Theologian Robert Covolo on When the Bible Makes a Fashion Statement

At first glance, the worlds of fashion and theology might appear to have little to do with one another. A shallow survey of each might even frame them as opposites, equating fashion with frivolity and ephemerality while painting theology as concerned with matters more eternal and profound. But the truth is that there are more Christians quietly shaping the fashion industry than one might suppose. And major Christian thinkers, from Augustine of Hippo to John Calvin, have had plenty to say about sartorial matters.

In his new book Fashion Theology, cultural theologian Robert Covolo explores the complex relationship between fashion and theology throughout history, highlighting the richness these disciplines stand to forfeit when they ignore each other. Journalist Whitney Bauck, who reports on the intersection of fashion and faith, spoke with Covolo about the theological depths opened up in the simple act of getting dressed each morning.

Why write a book on fashion and theology?

So many books have been written about the relationship between theology and film or literature or psychology or food. But dress is just as essential to our everyday existence. I realized there was nothing theological out there taking fashion studies seriously beyond a chapter here or there. Fashion studies is an expansive field of theoretical discourse that has spread to universities across the globe. And there has been little to no Christian engagement with it.

The other side of what interested me is that theology itself is a cultural pursuit. We’re always going to be producing theology because culture always has new questions about the relevance of the Christian faith. If we don’t understand theologians within their cultural context, we’re missing an awful lot about who they are.

Augustine, for instance, was a North African in the late Roman republic, dealing with those material and cultural realities. John Calvin was a French Protestant refugee who had to flee for his life during a time of great upheaval. How did his theological mind think about dress? When you look at the details, you actually get to see what this theology looks like on the street. All theology comes from the experiences of the theologians themselves. When you find out so many interesting details about these theologians, it really opens your eyes to how human they were.

If fashion and theology are this interconnected, why are they so often treated as totally separate realms?

They have often been considered divorced from one another because of superficial characterizations of both: that fashion is about appearances, vanity, fad, and thoughtlessness; and that theology, by contrast, is about profundity, solemnity, and what’s eternal. The reality is that once you start drilling into them, neither of those areas of inquiry fits the stereotypes. There has been tension between the two, and I’m not going to sweep that under the rug; some theology is more friendly towards fashion than other theology. But there are just as many resonances as there are dissonances. And we don’t really help the discussion when we don’t recognize that.

Your book spends a good bit of time tracing the history of Western thought with regard to fashion theory and theology. Since so much of that recorded history emerged from the minds of men, I’m curious whether you have any comments about the ways that gender informs the historical relationship between theology and fashion.

Fashion challenges and questions all conventions of social identity, but gender was one of the first, and it’s been the predominant one. It’s a massive subject I intentionally sidestepped. I drew from classic Western theologians in order to give a genealogy. So it’s one vantage point; it is not the be all and end all. The greatest compliment to the book will be when someone writes another book to say it was all wrong. I do hope that someone follows up to emphasize the role of gender—that deserves an entire book in its own right.

You’ve spent so many years of your life thinking about and studying fashion, but the book retains a lot of ambivalence toward it. Why is that?

I don’t feel personally ambivalent about fashion—I feel quite optimistic. Calvin sees fashion as a good gift; Abraham Kuyper and G. K. Chesterton celebrate the conviviality it fosters. I love fashion. But maybe what comes across in the book is that I don’t want to give a simple story of fashion and theology being easy friends that just naturally merge together and imply that any fool should see this. Nor do I want to pit them against each other as enemies. What I want to show is that they have a complex relationship. I want to allow there to be tensions where there are tensions.

If you look at the biblical witness, being dressed, generally speaking, is a great boon within the Bible. As the prophet Isaiah says, “he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness” (61:10). The Proverbs 31 woman is marked out for being able to make her family stunning (v. 21). Paul assures believers they will not be found naked on the day of resurrection (2 Cor. 5:3). It’s God who is dressing people.

Fashion itself is such a complex phenomenon that we need to address all its expressions in the complexity they deserve: fashion as an art form, as a site for meaning making, how it shapes our political life, our social identity, our economic system, and our public discourse. Fashion may fall a little out of focus right now because so much of our focus is on identity markers like gender, class, and race. But fashion can never be reduced to those things because it constantly references individual taste.

That focus on the individual harkens back to the Augustinian impulse. Augustine deals with the inner self: He’s plunging the depths, and he’s saying there’s a mystery to the person. Fashion emerges from the Augustinian heritage, and it can also be used to return us to the Augustinian heritage, because it says that the personal narratives that make up our lives are the things that are most true about who we are.

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Source: Christianity Today