Beyond Modesty

November 17, 2015

Christianity has long been concerned with immodest dress, especially among women. The early church father Clement of Alexandria praised the Arab tribes for keeping their women covered “head to toe”; St. Augustine claimed that, save for their husbands, women should remain veiled and forego cosmetics; Thomas Aquinas questioned whether a Christian woman should even use adornment; John Calvin called the women of his congregation to dress with a bashful, modest simplicity; John Wesley spoke of an inverse relationship between women using immodest dress and the work of the Spirit; and Abraham Kuyper, in his critique of French secularism, couldn’t resist adding a call for Christian women to forego indecent French fashions.

Of course, this focus is not without precedent. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10 Paul famously speaks of his female audience dressing “modestly” (kosmios). Doesn’t this show that even Paul was concerned with Christian women communicating sexual availability through inappropriate, scanty dress? Here we need to be careful. As one author1 has recently noted, there is good reason to believe sexual availability is not Paul’s concern in this passage.

Such exegetical questions aside, sexual availability is one of the many things clothing communicates. (Others would include things such as race, gender, class, religion, occupation, etc.). And therefore, given the broader sexual ethic of the Bible, one is right to conclude that Christians (both men and women) need to consider the sexual values their dress communicates.

But is that enough?

Having gotten men to forego tight t-shirts and women to use one-piece swim suits can we (finally!) move on to more important subjects?

I’m afraid not. For, in light of late modern fashion, Christians are facing new challenges. Let me elaborate.

Although Christians have always dressed, they have not always had fashion. What is fashion? Stated succinctly, fashion is the rapid interplay of dress that has developed over the last several hundred years in the West (and is now on a global phenomenon). We can think of this development in terms of three periods: early (1400-1800’s), classic (1800-1980’s), and late modern (1980’s-) stages of fashion.

Early modern fashion was the provenance of the upper class. Originating in the courts of Europe, fashion in this period was driven by aristocrats and kings seeking to display their power and regal status. (Think, for example, of the dazzling Baroque dress found in Versailles during the reign of Louis IVX.)

By the nineteenth century fashion as we often think of it was emerging: Paris as the hub, marked by seasonal dress, corporate powers, international influences, urban in style and driven by an able media. Fueled by advances in dress production, fashion in this period increasingly took on its own logic among all segments of society. It was also during this period that the steady pace of changing styles (“like clockwork”) took hold.

In the late twentieth century fashion historians speak of fashion becoming marked by a calculated ambiguity, obscure reference, a mixing of identity markers. This new dispensation of dress treated the past as a dress-up-box: a repository of styles to be cannibalized in a bricolage of references (camouflage patterned shorts worn with a peasant styled blouse, jeans and tennis shoes with a sports coat and tie). Strangely, as it jumped between epochs, fashion retained its memory at the cost of its history.

We find ourselves in this third period of fashion, a time when the representation of various identity markers that dress has traditionally performed (gender, class, status, etc.) is no longer trustworthy. This results in unique challenges for Christians.

Here are three:

The Transgender Revolution. The Psalmist marveled at his body as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14): a profound gift which signaled his status as a creature before his creator. In contrast, late modern fashion habitually treats the body as a blank slate on which to throw a pastiche of ever-shifting identity markers. The result? We find ourselves in a culture that questions the body’s relationship to identity. This is apparent in the transgender revolution sweeping North America. If the body no longer informs our identity, gender is no longer associated with a male or female body.

Fashioning The Selfie. Again, whereas in previous fashion dispensations clothing was used to reference identity (gender, class, status, etc.), late modern fashion puts the onus on the wearer to construct an identity. We are now the producers, directors, and stars of our lives — performing the narratives we’ve invented. Social media works hand in hand with this task: every post adding new dimension to the images used to fabricate “our story.” The ubiquitous selfie is emblematic of later modern fashion’s logic: the self as both subject and object.

Marketing The Good Life: A well-constructed story requires changing props and a beautiful stage. In steps the ever-shifting consumer goods of late modernity. Behind the rapid cycles of production and consumption that fuel market forces are visions of the good life: promises to experience in reality dramas that have already satiated the imagination. And so, contrary to the stereotype, consumerism is about much more than bare-faced accumulation. Late modern fashion intertwines aesthetics and economics: the pursuit of an attractive, full, and aesthetic life is found by diving into an ever-flowing river of consumer goods.

Christians have traditionally thought of their existence as gift; their bodies providing clues as to who their Creator made them to be; their circumstances under the sovereign hand of God; the good life as one of glad self-giving; the world a stage on which to live out scripture’s script before the face of God (Coram Deo).

Under the current dispensation of late modern fashion Christians find themselves pressured to think of existence as a chance event; their bodies as mute; life’s circumstances as accidents to be artfully re-scripted; the good life as accumulation; the world a stage on which to present a series of masquerades before an (imagined) all-seeing public.

By all appearances, modesty is now the least of our problems.

About the Author
  • Rev. Robert Covolo is dual Ph.D. candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary and VU Amsterdam studying the intersection of theology and the emerging discipline of fashion theory. He holds degrees and certificates in the Humanities, History, English literature, Divinity and Philosophy of Religion and has taught classes at the undergraduate and graduate levels on systematic theology, New Testament and theology and the arts.

  1. “Modesty: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means” 

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