The classic three-piece suit. The little black dress. The iconic t-shirt. When we think about the staples that fill our wardrobes, we rarely think about how fashion interacts with theology. Robert Covolo looks to shed greater light on the interaction between fashion and the theological insights of the history of the church in his book, Fashion Theology.
Before going into the contents of the book, a word must be given regarding the title. It is a title that provokes attention and piques curiosity. However, the title should be not immediately be compared to the other theological ideologies that we may be familiar with, such as “Black Theology” or “Feminist Theology.” The latter have theological agendas, where a system of dogmatics, hermeneutics, and worldview are seen through certain lenses, i.e., Black Theology contextualizes Christianity to those of African descent for the goal of political, social, or economic liberation. Do not let the title Fashion Theology evoke the idea that the contents of this book have an ulterior social motive. Ultimately, Covolo is writing about the historical interaction between fashion as an aspect of society and culture with theological reflections from significant figures throughout church history, and how these reflections can prove insightful for readers today.
The book is composed of five chapters, each broadly covering a period of history, from the 1st century onward. The first chapter, titled “Fashion Theology as Tradition,” covers from the cultural context of the 1st century church, through the church fathers, up to the medieval period. It starts with the “Roman dress” (3), and how early Christians wore the same dress as the pagans around them in order to demonstrate a “fitting faith” (4), a faith that did not look to be subversive to the ways of Roman life and government but ultimately desiring to live in peace and to be able to worship Christ freely. Covolo quotes early church figures such as Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Tertullian, and Augustine; each advocated for Christians to dress modestly, yet they also understood the unique aesthetic value brought by clothing in a beautiful world created by God. However, starting with Augustine and going on into the medieval period, a dichotomous understanding between secular dress and ecclesiastical vestments develops that reflects the societal impact of ecclesiology and sacramentology during this period.
In the second chapter, “Fashion Theology as Reform,” the theological influence of the Reformation brings about a more nuanced view of clothing and fashion in the church, highlighting the views of Calvin. Calvin gives a more developed and balanced view on clothing, believing that the pleasurable things in life such as food and clothing should be enjoyed in moderation, as God lavishes His creatures with beautiful things. The reformer remarks:
[Paul] wishes therefore that their dress should be regulated by modesty and sobriety; for luxury and immoderate expense arise from a desire to make a display either for the sake of pride or of departure from chastity. And hence we ought to derive the rule of moderation; for, since dress is an indifferent matter, (as all outward matters are,) it is difficult to assign a fixed limit, how far we ought to go.
Covolo also gives a social history of the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment periods, especially with the rise of the modern conception of Capitalism and the burgeoning fashion industry centered in Paris. The Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper sees how with the rise of secular democracies, there is a “deadening of dress” (32) that goes against the God-given impulse to adorn things to be beautiful. Karl Barth gives a unique criticism of the fashion movements of his own day. He sees fashion as a manifestation of “lordless powers” of the world (39), positioning fashion as an outgrowth of sinful humanity, rather than as an expression of the beauty of God’s common grace. Both Kuyper and Barth give unique theological critiques of the changing fashion of their day, both explaining the increasing adoption of atheism in Western culture.
The third chapter, “Fashion Theology as Public Discourse,” sees the development and assimilation of fashion in society at large, to the point that the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle argues that the modern democratic society is integrated with fashion (46). This chapter sees fashion as a tool and an expression of public discourse and politics. When thinking about the past 100 years of fashion in America and Europe, fashion is used as an expression of not only beauty and art but also of personal conviction and politics. In the popular mind, fashion is not only seen through the channels of haute-couture during Paris Fashion Week but also in pictures of Elvis Presley in rebellion-signaling denim and drag queens expressing a certain sexual ideology. With the rise of industrialization in fashion, fashion itself is democratized to be expressed in a variety of ways as well as modernized to meet demand. This modernization not only brings efficiency in the production line but also an atheistic worldview in its wake, where individualism is praised and the objective reality, especially that of the Christian worldview, is marginalized. Covolo presents the three “dispensations” of modern fashion, from a unique aristocratic fashion of the early modern period to the largely democratized fashion of the 20th and 21st centuries.
