By Andrea Zanin
How short is too short? What sort of bathing suit is appropriate for a church pool party? What defines an outfit that’s too suggestive, too attention-grabbing or demeaning? While the exact questions change in step with fashion trends, the underlying issues are the same: What are the standards by which we judge what we and others wear? What principles should guide a woman of faith as she gets dressed?
Within the context of modern society, Christianity and fashion are often though as antithetical. This opposition seems inherent: the superficiality stereotypically associated with the world of fashion is considered by many as morally incongruent with the code of ethics prescribed by a Christian worldview—a code of ethics that is endorsed by believers and non-believers alike in Western culture. The tension between Christian values and fashion transcends an individual’s religious convictions.
In many circles, fashion has come to symbolize vanity, materialism and extravagance. In seeming contrast, Christian principles condone an attitude of modesty, humility and sensibility.
As women, we feel pressured to conform to the world’s measure of beauty, which is commandeered by fashion and often demands an unrealistic standard of physical perfection. It is therefore not merely “believers” who struggle to exist in a world of beauty and Botox, but women of all convictions (moms, daughters, professionals, students, housewives, grannies and aunties … all women) who wish to embrace style and its relative expression without succumbing to a fashion-inspired spirit of moral decay.
But is it right to blame the “big bad beast” of fashion for society’s penchant for the perfunctory? In short: no! British socialite and writer Jennie Jerome Churchill observed, “There is no such thing as a moral dress. It’s people who are moral or immoral.” Fashion, in and of itself, is objective … but it is subjectively practiced. In other words, fashion can be manipulated and morphed to suit each woman’s belief system.
Millennia after Adam and Eve donned fig leaves to hide their shame, practicality has lost its mojo: popular culture has made fashion about art and expression. However, the origins of adorning our bodies with apparel add a philosophical complication for Christians: Fashion, in its origin, is a symbol of mans’ disobedience and fall out of paradise. Hiding one’s body was and is a repercussion of sin. But what started off as an act of shame has become an act of pride—and embedded therein is the crux of the tension often felt between fashion and Christianity.
That said, it seems largely unrealistic to suppose a woman can function as an interactive member of society without … um … wearing clothes. And does God really expect us to walk around in sackcloth as a symbol of our submission? As fashion has evolved over the years, women of all beliefs have had to adapt their standards to suit the social and stylistic contexts in which they live.
Christians believe that God has given a set of values by which to conduct their lives: the Bible. Much of what this book says about appearance provokes heated debate within Christian circles—some interpret and apply these principles more liberally, others more conservatively. Contention can surround an issue as “old fashioned” as a woman’s desire to wear “men’s” clothing (such as pants), a practice that is prohibited in the Old Testament and is often still considered unacceptable by more conservative Christians. A more current disagreement has developed over the issue of pop culture icons’ and musicians’ names and likenesses printed on clothing. Band tees are a great example; to some Christians, wearing a Coldplay shirt amounts to idolatry and or even paganism, but to others it’s a mere “Hey, this is my favorite band and I am letting y’all know!” It gets complicated.
But engaging in argument rarely achieves anything productive in the quest to practically reconcile fashion and Christianity within the context of modern living. So, in the name of “keeping it real,” there is one biblical principle that sums up all of God’s guidelines pertaining to appearance: the body is a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). A temple is holy and the body, as a temple, should be treated with honor and reverence. It should be valued. It should be loved, not in an idolatrous manner but in a way that glorifies its Creator God.
This principle translates into a broader value system with one word: Respect. Aretha Franklin preached it and women the world over applaud it. Respect nullifies the audacious degradation of femininity and womanhood that the fashion industry often (consciously or unconsciously) promotes. Respect is universal in its appeal.
Ultimately, for women who subscribe to the “Doctrine of Respect,” the point is not to engage in ideological warfare, but rather to find a way to embrace expression without demoting moral integrity from a place of supremacy. But even the ways in which we live out the whole “the body is a temple” thing can cause some serious conflict—from high heels and corsets to tattoos and piercings. It’s conservatism versus liberalism, and there is no easy answer.
How can fashion be practiced in a way that is guided by respect and allows for personal expressions of beauty, personality and art? Euripides, one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, said “Know first who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.” This is absolutely key! A strong sense of self prevents an individual from narcissism and egocentricity. Knowing who you are, as well as being informed and molded by a strong value system, promotes confidence. And there is a difference between confidence and vanity. God wishes His people to practice self-love in a manner that is inspired by a love for Him and His creation—man included. The ability to love one another is achieved through an ability to love one’s self, and self-love embraces respect. Practicing fashion through the filter of self-respect is a personal moral responsibility, not an attitude dependent on external factors.
Fashion and beauty are closely related and, although its manifestations are subjective, beauty itself is divine. An appreciation of beauty is natural and, at its core, a reflection of the divine thumbprint within us. Perceived from an attitude of confidence, respect and self-love, fashion can become art rather than a mere tool for the preservation of youth, the rehabilitation of insecurity, the drawing of attention or a means to fit in. Fashion is an expression of LIFE. It is important to act deliberately and purposefully when it comes to the adornment of one’s physique—the danger lies in mechanically following the “great god of fashion” who speaks through mass media, rather than thoughtfully considering our choices in apparel. Fashion portrays personality and character and, when used and applied wisely, confidently and respectfully, is an enhancement of inner beauty—the kind that surpasses trends and never goes out of style.
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson (19th-century American essayist, lecturer and poet)