The Sword and the Shaving Brush
Towards a Biblical Understanding of fashion
By Timothy Bartel
Part III – The Three Aesthetic Problems
How can the Bible inform our understanding of fashion today? Surely the runways of Milan are a different world than the dust floors of the tabernacle, and, as mentioned earlier, our current concerns about clothing are much more complex than those of the ashamed Adam and shivering Eve. Before I examine our current situation regarding fashion, I think it will be important to make a distinction between the word ‘fashion’ and the word ‘clothing.’ Both refer, of course, most basically to garments, to the fabric that humans fold around themselves. Yet ‘fashion’ goes beyond garments; the word implies an aura of taste and preference—the clothes that a culture deems worthy of wear at a certain time. More simply said, fashion is the art of garment making and distributing with reference to cultural taste and custom. Just as words are used in poetry, but not all words are poetry, so clothing is used in fashion, but not all clothes are fashion. By most basic definition, the word ‘fashion’ refers to a fluctuation—clothes go in and out of ‘fashion.’ This is, incidentally, both the lament of the fashion designer, and the reason for their livelihood.
It is safe to say that the concerns of the fashion designer are not often the concerns of my audience. Yet this does not mean that conservative Christians are not concerned with fashion. At times we are quite concerned. At times, even, we worry. I think that there are three main problems that conservative Christians face concerning fashion, all following upon the heels of the former. First, fashion shares a problem with most other art forms—the problem of relative taste. This is most immediately seen on a local, even familial level. The garments one generation considers fashionable or even beautiful will often differ greatly from the considerations of the next generation. This is most often witnessed when parents fight with their children about appropriate or attractive clothing. Further complicating the problem of taste is the phenomenon of a generation’s fashion taste changing as they age. The aging young man not only tires of punk-rock music, but also the fashion that goes along with it. Before he knows it, he is thirty and interested in suits and ties. These fluctuations and differences lead many to one of two conclusions about fashion. The less sophisticated conclusion is that the aesthetics of fashion are too difficult to argue definitively; thus, questions of beauty in fashion should be avoided as culturally unhelpful and, at times, relationally disastrous. The second, more philosophically nuanced conclusion is that relative taste is an indication that beauty itself is relative to taste, and aesthetic discussions are difficult because there is no objective standard of beauty. This second conclusion is often extended to all other art forms as well.
For those who wish to hold to the helpfulness of aesthetic discussions of fashion, or even to the reality of absolute standards of beauty, the problem of relative taste is further intensified when one considers the global and historical relativity of fashion. While the gingham dress of a Kansas Housewife may be recognizable but not preferable to a DC Senator, that same dress may be unrecognizable and seemingly uncouth to a 18th century European courtier. Marie Antoinette would know no more what to do with a halter top than Paris Hilton with the bustles and flounces of the French court. Such examples of relativity often provide the nail in the coffin for those who argue the reality or intellectual accessibility of an absolute standard of beauty in fashion. Aesthetic concerns become pushed aside as unimportant or impossible to discuss. Instead, discussions and conceptions of fashion become practical. The differences in dress between, for example, the Eskimo and the Nigerian warrior are discussed primarily on the level of practicalities; geography and climate dictate dress and account for relative taste, not differing aesthetic of fashion. If differing aesthetic philosophies are discussed, they are seen as unfortunate peculiarities of under-developed cultures. To consider them is to condescend to the level of a culture that we ourselves have outstripped in philosophy and cultural development.
Technological advance furthers this popular approach to fashion. Physical materials are wrapped around our bodies not to adorn them, but to make our movements most efficient in proportion to our specific field of physical activity. This is most easy to see in athletic clothing. One need not be an artist to see that bike-shorts are ugly, nor an athlete to recognize that they allows the cyclist to perform at her peak. The practicalities of performance win out over the ugliness, and aesthetic concerns fall even further back in cultural priority.