The Sword and the Shaving Brush

Towards a Biblical understanding of fashion

By Timothy Bartel

Part IX – Look Good and Sin Not

How does one take the body-imaging activity of clothing into consideration when choosing clothes to wear? A wise man, when asked by a student about clothing, once said: “find what looks good on you and wear it.” This is both the best advice I have ever heard about clothing, and the most dangerous. It is good advice because it takes seriously the fact that fashion images body, and when imaged successfully, the body is revealed as attractive. Clothing does not hide a body behind its cloth, but draws the qualities of the human form in its fabric for the world to see. Why would such a mentality be dangerous? Most basically, the well-clothed human is dangerously attractive. As mentioned above it is the well dressed who are considered the most attractive of the young, and not just because the young are shallow. The shallow are awed by beautiful art, yet stop at mere admiration of the medium. They are not wrong that the medium images forth beautifully, yet they are wrong to think that it is only the medium that holds beauty. They forget, as Sayers might say, the Word in awe of the flesh and so in ignorance undo incarnation. They forget that the body is more than clothing.
Yet there seems to be a deeper problem with the incarnational approach to fashion. The body itself, not just transitory clothing, many say, is too distracting, and an incarnational view of fashion merely intensifies the problem of earthly-mindedness caused by bodies. But we must remember, as St. Athanasius wrote, that the body is not evil, nor is it to be ignored. It is a creation of God, proclaimed by God to be good before the Fall. The Fall did cause the body, as well as the soul, to begin a process of corruption. Yet Christ did not deem the human body too lowly to possess and through his incarnation sanctified the human body and provided example to his followers for how to treat the body. Through the gospels we learn that the Father desires to clothe us in splendor, that there is good in ointments and perfumes, and that we should not worry about such things, but use them in their proper time and place.

I believe that in this is where all artists and consumers need to stop and look closely at Christ, for he shows a strange way to follow. He seems to demonstrate not so much a quiet moderation in aesthetic matters, but rather that blazing tension between extremes, as Chesterton details in Orthodoxy. Christ commends the extravagant use of perfume where all others see excess; he fiercely feasts and sternly fasts in stunning succession; he preaches that we should not worry about clothing, not because God wants us clothed in drab brown and black, but because God wishes to clothe us in more shining splendor than kings.

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