Editor’s note: After confronting us with Things We Thought We Knew, followed by The Happiness Illusion, Naomi Boyer goes for a hat-trick. Here she journeys through her experience with shape, manner, and mode regarding something that is all around us yet typically never thought about past the surface.
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I love fashion.
There, I said it. It has taken me a long time to freely admit to this sentiment, mostly because I’m afraid of the reactions that follow. You know the ones.
Most prominently the reaction I have experienced is to regard an interest in fashion as the product of a shallow, self-obsessed girl, or a metrosexual male, equally shallow and self-obsessed. And yes, it can be that.
Or there is the alternate reaction, which is more along the lines of “OmG! Me too!” Yikes.
It’s just that for me, coming from a homeschooled, conservative Christian background, the term “fashion” probably shouldn’t even be a part of my daily vocabulary. I should not be watching Project Runway every week for the last, um, 8 years or so. I should not be buying Vogue every time I go out of town. And I definitely should not be dedicating a blog post pertaining to Theology and Culture about (shudder) fashion. I have fallen on all ends of the spectrum–reacting, obsessing, ignoring, or berating the idea of fashion–at different points in my life, and yet, fashion continues to be a point of intrigue and an expression of beauty that will not be ignored. How can it? It is literally before us every day of our lives.
A lot of women that I know have confessed to having a tricky relationship with food. Not me. Food and I, we’re great. It’s fashion that has frequently eluded and exasperated me. There are so many messages sent to women by our culture, messages of worth, value and identity that are all wrapped up in this idea of looking beautiful. Then there is the substratum of Christian culture that sends its own messages, equally about worth and value and identity, but are mixed up into what can be a very confusing directive for women in particular. There’s crap like this (which got a positive review on Amazon as recently as last month). And crap (commentary, not Scripture) like this (vs 8-15) that serves to shame women for their beauty.
This is intensely personal to me, so it is with a measure of trepidation that I enter these waters. My aim for this article is not to convince you of anything, or to go on a feminist rant, but to explore with you the murky waters of what fashion is, has been, and dare I say, should be in our lives. Because fashion is as diverse as there are people in the world, I have decided to hone in on my own journey of thought and experience by way of embarrassing photos from the dreaded (homeschooled) jr. high years and the college awkwardness. Thank you in advance for your kindness.
One quick note: I realize that there are differences between the words “fashion” and “style”, but for the purposes of consistency, I am mostly using the word “fashion” to convey both ideas.
Let’s get started.
Fashion is a homeschooled girl’s nightmare
[note: this is not me]
Twenty-five years ago, homeschool moms could identify each other, not by drawing half a fish symbol in the sand with their toe, but by the donning of a denim jumper, usually paired with a t-shirt for the summer or a turtleneck for winter. It was the universally appropriate garb for homeschoolers. This meant that, for their sons and daughters, once the age of fashion awareness struck, it was also a time of intense realization of the fashion handicap handed down to them as they, the group as a whole, floundered for some sense of style apart from their parents idea of appropriate dress. This can take years to recover. The real tragedy, however, is when realization is never achieved. Thankfully, I see less and less of this as the years go on.
Fashion is a Christian girl’s forbidden fruit
So here we have (I’m guessing) 14-year-old Naomi and one of my best friends, Jana (sorry, Jana). At this point in time, flannel was “in”… but (I’m guessing) not like that. Yes, that is the word “whatever” written across my forehead. Pretty sure that was for a youth retreat, a cheeky Bible quizzing team name in reference to Philippians 4:8 (“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever noble, whatever is right…”). Anyway, I digress. Each of the three items you see here–blue jeans, burgundy shirt, and flannel over-shirt–were purchased at thrift stores, which was indicative of the entirety of my wardrobe. It is no exaggeration to say that I cannot remember a single item of clothing (except perhaps my first bra) being purchased by any means other than the clearance rack, a deeply discounted section, or a thrift store until I was well out of high school. My parents, of course, were trying to raise four kids on a one-income budget, and trendy clothing wasn’t a value that fit into the scenario on any of the aforementioned levels (homeschool, Christian, budget). There were many things that were communicated to me during this time, whether intentionally or unintentionally. First of all, that one should live within their means (a value I still hold to this day). Secondly, that spending money on clothing is vain and wasteful.
