Alberto Ambrosio; “nothing can be considered to be outside of being understood and studied in the light of faith.” And Robert Covolo declares, “the time has come for theology to take fashion seriously.”
For biblical warrant in this direction, we can surprisingly look to the book of Ecclesiastes, though it only mentions clothing once. If any book of the Bible makes clear that the ordinary blessings of daily life—bread, wine, the wife whom you love, the work of your hands, and yes, even clothing—can be embraced thoughtfully by believers, it is Ecclesiastes. Over and over the book emphasizes the goodness of an ordinary life, in the midst (and mist) of an uncertain and unpredictable world. Its solution to life’s struggles is not to turn away from the mundane and fix your eyes on sacred experiences far removed from this world, but rather to fully enjoy yourself in these simple things as gifts of God. “Go, eat your food with joy,” commands Ch. 9:7-8, “and drink your wine with a happy heart, because God has already approved your works. Let your clothes always be white, and do not spare precious ointment on your head.”
“Let your clothes always be white”—this is to say, do not shrink back from wearing the good clothes, the clean clothes, the clothes that need care and attention. Half-hearted enjoyment is not what Ecclesiastes is about. The point is not to accept God’s gifts with a guilty heart, with a glance backward over our shoulder to check if anyone sees how much we enjoy them. We’re not required to wear long faces and somber clothes, communicating that we see the apparent futility of life (life is not futile), or the evil and injustice in the world (injustice will end), or the problem of the existence of sin. Rather, we live in hope and trust. We can lose our cynicism and start to care. This is a message we can communicate. But how?
The Four Cardinal Virtues
The themes in Ecclesiastes, of hope in the face of futility and enjoyment of life tempered by the fear of God who created every blessing, bear resemblance to the four cardinal virtues of classical and Christian philosophy. These are fortitude (the ability to confront fear and uncertainty), prudence (looking more than one step ahead), temperance (self-control and moderation), and justice (fairness, or righteousness). As we seek to allow ourselves to explore and enjoy fashion fully, while at the same time considering fashion seriously from a Christian perspective, these virtues can guide us.
It is courageous to plan for the future, but we can build on the expectation that God holds the future even if the future could be dark or uncertain. Because of our faith, we can live in hope and trust. “Building a wardrobe” and buying clothes that last are potential avenues for this—learning about quality, and about good and bad methods for caring for clothes both demonstrate that we have not given in to nihilism.
Caring for what we own, including our clothes, communicates the care God has for creation, as well as our own role in stewarding it. There may be many situations where we do end up buying cheap and disposable clothing. Not all of us can afford the highest quality, and we may go through many life stages where our clothing options are limited. But we can still show respect by not treating them as disposable (the sad fact being that most clothing is not truly disposable, taking decades to decompose long after we have no more use for them). We can be afraid that care looks too much like vanity, but we should not be put off by this: if we care for any of our possessions we recognize we are caring for what God entrusts to us.
Even just several decades ago, it was far more common for clothing to be tailor-made to the individual, to the quirks of each person’s body—either by a tailor, or another member of the household. These clothes were known to be either expensive or to have required visible effort to make, and so they had to be taken care of. Our world allows us to purchase clothes made both cheaply and out of our sight, without care for whether they really fit us or not, or whether they really suit us or not, and then to toss them instead of caring for them. We’ve lost the knowledge of good cloth and bad cloth, well-made and poorly constructed.
The speed of fast fashion has allowed us to follow the whims of the moment in a way that was impossible when every piece of clothing was tailor-made. Temperance, or the use of our self-control in the enjoyment of pleasures, is necessary to moderate our enjoyment of fashion. It is fun to explore the visual possibilities, but fast fashion demonstrates that the extremes of this are destructive.
Justice ties into the ethical issues of fast fashion that are spoken of most often: the sweatshops, the working conditions in the industry, and the effects of the fashion industry on the poor who have no option but to buy cheap clothes rather than durable ones that would save them money. Our clothing choices do communicate how we feel about the broken realities of the world we live in.
Lastly, beauty does not fit easily into a virtue system, but it is the most striking feature of fashion and cannot be ignored. The visual nature of fashion is one reason it tends to be downplayed, but unless you dismiss the importance of visual qualities, beauty is one feature of fashion that contributes to its value. We simply enjoy beautiful things.
Fashion is able to bring beauty into a public space. But beauty can be a confusing concept for us. If beauty is a real characteristic of the world God created, does this mean we ought to be seeking some unchangeable standard of clothing in the face of the trends of fast fashion? There have been Christian thinkers who have argued this way—for example, Tertullian argued palliums were more “Christian” than the Roman toga. But a better approach might be to recognize how different fashions bring out different aspects of beauty while also holding out against change for change’s sake. Beauty is complex enough that we have not exhausted its ability to awe us yet. And fashion can demonstrate an exploration of the possibilities of the world rather than a limited set of beauty rules.
Somber and simple clothes are not required by Scripture, even if they possess value in many circumstances: the prominence of fine clothing as a metaphor throughout the Bible indicates that these cannot be strictly immoral, or beautiful clothing would not be spoken of positively. For example, the wife in Proverbs 31 is highly praised, and she is “clothed in fine linen and purple.” And God himself clothes Jerusalem in fine linen, silk, sandals of fine leather and jewellery, in the prophecy of Ezekiel. Excessive care for appearance can cross into vanity, but to hold to the principle that the physical world is not less than the spiritual world is to say we can care for appearances in a way that contributes to the good.
Fashion can avoid superficiality by taking up its place in the real world of real things God created. This only works if our joy is directed in the right place. To seek enjoyment of fashion purely for the sake of pleasure is to invite the meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes 2, where pleasure is exhausted and found to be a chasing after the wind. If our enjoyment of fashion ends only in ourselves, in vanity or self-centredness, it does not really reveal who we are as image bearers of God.
But through us, fashion can speak about virtues such as fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. Fashion is too often neglected by Christians professing to believe in the importance of enjoying the gifts God gives us. But let’s take fashion seriously enough that we can enjoy it fully.
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.
- Alberto Ambrosio, “Invisible Dress: Weaving a Theology of Fashion,” Religions 10, 7 (2019), 419, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10070419. ↑
- Covolo, Fashion Theology, 2. ↑
- The descriptions of the cardinal virtues are drawn from Brad Littlejohn, “Virtue in the Twilight of a Pandemic,” https://breakingground.us/walking-by-the-light-of-virtue-in-the-twilight-of-a-pandemic/. ↑
- Ambrosio, “Invisible Dress,” 419. ↑
- Covolo, Fashion Theology, 6-7. ↑
- Prov 31: 22. ↑
- Ezekiel 16: 10-13. ↑