An insightful evaluation of modern fashion is given here, where democratized fashion as we see it today is stuck in a dialectic. The variety of fashion is based on the individual’s desire to wear what he or she pleases. It is an example of the progressive emphasis of the individual in political theory. However, certain fashion tastes can influence a group of people, which can eventually lead to market dynamics influencing an even greater portion of the population. If market dynamics, especially through advertisement, is powerful enough, the voice of individual expression can be snuffed out. Fashion ultimately diminishes the individual voice that it is founded upon. This, Covolo argues, is the perversion of the Christian worldview, where fashion looks to steal all that is good from Christianity while maintaining a staunch autonomy against God (52), what Cornelius Van Til would call “borrowed capital.” Here, wisdom is gleaned from Kuyper’s neo-Calvinist perspective, where fashion is constitutive of a Christian worldview, wherein social dynamics, ethics, and aesthetics are fully accounted for. Van Til also observes the same outcome with all unbelieving thought: “To become a reality this ideal would have to destroy science itself. It would have to demolish the individuality of each fact as it became known.” Applied to fashion, the unbelieving mores of contemporary fashion only undermine the individuality that defines it; it demonstrates the self-destructiveness of sin.
In Chapter 4, “Fashion Theology as Art,” Covolo looks at how fashion has ultimately melded with the modern conception of art. Where once art and fashion were separate, they are now distinguished with a blurry line. The Roman Catholic Church once played a large role in the commissioning of art throughout Europe, as art was used as means to depict and impress the beauty and import of the transcendent. With modernity, theology has been “estranged” from art (67), as art is now immanentized especially through fashion. Before, fashion and art stood in distinct spheres of their own; the former being concerned with everyday matters and the latter with eternal and abstract categories. However, through figures like Andy Warhol and Yves Saint Laurent, these two spheres have come to merge and the line between the two becoming increasingly indiscernible. Art, no longer grounded by an institution like the church or directly tethered to divine revelation, cannot depict the noumenal, the transcendent, because there are none. Art must be occupied with the everyday, most commonly expressed through fashion. Covolo references the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolsterstorff who believes that the modern view of art, which sees art merely as an object, is based off the anthropocentric foundations of the Enlightenment. The modern object-ness of art is only something to be looked at for “disinterested contemplation” (87). However, Wolsterstorff argues that since humans are made by God not only to contemplate but also to actively interact with creation, works of art should be seen as “instruments of action,” where they cause man to engage fully with the diversity of God’s creation. In turn, fashion also should be seen as an instrument of action, not simply as an object, in order for it to have the meaning it should have in culture.
The final chapter, “Fashion Theology as Everyday Drama,” gives a contemporary theological evaluation of fashion. Though perverted by its atheistic foundations, fashion demonstrates an internal, but misplaced, hope (91). Modern fashion is obsessed with being up-to-date, incessantly believing in the superiority of the new. Christianity, however, flies in the very face of modern fashion as it preaches a very old message in fresh ways for daily life. The internal hope of fashion obsesses over change merely for the sake of change, as it is part and parcel of a secularism that is ultimately devoid of a rooted eschatology. Covolo refers to Augustine once more: God has ordered time with a certain “expectation” (96), a yearning for the future. However, sin has twisted this view of time in the heart of man, causing man to inordinately crave for the new now. Here, the “new-nowness” of fashion demonstrates the spiritual thirst of humans through eschatology but also sin’s perversion of God’s ordered expectation. Fashion Theology concludes by giving a brief exhortation in a Christian view of fashion: how one dresses should be regulated in Christian wisdom, used as means of displaying hospitality to the world, show our joy and gratitude to God, and be done according to the glory that awaits them.
Though Robert Covolo has given readers significant interactions between fashion and theology, there are some issues with his approach. The first is that there is no explicit definition of “fashion theology” given in the book. Though the definition can be loosely ascertained from reading the book as a whole, it would have been helpful from the outset to give readers what the author means by the term “fashion theology.” The term is used throughout the volume assuming that readers have already understood the scope of the term. This would have addressed the ambiguity that I addressed earlier regarding the title. Covolo also makes certain remarks regarding theologians and their intentions, which seem speculative. The certain intentions ascribed to theologians, though given some support from primary sources, suggest that these theologians had a programmatic outlook regarding the interaction of fashion and theology. One notable instance is Augustine, who is called a “fashion theorist” (115). Covolo has argued from Augustine’s writings that this church father has contributed significant thoughts to how theology should relate to how a Christian dresses, but to call him a “fashion theorist” seems far-fetched.
Fashion Theology is a well-written, introductory book on theology’s critical interaction with fashion. Covolo has done his research and brought creative insights on how Christians can glean from historical theology in order to interact with the culture around them. The book is an interesting foray into a sphere of society that, to my recollection, has never been explicitly evaluated before. My hope is that this book incites greater reflection on fashion’s interaction with theology, especially from the Reformed perspective, in order for Christians to not only dress with wisdom but also to be better equipped to expose the spiritual bankruptcy of fashion today and the innate spiritual longings that fashion also alludes to, so that the whole counsel of God can regulate the whole of life.