What hath Jerusalem to do with Milan?
[Fashion] represents a long… legitimate hope to actualise a lost image… [which] retains… an unquiet fascination with an allusive glory that corresponded to humanity’s claim to their true king, Christ. Karl Barth If one thinks himself made beautiful by gold, he is inferior to it. Clement of Alexandria Today, when the conjunction between theology and dress is examined, the focus is inevitably on Islam, but fashion forms part of God’s created order for Christians, too—and not in a woolly manner. At the beginning of the Bible, clothing is associated with the Fall—more specifically, that awkward moment in which Adam and Eve stitch fig leaves together to cover their newfound shame (Gen. 3:7), or when God “made garments of skin for them” (Gen. 3:21). Immediately after the Passion, John notes that Christ had worn a seamless chiton (John 19:23–24). At its end, garments are seen as key to salvation: ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life’ (Rev. 22:14). One of the first theologians to be interested in clothes was Tertullian (d. 220), who wrote a treatise on the adornment of women. Elsewhere, the Epistle to Diognetus states that while Christian dress should reflect the wearer’s moral status, it shouldn’t degenerate into an ostentatious marker of identity but rather serve as an opportunity to craft a visible (and beautiful) image of the invisible Lord (Colossians 1:15). Dress often yields positive metaphors in the Bible. Isaiah, for instance, notes that ‘He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness’ (61:10). It can assume a concrete role, too, such as when Paul reassures the faithful that they will not be found naked on the day of the Resurrection (2 Cor. 5:3).
It is a shame that beneath the Western lens, theology and fashion are now seen as incompatible—or at best, as very distant relations. The former is damned as a weighty, historical burden touching on the unknown; a discipline that can barely fathom fashion’s plane, which operates upon shallow, presentist, and faddish principles. In reality, however, both are sources of hope. Admittedly, most fashionistas today use clothes to raise their self-worth through social games—a wish that is barely discernible from vanity—but there is no reason why Christians cannot co-opt fashion to reflect their own most cherished hope: the Resurrection. To know Christ is to be made anew (Eph. 2:10); to be Christian, then, is to clad the flock in clothes that reflect the fact that they are a people of the Resurrection, a folk who operates in the knowledge that God is going to give them ‘glorified bodies’ (Phil. 3:21). This isn’t a particularly strict or explicit dress code, but rules that pertain to the conscience rarely gain from either value. Instead, the dress of a Christian can demonstrate the relationship between everyday practices and our theological beliefs; the faith becomes a coherent worldview, and not simply a private language spoken at Church. Clothes remind us that the public sphere is not a nuisance, an inconvenience to the norms we nurture at Church but rather form an opportunity to display what it means to be reborn in Christ.
Fashion can be one means whereby the faithful thank God for including ‘seeing’ and ‘being’ as part of the created order. Before Adam and Eve fell, the sense of harmony between people and the order in which they were immersed was perfect, a consonance best expressed by Man’s declaration that Woman is ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (Gen. 2:23). Fashion, therefore, should not merely seek to cover up the shame of having fallen from such a condition (a largely negative role) but attempt to recover the old register: It should provoke those ancient feelings of understanding and joy. Fashion falls away from this divine task when it is used—‘borrowed’ as ‘divine capital’, perhaps—to ends such as autonomy, vanity, and hubris. Perversely, the fashion and art worlds both draw pride from their having banished the noumenal from their scope. In both spheres, beauty has been cast aside in favour of objects designed to inspire disinterested contemplation, spiritually bankrupt computation, and the self-admiration of the intellect. At higher levels, the object defies even the intellect and stands solely for itself; it achieves (a notional) autonomy. The contemporary artist replaces God—he creates for creation’s sake—but while God creates so that life can enjoy itself (and the communions it provokes), the new artist-provocateur mocks God by creating things with no purpose other than to suggest that our lives are inherently purposeless. God remains unaffected, of course, but we corrupt ourselves with such thoughts; our art spiritually flagellates us. The laos (laypeople) have thought deeply about the triangle between themselves, God, and beauty. The pseudepigraphic romantic novel Joseph and Aseneth, for instance, has Aseneth initially rejected by Joseph on the grounds that she wears a ‘pagan’ outfit. Later slipping into garments of mourning, a heavenly visitor instructs her to put on a wedding dress so that she will appear in all her beauty (including its spiritual guise) to impress him. The thinkers of the Early Church were also aware of fashion’s risks, and even today their snipes have lost none of their acerbity. In De Cultu Feminarum, the aforementioned Tertullian wrote that ‘We must cast away earthly ornaments if we desire heavenly ones’, and that ‘Whatever is born is the work of God and whatever is plastered on is the devil’s… You would not lie with your tongue so do not lie in your appearance.’ Clement of Alexandria wondered at how ‘God takes away anxious cares for clothes, food and unnecessary luxuries’, concluding: ‘What are we to imagine he then says about a love for embellishment, fashion and so on.’ Cyprian scoffed that they ‘who have put on silk and purple cannot put on Christ.’
