The mask of fashion
Our identity has become closely tied with the clothes we wear, and often our latest outfit can be masking a sense of shame and emptiness.
There was a season in my life, a few years ago now, where I only wore a plain black T-shirt and a simple pair of jeans everyday. I guess it was my attempt to break any dependence I might have had on brands, labels or styles for my identity or self-worth. I can’t exactly remember how long I sustained this choice of clothing but I do know that it did break something off me and that I emerged from the other side of this ‘lenten’ time with a new relationship to the clothes that I wore. The plainness, simplicity and routine of wearing the same T-shirts and jeans every day brought about a freedom that I hadn’t experienced before; I no longer had to concern myself with what I was going to wear that day or whether or not it met the approval of the society that I was immersed in. There was a real liberation from a certain cultural tyranny that I discovered as I consciously chose to distance myself from a chorus of unspoken expectations.
Maybe in some small way it reflected the practice of some monastic communities that embraced the long gown called a habit as their choice of clothing in order to reject the vanities of the world, embrace values such as humility and embody a new way of living. Something of this idea is actually reflected in the word ‘habit’, which comes from the Latin word ‘habitus’ that means ‘to put on a new way of life’ and stands as a physical representation of an inner reality.
This idea of outward clothing reflecting an inner reality has been around since the days of old and is reflected in the opening chapters of Genesis following the sin of our primeval ancestors Adam and Eve. After eating from one of the forbidden trees, the immediate response of the fallen couple to the deep, penetrating shame and insecurity they felt after their eyes had been opened, was to try and cover their nakedness by clothing themselves with fig leaves (Gen 3:7). Where once they were naked and unashamed (Gen 2:25) they now hid themselves from God and thought that maybe, just maybe, the clothes that they made might somehow disguise their inner desolation as well as their physical vulnerability. The story continues with the grave judgement and compassionate grace of God as the downcast pair are exiled from the garden but clothed now, not in garments of their own creation, but in those stitched from the very hands of God Himself (3:21-24).
This ancient story comes to life somewhat if we allow it to search us in our own time and ask questions of us such as, ‘Do we, like Adam and Eve, ever seek to cover and hide our own inner nakedness, shame and emptiness through the clothes we wear? Is fashion simply a man-made attempt to construct a sense of identity, worth and value that can only come from God? Do our clothing choices help bridge the relational void felt between people or is it a means of perpetuating them?’ If our answer to any of these is anywhere close to a ‘yes’ then I guess the next question is, what do we do about it?
Pete Greig in his poem, The Vision and the Vow, tentatively begins to answer this question as he writes about a generation of young people sold out to the vision of Jesus:
‘Whatever it takes they will give:
Breaking the rules,
Shaking mediocrity from its cosy little hide,
Laying down their rights and their precious little wrongs,
Laughing at labels,
The advertisers cannot mould them.
Hollywood cannot hold them.
Peer-pressure is powerless to shake their resolve at late-night parties before the cockerel cries.
They are incredibly cool, dangerously attractive on the inside.
On the outside?
They hardly care!
They wear clothes like costumes: to communicate and celebrate, but never to hide.’
Clothing that communicates and celebrates but never hides. What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure but I know what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like droves of insecure and impressionable young people descending upon our high streets, bowing at the alter of whatever particular trend the powers that be have decided is ‘in’ this season in order to build a fragile and ever transient identity. Now I know that comes across as harsh but I am not against the clothing and fashion industry per se and certainly not suggesting that we all begin to dress as monks and nuns, but I am deeply concerned about some of the messages, values and ideas that contemporary fashion seem to endorse. I am convinced that the physical clothes we wear can and do truly reflect something of that which is going on deep within us, and fashion itself acts to some degree as a cultural thermometer that alerts us to intellectual and spiritual realities in our midst.
I would love to see those of faith who are called to these spheres bringing light and truth to bear upon such places and draw out all the redemptive possibilities that lie within them. I would love to see those who have been ‘clothed in Christ’, who are being ‘renewed in the image of our creator’ and have been set free from shame and guilt, pioneer new trends and somehow reflect in their clothing and creativity something of the ‘glorious freedom of the children of God’ that we now have (Col 1:13-14, 3:10, Eph 4:24, Rom 8:21). This vocation is certainly not one I am called to (just ask my wife about my clothing) but I am encouraged by those who are breaking ground in these areas and showing us what it might mean to not hide but to communicate and celebrate when it comes to clothing ourselves.