Hope springs eternal. Or so they say. It certainly springs eternal for fashion historian Katy Werlin.
In the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s recent assessment of our culture’s fashion sense (or lack thereof), Werlin remarked, “Fashion is very cyclical, and if you study fashion history, you see trends repeat themselves. So, I’m sure maybe in 50 years we might be back to dressing very proper and dressing up….”
I hope she’s right. And not just because I’m tired of the fashion industry’s insistence that all women should have the hips and thighs of pre-adolescent boys and dress like porn stars on Casual Friday. Or because I really, really, really want to wear dresses like this one.
More fundamentally, I hope she’s right because a return to the fashions of yesteryear will signify more than a change in style. It will signify a change in culture.
The Way God Made Us to Be
Fashion, for as frivolous as it may seem, is never just about fashion. It’s about people. It’s about cultures. The clothes we wear reflect the age in which we live. They incarnate ideas, expressing in cotton and wool what a culture believes.
As I explain in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, they do that because men are made in the image of God.
At the dawn of time, God filled the universe with expressions of himself, mountains and rivers and stars that each, in their own way, revealed something about him—his majesty, his power, his glory. Then, he created us, men and women who didn’t just express something about him, but who were actually made in his image, who could love, reason, and create in away akin to how he loves, reasons, and creates.
And we do. Following God’s lead, we make things that reflect us—who we are, what we value, and what we desire. We do that with the buildings we build and the paintings we paint. We also do it with the clothing we sew.
Consider the high middle ages, a time when people so admired the crusaders’ valor, that they incorporated military details into men’s daily wear. Or think of Regency England, where the craze for all things classical was reflected in women’s free-flowing, high-waisted gowns.
And today? Well, today —whether we realize it or not—much of what we wear unfortunately serves as a megaphone for our sex-crazed, me-obsessed, secular, consumer culture.
The Way the Culture Wants Us to Be
The low-cut blouses, skin-tight skirts, uber-short-shorts, and hooker heels? That’s the sex-crazed bit. It reflects the cultural habit of reducing people’s value to their sexual value and measuring a person’s happiness by the quality and quantity of their bedroom antics.
What about Steelers jerseys at Sunday Mass and jeans at weddings and cocktail parties? Well, it’s natural for the uber-casual to reign in a culture where one’s own personal comfort is king.
As for pajama pants in college classrooms, sweats for dinners out, and tattered, stained, bleached-out denim most everywhere you look? What more can you expect from a culture that doesn’t recognize the innate dignity of every human person, born or unborn?
Last but not least, there’s the current trend of turning bodies into billboards, wearing words on our purses, chests, and derrieres that market us—proclaiming that we’re sexy “Pink” girls or socially conscious marathon runners—as much as they market products and events.
So, again, would I be happy to see fashion do a 180 and bring back more graceful, modest cuts that highlight the true beauty of the masculine and feminine, reflect the dignity of the human person, and challenge us to show respect for ourselves and others?
Um, yes. Yes, I would.
Again, those changes would reflect a deeper change, a change in who we, as a people, are. They would reflect that we were once more becoming men and women who righty valued ourselves, others, and God.
As an added side bonus, shopping would also get a heck of a lot less stressful.
The Way I Am
In the meantime, with both the sartorial and philosophical tendencies of the culture out my control, I do what I can about my own sartorial tendencies, choosing what I wear and where I wear it in light of what I’ve learned from the theology of the body.
In other words, I try to dress like a subject, not an object—eschewing the plunging, the short, and the tight. I dress up when dressing up is called for. I use my iron. And I don’t wear words.
I do all that because I know who I am: a woman created by God and loved by God, possessing a dignity surpassing even that of the angels. When people look at me, I want them to see that. I want them to see me. I want them to see someone who is smart and funny and feminine and faithful, who isn’t looking to use or be used, who loves beautiful things and is attuned to the culture but is still a bit old-fashioned in her habits and tastes. I want them to see someone with style and confidence and joy, someone who respects herself and respects others, who’s not consumed by stuff, and who values quality over quantity.
Ultimately, in all that, I want them to see Christ in me. I want them to see how I uniquely image him, how I “transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God” (TOB 19:5).
The Way Things Are
And yes, I know: I am who I am regardless of what I wear. The clothes don’t make the man (or woman). But, in a way akin to the body itself, they do express the woman. They’re my first line of communication as I go about my business in the world, telling people to whom I will never speak something fundamental about me.
They do the same for all of us.
Now, we may not like that. We may wish it otherwise. But we may as well wish that people stop thinking we’re crabby when we frown and happy when we smile. The invisible is made known to us through the visible. It’s just how things work.
That’s not to say, of course, that the communication will always be accurate. We might be putting on a smile when we’re depressed. Someone might look like she’s selling herself when in truth she’s as chaste as the Virgin Mary.
But we can’t blame people for unthinkingly assuming we’re happy when we smile or unchaste when we dress like a dancer at Jim’s Gentleman Club, anymore than we can blame people for assuming someone dressed like a cop is, indeed, a policeman. If you’re wearing the uniform, assumptions will be made.
And no, we are not free to indulge in those assumptions or let them color how we treat a person. Christian or no, part of being a decent human being means not forming hard and fast judgments of people’s hearts based on their wardrobes and being kind to people regardless of how they look or dress.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t go about encouraging wrong first impressions either. And ignoring who we are and what we believe, dressing exactly as the culture tells us to dress—without modesty or beauty or dignity or care or a mind to occasion and others—does just that. It stunts the body’s ability to express what we are and honor others for what they are.
Which, one last time, is the image of God.
Why stunt that?
*This is the third post in a series about the ideas discussed in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body. Other posts include: “What the Pope Taught Me About Food, Sex, and God” and “What Makes a Body Beautiful.”