Beyond measuring the inseam (a theology of fashion, part 2)

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Hopefully I was able to convince some yesterday that fashion can be an expression of God-given creativity. That if you are someone like me who just plain loves clothes, that’s okay. Creativity in dress and an appreciation for aesthetic beauty are God-given. But the Bible also has a lot of warnings surrounding our clothing.

Many of the topics have been exhaustively discussed. (Cough, cough, modesty.) But here are a few points to consider, beyond the length of the inseam of a pair of shorts.

In our love of clothes, don’t neglect the poor. Isaiah 3 has some fightin’ words for the haughty women of Zion. The Lord says he is going to “snatch away” their bangles, headbands, linen garments and tiaras. He says instead he will make them bald and smelly (v. 24). (As a side note, God was the first one to ever threaten, “I’m gonna snatch you bald-headed,” but I digress.) Many read Isaiah 3:16-24 as a warning against haughtiness, pride and vanity, and certainly it is. But I think there is more to it.

In the two verses immediately before this passage it says, “The plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” (v. 14, 15). The haughty women of Zion are very concerned about themselves and not at all concerned about the poor. I think there is a purposeful juxtaposition between the over-attention to personal appearance and neglect of the poor. In our own lives, our attention to outward appearance should never trump caring for the poor. If you aren’t able to be openhanded to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:11) because of the Coach bag you’re gripping, God might just snatch you bald-headed. (Okay, not really—we’re under grace, not the old covenant—but I just couldn’t resist.)

Don’t take advantage of hired workers. The Bible has much to say on the oppression of workers. Deuteronomy 24:14 says, “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.” So many of the garments we wear were made in factories where the workers aren’t paid fairly and often work in unsafe conditions. And even if those in factories were treated fairly, the cotton itself might have been picked by children or slaves. The problem of oppression in the garment industry is so ubiquitous it’s hard to even know what to do, short of making our own homemade hippie felt dresses.

But we can take small steps forward, voting with our dollars. Research companies that produce ethical clothing. No companies are perfect, but as consumers we can help move them in the right direction.

Broaden our understanding of modesty. We so often quantify modesty in terms of inches of flesh. But modesty is more than that. Modesty is being free from vanity and pretentions. It’s having a humble estimate of ourselves. In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul addresses what we first think of when we hear “modesty,” exhorting us to dress “with decency and propriety.” But he also warns against adorning ourselves with “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes. Rather, we should clothe ourselves “with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.”

Does this mean we must abandon fashion? Not necessarily. When Paul exhorted us not to clothe ourselves with expensive clothing, there was no Walmart. Today, the cheapest option for clothing might also be the most unethical option for clothing in terms of the treatment of workers.

But beyond the matter of the expense of our clothes, what God looks at is the heart. Is our heart aimed at worshipping God or is it aimed at worshipping ourselves? Very often in fashion, the aim is self-worship. It’s about elevating ourselves—often above others. It might be creative expression, but it is also mixed with the idolatry of self.

So how can we navigate such a dangerous area? I think Exodus 28 gives us a good hint.

Bring dignity and honor as we serve God. In Exodus 28, the Lord says, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor…make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests.” Exodus 28:2, 4

The explicit point of the garments was so that the priests could serve God—said another way, the focus of the clothes was worship. What is the purpose of our clothes? If you don’t particularly care about clothing or fashion, the point of your clothes might simply be so that you’re not naked. And that’s okay. But for those of us who do care, I think we should ask ourselves what the point of our clothes is. Are we seeking to elevate ourselves through beauty? Or are we expressing our God-given creativity and love for aesthetic beauty? I think it’s often probably a bit of both.

But it’s a question we should continually ask ourselves and ask God to help move us toward worship of God in our clothing rather than the worship of self.

Exodus 28 also gives what I think is a great guideline for our clothing. The original command for fashion was “to give [Aaron] dignity and honor.” Now, not all of our clothing serves the same purpose, obviously, as the high priest’s. But, looking at fashion, I’m pretty sure a lot of it was not intended to bring dignity and honor to the women wearing it. Sadly, it often strips women of dignity instead. When looking at our clothes, we can ask ourselves, “Is this bringing me dignity or is it stripping it away from me?”

Keeping these two things in tension—worshipping God rather than ourselves, and seeking dignity rather than stripping it away—can help us navigate the perilous but potentially worshipful area of fashion.


Amber Van Schooneveld is a writer, editor, wife, mom, nature lover, world traveler and follower of Jesus Christ. She is the author of Hope Lives: A Journey of Restoration and can be found online at ambervanschooneveld.com.

Photo credit: black_eyes via photopin cc

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