By Barry Taylor
few years ago I was approached by an editor of a publishing house to see if I was interested in writing a book for them on religion and U2. I had just taught a class on the musical and spiritual journey of the band with Ryan Bolger so it seemed like a no-brainer really, most of the research having already been gathered for the class syllabus.
I wrote the introduction and included chapter outlines, all the usual stuff required for projects such as this one. I began my journey of exploration with a deconstruction of Bono’s clothing, from sunglasses to shoes, and said that you can discover a lot about U2’s view of the world from the front-man’s dress. “Clothes make the man,” said Mark Twain, and given that he owned 22 custom-made white cashmere suits, so that he could offer to the world a particular vision of himself, he may have been onto something. The word back from the editor wasn’t positive.
Apparently, they were looking for something a bit more ‘Jesus focused’ and while they thought the clothing approach was interesting, it didn’t really fit with their vision for a book about the band. I understood to some degree, fashion and religion are seldom discussed together, it’s easy to overlook the importance of dress, particularly from a religious or theological perspective given its tendency to favor the internal dynamics of the human condition.
I have been interested in fashion and clothing for most of my life. My first after-school job was working in a clothing store and I am still fascinated with beautiful fabrics or the particular cut of a jacket. But I am more interested in the way in which clothing, what we wear, gives us a sense of ourselves.
The Italian philosopher Mario Perniola, in a book called Clothing and Nudity, argues that it is clothing that gives human beings a sense of being, that what we wear and how we wear it shapes our anthropological, social and religious identity. Now I know that for many people when the subject of fashion or clothing comes up, an immediate response is connected to Jesus’ statement that we should give no thought to what we eat, or drink or wear…but I would argue that not only is that statement beyond interpreted rather sloppily, those things, are in fact the things most of us think very carefully about, whether it is tribal dress or the latest fashion of contemporary societies. Just walk into a Starbuck’s a listen to the particular permutations of coffee and milk that people choose, or consider the growing ‘foodie’ movement that covers every aspect of eating from vegan to food-trucks, and you can get a sense of the degree to which these simple acts of eating and drinking are filled with careful thought and reflection. And when it comes to clothing, there can be little argument, that what we wear is, for most people, a very serious consideration. Let’s face it, even Fuller brands itself through products that extend beyond pens and folders, to bags and shirts.
Since Adam and Eve were given animal skins to cover themselves in the garden, humans have covered themselves, yes, for modesty and protection from the elements, but for other things as well. We ‘dress to impress,’ to hide and conceal. We use clothing for effect, for decoration for self-expression and for sexual attraction (blog and Twitter feeds were on fire during the recent Academy Awards revealing our cultural fascination with how much leg Angelina Jolie revealed from her evening gown and whether or not J-Lo’s dress was too sheer). We use dress to display our gender—or to hide it, to show our religious affiliation, our profession, our favorite sports team etc. the list goes on. Long before we speak, our dress is communicating multiple messages, that we all translate and then make judgment calls on—we read one another’s clothing and determine things like, gender, age, socio-economic status, but we also gauge moods and personality and interests from what we see people wearing. I used the word ‘judgment’ intentionally, because I believe we do make judgments based on what we encounter people wearing—well, I do anyway, and am convinced I am not alone in this!!
I don’t know about you, but some days, I get ‘dressed-up’ not necessarily to impress anyone else, but because it makes me feel better, about myself. I find that when I am having a rough time of life, I turn towards more formal clothes, I spend time choosing what to wear, and I wear pieces that mean something to me, that I enjoy wearing (I also go to therapy, but that’s for another article!). Something about the process boosts my confidence or gives me an emotional lift—I think it is also why people go window-shopping—it’s more than a distraction or a sign of our capitulation to materialism, there is something to the way we clothe ourselves that goes deeper than the external elements.
And while all of this reflects the personality and personal decisions and emotional conditions behind the clothing choices we make, clothing is never simply a personal matter. What we wear has an affect on others, it can shape lines of communication between us. We send cues by the way we dress, everything from ‘notice me’ to ‘I just want to be comfortable today and don’t care to be noticed.’ And it is all contextual. What we wear in one setting might be deemed appropriate—a bathing suit at the beach for example, but to turn up to a funeral in one…well, its just not done, and why is it not done? Because we deem certain forms of dress acceptable in one situation but not in another and this varies from culture to culture and changes with the times. I came of age after the upheaval of the 1960s when long-hair on men was a focus of government debate in the House of Commons, but I was around when similar public debates over punks and their degenerate dress and behavior filled the British cultural and political arteries.
I think that how we dress ourselves is extremely important, and that there is a connection between external appearance and internal state—if you like, clothing is incarnational—it manifests what we think and feel about ourselves, about others, about life in general. And if I were to say something about the challenge facing Christianity in these times in which we live, I would say that it is essentially a problem of dress. For many, Christianity is dressed in a style long gone from this world—it’s like a journey into another time and space, a glimpse into history. I hear a lot of people in church and at seminary commenting on the seeming preference for surface over depth in contemporary culture, the fascination with the external at the expense of the internal, but I would argue that this is not the issue. The real issue is more likely the inability to incarnate the spiritual in this world—to dress it in such a manner that its signs and signals can be interpreted and understood on its own terms in this world.
One of the fashion blogs I frequent featured an interview with Cornel West last year. The focus was not race, or justice or religion, but his clothing. West wears a uniform everyday—3 piece black suit (he owns five) white shirt, cufflinks, black scarf, tie, socks and shoes—he links his choice of clothing (like the singer Johnny Cash), to his commitment to his calling to bear witness to love and justice in a dark world—the clothes are an ‘extension of the man.’ Fashion and dress are means by which we can read both life and the present cultural moment—they offer us visual clues by which we can approach our time—a theology of fashion is one that reads the signs of the times and dresses accordingly-not shifting with the whims of seasonal trends, but with a sense of calling and intention—incarnationally.
I have been interested in a theology of fashion, well, clothing actually, for quite some time now. I realize that for many it would seem that there are far weightier matters to address, but others have written about the topic. Karl Barth, for instance, included fashion in his list of things that operated as ‘demonic powers’ in culture—the list also included sport, transport and technology, “who inspires and directs these processes, which are not a matter of indifference to the feeling for life and all that it implies?” is one of the questions Barth raises. He seemed to think that some ‘released spirit of the earth’ might be responsible for the fashion industry and its ability to generate such ‘horror and amusement’ each season. Now, I think there are questions raised by the fashion industry that can and need to be addressed, but for me, these things—the role of advertising, marketing, life-style branding etc. and secondary issues—they occur because our relationship to what we wear is central to being human. I am more interested in the way in which dress functions as a signifier, a visible code, by which we communicate with each other individually and socially. I briefly mentioned Adam and Eve earlier, and quite often this becomes both the beginning and ending of most theological conversations about clothing—it is related to the Fall and is a consequence of sin. I think this is too shallow a read, the shame that Adam feels having eaten the fruit of the Tree might not be simply a matter of guilt for disobeying God, but a consequence of realizing that they were not able to administer what they had gained—the wisdom and rule that comes from the knowledge they gained for themselves—if you like, they weren’t ‘dressed for the job.’ There are many stories in the Bible where the interplay of dress and wisdom interconnect—Joseph’s coat of many colors, David cutting a corner of Saul’s robe, Elijah’s cloak, the command from God to place tassles on the edge of garments, John the Baptists camel hair, the dividing of Jesus’ cloak. God’s relationship with the world is intertwined with clothing and there is rich theological stuff to be mined here.
You can watch an interview with Cornel West speaking about his dress here: