Fashion and Food
by Hugo Schywzer
here are few more predictably contentious issues among young Christians than that of modesty. From junior high school youth groups to seminary campuses, the same discussions take place about what’s “appropriate,” what’s “godly,” and how best to balance fashion with the needs of a larger community. Often, the conversations center around issues of sexual desire and temptation; at their worst, these worthy discussions devolve into rigid explanations of a double standard that focuses solely on how women’s bodies impact men.
What often gets left out of these conversations is the question of fashion itself. What’s the point of clothing? Is it only to cover our nakedness? Or is there a transcendent meaning to fashion, an opportunity for celebration and thanksgiving for the gift of creation?
From a biblical standpoint, fashion gets off to a bad start. The first clothes recorded in Scripture are fig leaves (Gen 3:7) which Adam and Eve use to cover themselves after they eat the apple. The very first thing they do upon realizing they’ve sinned is sew together the first garments; fashion, in other words, begins as a functional response to shame. For many in and out of the church, clothing retains a purely functional purpose, serving only to hide the physical bodies of which we remain ashamed. Though the sense of what ought to be concealed varies by age, culture, and sex, the primary function of clothing as a tool for concealment goes almost unquestioned.
While Adam and Eve make the first clothes as their own response to shame, that’s not the only role for fashion we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Exodus, God becomes the first fashion designer, as punctilious about detail as any judge on Project Runway. The garments of the high priest, described with extraordinary precision in Exodus 28, are designed to give “dignity and honor,” but also to help the priest connect directly to the divine. The intricate and gleaming uniform seems almost to work as a kind of spiritual antenna, designed to allow the priest to draw down the words and the will of God. While in Genesis the first clothes symbolized distance from God, in Exodus they become the very means by which that distance is bridged.
Before looking at what this means for clothing, I’d like to look at a parallel.
One basic truth that can’t be repeated often enough: created things can have more than one purpose. The tongue, for example: it exists to taste, to speak, and to prevent us from choking. It can also be used in kissing, or in lovemaking to give pleasure to another human being. It would be silly to rank those capabilities in any sort of hierarchical order. (Would “preventing choking” rank above or below “tasting for spoiled food”?)
What’s true of body parts is true of what we use to fuel that body. Yes, food keeps us alive. But it also is the greatest source of consistent physical pleasure that many of us will ever know; for most it is our first and last delight. The preparing and eating of meals can turn food itself into a spiritual glue that bonds communities together. And of course, food is a means of taking God into ourselves, as Jesus reminds us at the last supper. Food is many things.
So too with clothing. It exists to cover our nakedness, to keep us warm, to protect us from the rays of the sun. Uniforms of one kind or another help us distinguish certain professions or ceremonial participants: police officers, flight attendants, brides. Where clothing becomes fashion, however, is when garments move beyond the utilitarian need for comfort (or occupation signaling) and towards the provision of visual delight. The delight in gorgeous clothes and the body inside them is as natural as the delight in the taste of truly delicious food. Like anything truly beautiful, the purpose is to draw attention to a divine gift.
The church has proven reluctant to embrace fashion as a gift, choosing to see it more as a subject of serious spiritual danger. Certainly, several troublesome strands intersect around fashion. “Immodest” clothing risks suborning lust, some claim. Expensive clothing invites economic envy; beautiful clothing may draw the kind of praise that encourages unhealthy pride. Better to encourage simple dress, many in the church (particularly in the plain traditions of the Anabaptists and Quakers) have decided, and avoid the multiple occasions for sin that seem to cluster around fashion.
At its worst, the Christian fashion ideal risks becoming defined by negatives: what it doesn’t show and what it doesn’t arouse. Google around for modest clothing marketed to young Christian women, and you’ll find numerous examples of companies using this negative appeal in their advertising. It’s as if Christians (especially women) are allowed to take a little delight in their clothing, as long as it doesn’t cost too much or upset anyone else. Fashion itself becomes a source of shame.
One way forward is to begin to celebrate fashion as we celebrate food. As stewards of creation, we’re called to eat in mindful ways, paying attention to issues like factory farming and global hunger. But our awareness of suffering and inequality doesn’t – and shouldn’t – stop us from delighting in wonderfully prepared meals. We can have a passion for justice and a gourmet palate. “Sustainable and delicious” is not a contradiction in terms. The same, of course, is true in fashion. While we need to pay attention to the conditions under which our clothes were made, we can and should feel free to dress in ways that are stylish – and that draw healthy attention to ourselves. The longing to feel beautiful (or handsome, if you prefer) isn’t any more inherently problematic than the hunger to taste something wonderful. Both are about delighting in the gift of creation.
How we eat matters. How we dress matters. Food and fashion are not only two vital sources of pleasure, but two key tools for giving thanks for the gift of beauty, the gift of pleasure, the gift of creation.