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A Brief History of Clothing

February 27th, 2008 | 5 min read

By Anodos

The Sword and the Shaving Brush

Towards a Biblical understanding of fashion

By Timothy Bartel

Part II - A Brief History of Clothing

The wool dress I saw at Biola began to work on my mind. The idea of such an ungroomed garment could not long remain in my imagination before I connected it with the Bible. I don’t mean merely the associations of dressing up like a “sheep gone astray” or even of the Pauline assertion that we are clothed in the white righteousness of Christ. As contemporary Christians we are often too quick to transform all physical actions and objects into figures for metaphysical or spiritual truths. Strangely, the first association I made with the wool dress was Genesis 3. As we remember, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and consequently realize a strange thing. They are naked. Verse 7 reads: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” When God later asks Adam why he is hiding from Him, Adam answers: “Because I was naked”. It is interesting that Adam’s and Eve’s attempts to fashion clothing for themselves proves insufficient in providing a sense of adequate covering. Surely there a many lessons here to learn about the nature and effects of sin. For our purposes, this lesson may be gleaned: that sin makes one aware of one’s physical nature and the shame associated with nakedness. This leads to the creative activity of garment making, yet for Adam and Eve the covering of nakedness does not provide the desired consolation. But God intervenes. In verse 21 we learn that “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” These verses constitute the first mention of clothing in the Bible, and the starting place, I believe, for any discussion of the art of fashion.

It is interesting that sufficient clothing is not found until it is created by God for Man. God is the victorious tailor of the first fashion show, if you will. And now I may return to the wool dress, for I wondered what such “garments of skin” looked like until I saw it. Perhaps the designer captured in the wool and sticks and splendor the aspect of those first garments. Yet perhaps they were unlike any clothing we have yet seen. Whatever they were, I believe that they must have served their purpose perfectly. Could they also have been beautiful, even the most beautiful clothes ever made?

The reason that I bring beauty into the discussion is not primarily because it is so often the subject of much controversy in discussions of art and fashion today, but because beautiful clothing seems to be a continual concern of God and His followers in the Bible. In Exodus 28:2-3, in the midst of the post-10 commandments laws for the tabernacle, God instructs Moses in the priestly garments of the Levites. He says that the garments are to be “For beauty and for glory” by “the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill.” It seems that God is primarily concerned with the aesthetics, rather than the pragmatics, of religious garments. An instance of God’s followers also caring for the beauty and glory of Clothing is found in Genesis 37:3-4: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.” (Genesis 37:3-4) Here we find that Jacob shows his favor to his son through the medium of fine clothing.

Yet it is not only in the Old Testament that God’s care for beauty of garments is evident. One of the most famous biblical passages dealing with clothing is found in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6, Jesus has just begun to exhort His audience to “lay up treasures in heaven,” not on earth. He continues: “therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown in the oven, will he not clothe you, oh you of little faith?”

Here our Lord, in His distinctive manner, synthesizes and juxtaposes the Old Testament verses mentioned previously. Most basically the message seems to be that we are to seek God’s kingdom, and God will provide our practical needs concerning clothing. Yet a closer look at Christ’s words reveals that utility of clothing—that is, the hiding of nakedness and protection of the body—is not mentioned. What is mentioned is the aesthetic aspect. God’s garments lend a glory unmatched by Solomon’s regalia, unmatched, perhaps, even by the beauty and glory of the Levites’ priestly garb. Christ characterizes the Heavenly Father as a Jacob figure, making coats of many colors for His favored sons.

Usually these verses are preached with a healthy dose of ascetic fervor. The true Christian, it is argued, cares nothing for clothing or food, let alone the stylish or gourmet; he seeks the higher Kingdom—hand-me-downs will come sooner or later. I do not wish to say that such preaching is wrong, yet I wonder whether in the midst of such statements we miss the message that, while we should not be immoderately concerned with clothing, God does care about clothing, and continues to give commandments concerning it—first, that it cover a shameful nakedness, next, that it be made by skilled artisans for beauty and for glory, and finally that it not be a cause for our worry.