Sunday, 28 December 2008

how should we then wear?

"I wondered if you came across in your time at L'abri anyone exploring Christianity and fashion? is art and what we wear functions as a work of art ... it relates back to your question about what place physical beauty has. Any further thoughts on that? The industry as a whole clearly has a lot of faults - but stripping that away do you think there is anything biblical there?" (Also see

There weren't any explicitly in the fashion industry this term at L'Abri, there were photographers and related artists, and generally fashionable people.. Artisan Initiatives at St Mary’s tends to have a gaggle of fashion industry types and they link to MFC in their publication, I haven’t followed it before.

Slowly I am preparing for the blog my thoughts on Christians, Craft and Image, and trying to take in idolatry and the environment all in one, it is a convoluted piece. So for fashion, just as with architecture, we cannot say a piece of clothing is inherently wrong, God made us creative, we are fallen, everything is a mixed bag.

However, I do think some fashion is virtually irredeemable, though I feel that about some architectures, and it is possibly an unhealthy black and white approach. But some systems of deceit and illusion, of slavery and production, of shallowness and addiction, leave in their wake such a slew of victims and offer such fleeting happiness to the consumer as to demand that Christians demonstrate that a more joyful way of clothing oneself is possible, even if that means making them yourself, Gandhi did, Shane Claiborne does..

But calling things ‘bad’ is relatively easy compared with affirming the ‘good’, where in post-structuralist, hyper-environmentalist architecture school ‘beauty’ is considered unnecessary or arbitrary or even damaging. There is a borderline pharasaical legalism around ornament, tradition and story. It is spilt perfume all over again.

Doing and wearing fashion as an expression of something within a language that is both meaningful and redemptive is so hard in a context where we often do not share signifiers (a guy wears a rainbow t-shirt to denote peace in one community, which means something else in another language community), and where we do not have sufficient information, indeed there are vested (pun intended meh) interests by companies in keeping us from knowing the means of production (so ‘fairtrade’ ‘sweatshop-free’ ‘green’ become sloganised and make a mockery of our petty morals).

It is difficult, the fashionable Christians too quickly pull the, God-made-me-creative-to-express-who-I-am-Stop-with-your-Puritanism, the less fashionable Christians too quickly assume some bizarre moral high ground, based on flawed theology that is anti-the-physical-body.. This is the same conversation as Christians and food, Christians and architecture etc, and my stock response leans heavily on a return to locality, to community, and to traditional creativity, which requires that I for the sake of argument eschew many of the fruits of a hyper-specialised, technology-enabled modern life; this is a noble hope, but is not an adequate compromise and comes with its own list of theological short-comings…

The efficiency of a machine age has been used a trumph card justify all means of production, to supply all confected 'needs'. When that which formerly was a legible meaningful expression, or 'art' as you have called it, becomes a fashion 'industry,' clothes become consumer goods, their meaning becomes impoverished and there comes a disconnect between producer and consumer, the gifts of nature - cottons, leathers etc - and the joy of using them, the creator and the creature. Out of this we struggle to live in meaningful gratitude, which almost inevitably reduces the entire transaction to the sum of its vices. Vitally the role of christians should be affirming relevent art and craft at every level, shifting people's default state from consuming to creating. The fashion born out of vanity, insecurity and bare greed is easy to throw stones at, a braver move is to consider the process of production and the language of decoration and how we can integrate these in contemporary life, in redemptive and joyful ways. Catherine knitted a pair of socks for Anna in the last week of term, it was a deep joy just to watch, as were all the hats knitted, songs written and pictures painted, the socks just seemed more fiddly. This sort of physical work should be a spiritual discipline, this sort of personal expression constitutes the sort of truly Good Work that we would do without being paid, it is redeemed work. And so for the joy set before us... I have not yet seen a theology defending the 'art' of shopping, it is not inherently wrong, but it is opted for on the basis of expediency, consuming rather than creating is complicit in fracturing community and cheapening the value of work and people.