It is Chrysostom, however, who gets to the nub of why high fashion irked so many Christians: Your garments [etc.] could feed the hungry. What excuse will you rely on? What pardon will you seek [from God]? ... Can you not see these great snares… the snares we should lay aside [associate] with death… Trust in the Lord, brethren, to invest you with better wealth than you can imagine. This attitude harks back to Christ, who expressed no concern for the clothing of his followers (Matt. 6:28), as well as Paul, who called for modest dress, especially for women (1 Tim. 2:9–10) so they might not arouse lust in the heart of the opposite sex (Matt. 5:27–28). This is a stance echoed by the author of the first epistle of Peter, as well as Revelation, where the ‘Great Harlot’ dons an interminable wish-list of luxuries (Rev. 17:1–5). This exhortation was not restricted to women; men were also expected to wear rough and plain clothing because they too could cause others to sin via their appearance (Luke 17:1–2). Furthermore, they had to observe Deuteronomy’s prohibition against wearing female clothing (22:5). This passage, however, may not attack transvestism per se as much as cross-dressing customs found among the heathen, instead it probably sought to centralise and purge Yahwism of the idolatrous practices among the Canaanites, which often involved women appearing in armour and men in women’s clothes (in the rites of Astarte or Ashtaroth). Indeed, if supermodels and influencers are today’s fashion idols, then monks and nuns set the supreme example to Christian laymen and women. Their appearance seems to have been based upon Old Testament precedents, according to the fifth-century John Cassian, who wrote in the Institutes that ‘as a soldier of Christ ever ready for battle, the [holy man] ought to walk with his loins girded’. Elijah, for example, could be ‘recognised without the slightest doubt’ as a ‘man of God’ thanks to the ‘evidence of the girdle and his unkempt body’. He took this a stage further by arguing that animal skins could also be worn as the supreme symbol of a believer having ‘destroyed all forms of desire’. Evagrios, too, explained the symbolism of each monkish item in his Praktikos, the upshot of which was that a monk’s wardrobe should bolster his resolve to fight demons. The clergy formed another source of sartorial authority to laymen. Though much of what we consider to be unique about their dress has less of a religious backdrop than a cultural one. In other words, while the (mostly Germanic) laity were inclined to the short tunic with breeches and mantle, the clergy adhered to the Roman “look” with its long tunic and long cloak. Indeed, the canons of the Council of Braga (572) required the clergy to wear the vestis talaris (a long tunic, ancestor of the cassock and the mirror-image of the Byzantine rason) and dozens of synods policed this ecclesiastical attire as a way of preventing priests from imitating fleeting fashions. Pope John VIII (c. 875) even sent a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury admonishing him with the news that the English clergy in Rome (arrayed in Roman garb) should set an example to their eccentric brethren back home. It was not a problem restricted to the Anglo-world, however. Despite canon law to the contrary, clerics across Europe were often chastised for donning dress more suited to knights than priests. Although some Christians adopted ascetic dress and others donned simple clothes (which may have been white, if Clement of Alexandria’s demand that white be worn because it ‘befitted seriousness’ was taken seriously), there was nevertheless a spectrum of beauty and culture with which they could toy. Indeed, the tribon (which served as a symbol of paideia) was adopted to play on the synthesis between Christian wisdom and its classical cousins, and was especially common on funerary monuments. The V&A museum in London contains nine textile pieces decorated with colourful scenes from the life of Christ and containing figures wearing surprisingly jazzy outfits. Several are seventh- to eighth-century fragments including four orbiculi (roundels) that display images such as the Annunciation, the Last Supper, Mary Magdalene’s witness to the resurrection of Christ, and the Adoration of the Magi. The scenes probably served an apotropaic function, formulated to block supernatural malice; after all, this was an era when Copts often transmitted instructions to one another in stone amulets said to be passed down from the disciples through the generations and designed to protect Christians on their journeys to heaven after death. It is probable, however, that the flashier tunics also had deeper theological roots. Their wearers may have been indicating that they were of a party with those who participated in the divinization of Man—a process at one with the Incarnation. As much is suggested by the stance adopted by Asterius, bishop of Amaseia, whose sermon against such clothes ran as follows: Do not depict Christ (for that one act of humility, the Incarnation, which he willingly accepted for our sake, is sufficient unto Him) but bear in mind your spirit and carry about with you the incorporeal Logos. Asterius is not simply expressing a rote aniconic sentiment here, but rather offering a subtle insight into one aspect of the theology espoused by the adorned. His opponents clearly refused to see the Incarnation as an isolated and autonomous act but rather as one that called for a certain amount of human mimesis (nowadays known as ‘theosis’). Wearing