Fashion is confusing to a Christian girl
Now here is where it gets dicey. Take the above statement and pair it with the following: Always look nice. The idea is that a prudent, resourceful Christian girl should be able to get her clothes for a dime and instinctively know how to put everything together (like the above t-shirt and turtleneck combo: stunning!), while not daring to look at the latest Harper’s Bazaar magazine, shell out extra money at the mall, or spend too much time on her hair or make-up. After all, it’s the inner beauty, just the inner beauty we’re after. Right, guys? Right? That’ll land you a husband for sure. Boy were we in for a surprise.
Fashion is trumped by modesty
The topic of modesty is one that deserves its own blog post due to it being so nuanced and muddled by years of Christian interpretation and re-interpretation. With that, I will say that I believe there has been a false dichotomy presented that modesty and fashion are inherently opposed to one another, but, in reality, you don’t have to choose between the two. It is possible to stay classy and be fashionable. Additionally, definitions of modesty can vary drastically between cultures and sub-cultures. Scripture is clear about modesty being appropriate for godly women (and inner beauty being valued), but it is unclear exactly how that should be carried out. On the flip side, I am so weary of women being cast as both the victims and the perpetrators in sexual sins committed by men. Maybe instead of shaming the girl with the tight shirt for “causing her brother to stumble”, that brother should learn some self-control! If you haven’t seen it already, Jessica Rey has an interesting QIdeas talk about modesty and how it is about “revealing our dignity.” It is 9 minutes worth watching.
Fashion is an obsession
I think we can all agree on something here: Whether your aim is to cover or to reveal, fashion can quickly and easily slip into obsession. I have been on both sides of this coin. Too many times I have let fashion control my life rather than letting it be an expression of it. Never, ever spend more than necessary. Always be pretty. Never, ever show too much skin. Always be pretty. Never, ever wear last year’s designs. Always be pretty. Never fail to catch attention. Always be pretty.
Fashion is the image of my story and identity
Whether you like it or not, you are always communicating something through the way that you dress. For the above picture, my clothing says: I am a poor student without a dime to my name. Clothing is the visual voice of your story and who you believe yourself to be. If you don’t care about how you dress, your clothes say as much. If you only wear heels, that’s saying something. If you wear skinny jeans, or baggy jeans, or jeans with holes in the knees, or jeans with spikes in them, these are all statements made by this voice. And all of these things, as you read them contain some sort of value or judgement based upon where you originate–what you deem to be appropriate and what is crossing some invisible sub-cultural line. I have known very few people who can get past “what is she wearing” to “what is the clothing speaking”, but they are worth knowing. When clothing is viewed as part of a person’s story, the clothes can stop being deterrents or points of competition and start becoming invitations to know that person more.
Look at how beautiful I am.
Am I beautiful enough?
Is this beauty or vanity?
Am I allowed to make myself more beautiful?
Fashion is an art form
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only.
Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas,
the way we live, what is happening. – Coco Chanel
Fashion is a multi-trillion dollar industry
Did you know that the world womenswear industry is expected to pass $621 billion and the world menswear industry should exceed $402 billion… in one year alone? For 2014, that is over a trillion dollars of revenue. Can you imagine what could be done with that kind of money if even half of it were placed elsewhere, say something attainable, like providing clean water for everyone? There is undeniably an element of the fashion industry that is purely frivolous and self-serving, and again, the clothing speaks to that. It is only a voice, however, to the reality, not the reality itself.
Fashion is global
I can only think of a handful of objects
that have been timelessly universal to the human race:
Food, shelter, art, and clothing.
Fashion is a vain, narcissistic human pursuit
“All you have to do in life is go out with your friends, party hard,
and look twice as good as the b– standing next to you.”
Thank you, Paris Hilton for exemplifying this point so effortlessly.