There is another area to be explored, that of festivity, of parades and carnivals as sabbath time and their associated attire, playful wear and colourful story, and ways in which this should trickle down to the every day, if we only did not consider ourselves too sophisticated to play like that in any but an ironic fashion.

Here I am again filling cyberspace with unfootnoted opinion, tenuously strung together argument, self-evident truths mixed polemically with spurious conjecture.. and no Bible.. The question we're asking is How Should We Then Wear? And I would point people chiefly to AF's lecture on "Intentional Community as a Subversion of Modernity" and CSL's essay on "Good Work".


Anonymous said...

really interesting thoughts, Phil. The questions that still spring to mind relate mostly to how Fashion relates/feeds Consumerism. Even in 'high' fashion, which is undoubtedly highly creative, that creativity is primarily focused on promoting consumption - there needs to be radically different looks for each season, to encourage people to re-buy their wardrobe again. While i can easily appreciate the creativity involved in the design itself, the result is so deliberately temporary...
How would a more moral (or 'christian') fashion work, within the context of an industry that deliberately drives consumption?

phil said...

This is the thing, you are quite right, 'fashion' as it is currently concieved cannot be without consumerism. The whole *industry* cannot but drive and be driven by consumption. Which is where I point us to Andrew's 'Intentional Community as a Subversion of Modernity'.

Modernity is the sum of the paradigm with live and breath in. (This note may contain plot spoilers for Andrew's lecture which he must must must give this term) Modernity has its centre in human agency, rather than God. As a result Modernity must be is technologically driven, market driven and politically driven, it is absolutely commited to these.

Any attempt to subvert modernity, using its own concepts. (eg the use of 'technique' in an evangelism programme) will be subverted. This, in the case of fashion is seen in the hope put in No Logo, or Adbusters, the next season comes around, and all the little arrows fired by the anti-capitalists are displayed ironically in the new clothes collection.

The system is an empire, it uses force, violence, literal and metaphorical, we swear allegiance and we give over our freedom in exchange for the comfortable life it allows us. Jesus for President is the best exploration of this I have read.

So, I am willing to affirm goodness wherever I see it, I am frequently in awe of those christians within the design and arts industries doing the salt and light thing. But I am with the Fellows and Claiborne school of thought in terms of the picture of the systems at work.

Intentional community, says Andrew, offers Personhood in the face of De-Humanisation, Integration in the face of Dis-Integration, Trinitarianism in the face of Individualism, and Reality in exchange for all the Abstractions of Modernity.

Clothing ourselves, as with feeding ourselves and housing ourselves, there is a need for Christians to stretch their political imaginations, to go beyond the city gates, and to make their own clothes..

Sometimes I fear I am repressed amish waiting for the return of the 16th century.

Mary Frances said...

1) And all the people said "AMEN". Love your thoughts on this subject (I think on it often, esp as a fashion consuming girl), even if they aren't quite complete. Good food for thought for me, thanks for writing on it.
2) Damn I didn't listen to that lecture by Andrew. One more reason to eagerly await the L'Abri lectures going online.
3) Re: your comments on celebration, parades, etc, talk to Stephen about his thoughts on art as celebration (vs teaching, worship, and prophesy) if you haven't already.
4) Since he's commented here, I had an insteresting lunch discussion raised by Andy around how/why we "dress up" for church or on Sundays and what is behind that. Again, one you would enjoy engaging in i think.
5) I love this idea of you being a repressed Asmish. If you want to come live in an Amish community in rural Pennsylvania, this could help me in my quest to get you a visa into the US. Would Catherine wanna be Amish too??? xoxo

.anna. said...

Okay, okay, I'll keep knitting...

phil said...

Liz said...

Dearest Phil...
Firstly - glad your work of art has begun again.

Secondly, you & the other comments make some interesting points. I think the whole thing about fashion and dressing up for church is an issue at St Marys. Because there are so many fashionista types there, it almost becomes a competition - comparing peoples' outfits as they go up for prayer, rather than concentrating on the point of being there in the first place!

And that's why I resolutely stay out of the competition! x

phil said...