the equivalent of Christian bling may have been one way to signal they were mimetically assimilating themselves to Christ’s Incarnation. This was hardly an alien concept to the bishop. Indeed, it can be found in Paul (who often used the metaphor of dress to describe the assimilation of Man to Christ) and also in the rite of baptism, whose primary ritual involves dis- and re-robing. Paul bangs the point home in Rom. 13:14, where he exhorts folk to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’. The Letter to the Colossians also claims the believers have ‘stripped off the old self and clothed themselves with the new self which is renewed according to the image of its Creator’. The flamboyant Christians clearly paired these notions with passages that underpinned theosis such as 2 Pet. 1:4, that we are enabled to become ‘participants in the divine nature’; Clement of Alexandria’s observation that we should ‘meditate on the heavenly way of life according to which we have been deified’; and Athanasius’ argument in Protrepticus, which argued that ‘the Word of God became Man so that you might learn from a man how he may become God’. In short, ‘putting on Christ’ was not always restricted to the metaphysical realm; it was enacted through ritualized dress in which exaggeratedly Christian clothing elevated wearers into sacralized bodies who identified themselves with the Incarnation of the Word. Reorientating behaviours around Christ with blingtastic clothing is one thing, but wearing garments that serve nothing than one’s own vanity is quite another. The Old Testament warns that the Lord would ‘snatch away’ (Isa. 3:16–24) the women of Zion’s bangles, headbands, and tiaras if their self-love trumps their love for the poor (commanded in Deut. 15:11). Meanwhile, deep in the Roman world, Ambrose reminded readers that flashy dress segued a little too neatly into enervating luxuria and mollitia (effeminate weakness): A Christian’s ‘look’ should mirror (and spiritually enhance) the virtus of traditional Roman appearance. If the distressed pallium or tribon was the hallmark of the philosopher prototype of Christ (or, conversely, the charlatan), then the tunic and toga remained the garments of respectable Roman gentlemen and upstanding Christians. Other Romanitas-laden items included the belt, which signalled military readiness and adult citizenship for the male, and the veil. The latter is particularly interesting in that the motif of velato capite was widespread in depictions of Roman sacrifice (only some military men on special occasions could perform them aperto capite)—an identity that Paul rebelled against when he argued that ‘any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head’ (1 Cor. 11:4). Why the Romans veiled themselves remains moot, but this passage of the Aeneid—
Quin, ubi transmissae steterint trans aequora classes, et positis aris iam vota in litore solves, purpureo velare comas adopertus amictu, ne qua inter sanctos ignis in honore deorum hostilis facies occurrat et omina turbet (III. 403–407) —appears to indicate that the Romans thought that while praying, there was a risk that the divine connection might either be deflected or even absorbed by a third party, operating a little like the malus oculus (evil eye) which to the pagans always threatened to curse good fortune. It is interesting that Christians rebel against this use of the veil. Instead, pushing it on to women – the only remnant of it in male worship being the humeral veil. In a silent revolution, Paul of “civis Romanus sum” fame eschews the the key symbol of Roman piety for the early faith.
To conclude, fashion should not fortify our sense of self-love, which in truth is nothing more than a form of insecurity with good PR, but rather reveal our inner person (1 Peter 3:3–4) and raise others into the communion we all share in God. Perhaps no verse expresses this better than Exodus 28, in which God commands that ‘sacred garments be made for your brother Aaron to give him dignity, to give him honour… so that he can serve’. A quick look at the high priests of the era reveals a ‘look’ that could not be bolder if it tried. From the me’il of deep blue with golden bells and scarlet tassels to the gold-plated turban (engraved with ‘Holiness unto YHWH’), from the ephod (with onyx stones) to the hoshen adorned with twelve large gems, such garments celebrate the beauty God embroidered into all Creation, and throws it back up to Him with joy. This is tempered only by a modesty that sits downstream from the humility we foster in the face of Grace. Paul taught that our bodies are temples; that we are “not our own” because we “were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20) which demands we acknowledge our origin as sacred creations and gifts from God. In other words, to dress immodestly is to suggest bad theology i.e. that our bodies seek the sort of attention and approval that indicates we are autonomous and vain, cousins of the first sin: pride. Ultimately, however, there is no explicit sartorial prescription for the Christian. Only a tension between being Christ-like (in eschewing all earthly vanities to indicate the soul’s proximity to its creator) and beautifying oneself in order to express joy at God’s creation (mimicking the His artistry, a gorgeous reflection of the imago Dei). It is left in the hands of the believer to judge where beauty segues into egoism, where puritanism becomes pride. Be it on each of our consciences.
This piece originally appeared in issue 3 of Valet Magazine.