Fashion is a depiction of God’s love for us
It is interesting to me that there are two distinct passages that talk about God creating clothing for humans–Genesis 3 and Ezekiel 16–and the available art depicting these events is generally atrocious. Scroll past the pictures of Adam and Eve wearing strategically-placed fig leaves, and you will find that this is the best the Internet has to offer: A dingy loincloth and a cave woman outfit. As though the garments made by God’s fingertips for the people he loved would be anything less than perfectly stunning, the pinnacle of style! These garments were made as a symbol of his protection and grace for the shame they now bore, and the redemption that was to come. Can we say fashion forward?!
Don’t even get me started on Ezekiel 16. Here we find an elaborate description of how God dresses the woman that he loves. It is speaking symbolically, of course, there is no actual woman, but the imagery is so brilliant that it is a wonder I can only find one image of it, which is mediocre at best! Why is a woman who is described as being dressed by God Almighty in embroidered cloth, fine leather, silk and linen, and, additionally, wearing fine jewelry including a crown on her head NOT depicted in art for her beauty? Why are we more apt to depict her fallen state than the radiance that God intended for her?
Fashion is spiritual
Allow me to wonder a little with you, in my sanctified imagination, about what the many verses pertaining to spiritual clothing represent. God is said to be clothed with splendor and majesty (Psalm 104), and the priests are clothed with salvation (2 Chron. 6:41, Ps 132:16), and righteousness (Psalm 132:9). We are told to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14), and also with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Col. 3:12), as well as humility toward one another (1 Pet. 5:5). And let’s not forget Ephesians 6, where there is an entire outfit (complete with accessories!) laid out for us to wear. This word “clothe” is used so many times in accordance with a spiritual virtue, that I wonder if these virtues actually have physical forms in a different realm. Is compassion a thing to be woven, sewn, and worn like a robe, seen only to the spirit realm? Are God’s clothes (splendor and majesty) crying out “HOLY!” with the rest of the saints and angels? Thoughts, only thoughts.
Fashion is courageous
Bill Cunningham once said, “Everyone has taste, but they don’t have the daring to be creative.” It is, indeed, a point of courage to go beyond the bounds of what is the current cookie-cutter molding set out by the fashion industry for that year. To express yourself, to be daring, to look out the window and say, “I think this day needs a pair of white pants and red lipstick.” Maybe you think that’s nuts. Maybe you can allow yourself to be a little nutty, if that’s who you are.
Fashion is brutally competitive
“One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.” – Heidi Klum on Project Runway
It’s true that fashion can be competitive in so many ways. For me, personally, when I start to feel competitive with other women about the way I look, it serves as a “Check Engine Light” that something else is going on inside of me. The moment I start comparing myself with other women and, instead of celebrating their beauty, despising them for it, is the moment that I am out of line with God’s intention for fashion and beauty. The fashion industry would have us believe that fashion and beauty are weapons that we women can wield to get what we want and build our sense of self-worth. But the model of the Trinity suggests that there is no room in the Christian walk for anything but respect and adoration for other image-bearers, and that self-worth is inherent in our design. We are beautiful, yet fallen. He saved us from our fallen state. We are beautiful once more because he has washed and clothed his bride. No competition necessary.
Fashion is a learned skill
I have my mantra about silhouette, proportion, and fit.
I believe that when they are in harmony and balance, you’ll look great in anything. – Tim Gunn
Relax, this can take some time. You’ll figure it out, but go easy on yourself. It’s a learned skill.
Fashion is terrifying
Regina: “Oh my God, I love your skirt! Where did you get it?”
Lea: “Thank you, it was my mom’s in the ’80s.”
Regina: “Vintage. So adorable!”
[girl walks away]
Regina: “That is the ugliest f-ing skirt I have ever seen.” -Mean Girls
I have been there. I have doled out the criticism and I have been on the receiving end. I have been mocked to my face for what I was wearing or what was hanging in my closet multiple times. It is anything but pretty and, in light of this, is it any wonder that there are such polarizing reactions to fashion?
Well, that was exhausting, and I have well exceeded my word limit (sorry Editor). But I am curious, what are your “fashion is” statements? What has it been for you?