The Sword and the Shaving Brush
Towards a Biblical understanding of fashion
by Timothy Bartel
Part VII – Nature and the Aim of Fiction
Here we may turn to another great Christian theorist, Ms. Flannery O’Connor. In her excellent essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor explores in great detail not only the problems that writers encounter while writing fiction, but also how these difficulties reveal the challenging nature of art. “Art,” she writes, “is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the practice of any virtue demands a certain asceticism…No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.” If, as creatures made in God’s image, we are called to be image-makers, then it is vital to the virtue of our image making that we pay as much attention as possible to the thing being imaged. This is not only good for our egos, but is the respect due to God’s creation. Yet some may wonder how this avoids making us individuals who commit the grave error of forgetting God in favor of the earth.
Flannery answers: “The artist uses his reason to find answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and the is only done by the single minded respect for truth.” Thus the artist will concentrate not just with his eyes upon his subject, but with his mind. His mind will use his eyes to search the physical for truth, trying to find, as Eliot says, “the intersection of the timeless with time.” This is an incarnational theory of art, which not only images the metaphysical in physical mediums through creative activity, but searches the physical for those fortunate points where the timeless shines through.
How will this ‘Christian aesthetic” help us with our three big problems of fashion? First of all, it legitimizes the consideration of fashion as a field of art wherein aesthetics and beauty can be discussed. After all, if God commands that his priests’ robes be beautiful, then it would be only right to think and talk about how to make clothing beautiful. Yet the question of how and whether clothing is beautiful is very closely tied to the question of what and whether clothing is imaging something forth. The discussion of imaging forth is easier in the realms of painting, drawing, and sculpture, where there is almost always some physical object being imaged. Yet what is imaged in the art of fashion? Often fashion is naively discussed in terms of ‘expressing’ the wearer’s self. Usually this turns out to mean that one’s fashion reveals one’s tastes in music, religion, or even fashion itself. While this is an interesting and not altogether untrue way of thinking about fashion, it misses the most basic form of expression that fashion undertakes.
Christ reminds his audience in Matthew six that the body is more than clothing. Though this might seem an obvious statement, it may reveal the most basic imaging power that clothing possesses. Clothing primarily images forth our bodies. We all know, but for several reasons try not to think about, that everyone has a body under their clothing. Yet mostly we see clothed bodies, and often, if Jesus is correct, fall into the habit of thinking of bodies as clothes.
A crass example would be a certain phenomenon of the high-school hallway wherein a student’s fashion choices dictate the status of their bodies in the minds of others. Teens who dress stylishly (a very ambiguous term, that) are seen by their peers as more attractive than others especially in terms of the shape of their bodies. This is not just because teens are gullible; clothing that is well made and stylish often does a better job of imaging forth the human form. A t-shirt two sizes too big will, in fact, never look as good as a t-shirt that fits. The only clothing more attractive to the untrained eye than clothing that is stylish is clothing that fits one’s body. It is true there is a problem in the fashion industry of making clothes for only one body type.
This should surely change, for it tricks normal folks into ignoring the shape of their own bodies for the sake of the shape of clothing. Yet one of the most basic principles of dressing well is paying attention to how you body is shaped and how it moves. Then one may learn to highlight and hide as is appropriate.