I’ll Save My Gucci For Sundays

A smashing outfit is worth a thousand words. I buy what “fits my image” and dress to “make a statement.” Apparel advertising buttons our identity to our body. It encourages self-expression through something visual that we create or select with the cooperation of our minds and our hands. For that reason, fashion savants likely claim ranking with other types of visual artists. For an animal, its outerwear is defense against weather. But ‘wardrobe curators’ and the like explore more complex uses for clothing by engineering it for communication between people. It communicates status and role, dispositions toward authority and levels of self-esteem. Even more abstractly, it communicates a person’s unique ability to relate linear patterns, colors or shapes.

So, clothing—it’s an image of who you are. Granted, it’s a brief image—we can’t statically frame our outfits for study. Our own moving bodies are the frame. Outfits are assembled for certain moments or a stretch of hours, and then get dismantled, sort of like the short-form of installation art. But when taken as a whole, the right wardrobe is evidence of someone’s good taste correctly conveying their peculiar identity.

We’re attracted to those people, wondering how it is they deftly create consistent, genuine images of their identity. Come Sunday morning, Christian adults who dress well have this effect on me. Their identity in Christ—an identity centering on Christ while radiating his image to the world—is now made visible in a small way. It absorbs me in the thought of Christian adulthood. The image of their identity is profound motivation to mature my own identity and invites me to become the disciple of my elders.

Yet we don’t often think immediately of clothing when our church communities encourage us to develop our faith through carefully considering culture and art. Quite possibly, clothing has been waylaid while we catch up on learning how to healthily consume higher art. It’s likely, though, that we should encourage more attention to it in our after-church fellowshipping and small-group conversations. Kent Reister recently described a healthy consumer as someone who loves something “for its aesthetic power” by encountering it with “focus and deliberation,” turning an “overload of film and music access” into “searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track.” Pausing in the ‘image bombardment’ of our culture to give diligent awareness to the intelligent design and significance of a few images transforms consuming into partaking of God’s nature. Taking pause with clothing as an image is doubly worthwhile; clothing facilitates encounters with beauty as seen distinctly by another human. Particularly in a church setting, a conversation about clothing is a trustworthy convergence of becoming a better consumer and seeing the image of God in the soul of our neighbor.

The Christian communities I am familiar with have no strong resistance to dressing fashionably. They also don’t encourage or articulate stronger aesthetics beyond  principled modesty. If that’s the only governing principle for the art of grooming, then the only criteria for being ‘well-dressed’ is probably ‘finding clothes which minimizes thoughts about sex.’ There is easily more to motivate our clothing choices than sex. Human beauty is not inherently sexually attractive. Otherwise, how would you justify telling your daughter she is beautiful? We are daily discerning human beauty without experiencing it sexually.

To caveat, I am deeply grateful to my parents and church for teaching me the protection and freedom of modesty. But limiting discussions of clothing to modesty is doubly restricting. It veers toward more application for women than men. Men don’t get (need? deserve? what are we telling them?) much training in clothing aesthetics.  Also, it only teaches women to dress their body by thinking of its sexual purpose. The gender compartmentalization ends with recognizing the sexuality of the body and falls short of recognizing its humanity.

Limiting theology of clothing aesthetics to modesty boxes it into the one season of life where modesty is relevant. Dressing well is merely fad for the young and sexually aware. It plays no role in drawing us further up and further in to Christian maturity. But if you are like me, you are convinced that dressing well may become a means to glimpsing part of God’s nature. Naturally, you hope that your peers are not the best available experts on clothing aesthetics. Instead, you look to your elders and hope to find their conversation both seasoned and eager.




Muddying the Waters around Modesty

Whenever summer rolls around, the tide of links rises on my Facebook news feed. “Modesty,” they all say. Sometimes with a sneer, sometimes with a polemic defense, they all say, “modesty.” In theory, I appreciate the idea of modesty, and I think the arguments in its defense are justified. However, glancing over my wardrobe, I have to admit that I’m baffled as what exactly it means I should wear. And, genuinely unintentionally, I’ve stumbled upon the wrong choices on more than one occasion.

I have no instincts and little training in this area. Growing up in a school with a uniform, I never was exposed to the peer vs. peer whisperings (i.e., “Can you believe she’s wearing that?!”) that offer the adolescent mind a social catechism (albeit a dubious one) about what outfit means what.

Additionally, if there’s a culture that epitomizes a schizophrenic balance of questing after external beauty while refusing to judge by appearances, it’s the one that raised me: SoCal. Of those two sides, I’ve always had a strong affinity for the latter; I learned a little too well not to judge by appearances. In college, I went to church and classes in jeans and sandals and shorts among others in jeans and sandals and shorts. Doing so is an expression of that culture’s most prized virtue. Yes, most groups develop a cardinal virtue; where some cultures – like the American south – are big on respect, California is big on genuineness. To a Californian, dressing formally can feel ingenuine (though, bizarrely. wearing make-up doesn’t).

And, to a Californian, being ingenuine is the second of the regionally deadly sins (after “being judgmental,” before “waiting until a green light to turn right”).

So, the articles on modesty always fill me with some terror of the unknown. Unfair as it might be, they center on those endowed by God with the quality of being women. I happen to have that very quality, and I discover every summer on my Facebook news feed that the gift is a liability rather than an asset. There’s some grave misuse of it which I may make any morning, and I don’t really understand where that misuse rests in order to avoid it.

Unlike most virtues, the practice of modesty is culturally defined. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, just that it has a contingent reality. In Eden, nudity was not immodest. In Starbucks, it is. Some cultures hide ankles. Others, cleavage. This is not to say there is no such thing as modesty, only that modesty looks different in different places and different times. But, you’ve read all this before.

But what many of these articles miss is possibility of degrees of knowledge. While agreeing that modesty is culturally defined, most articles assume that everyone within a given culture understands what goes for “modesty” within that culture. But, every societal convention is better understood by some members of that society than others (see Jane Austen). There is a continuum of understanding often ignored by modesty articles.

And, even among those who understand, there exists a greater deal of confusion than most would admit. For instance, the conventions clearly vary from one body to another. Place a short girl in mid-thigh length shorts next to a tall girl in mid-thigh length shorts; proportionally identical exposure that would never be deemed immodest on my dachshund-like legs would be judged more harshly on hers. Last week, I asked some friends how long skirts should be, and my friends gave a clear answer: not-above-the-knee. Then, they immediately affirmed that the above-the-knee skirt I was wearing was “just fine.” The variability of answers to the modesty question can be exhausting.

At the same time as modesty is a moving target and a challenging one, I don’t want to diminish its importance. I don’t deny the virtue of it. I care about the relationship between God and every human being around me. I care about helping people be virtuous insofar as it rests with me. I do care about respect. I care about the reality of modesty, with its obscured goal which the social rules exist to achieve.

I care about it because, behind what sometimes looks like the rigid face of judgmental rule-enforcement, I still hear the soft-hearted echoes of love.

I believe that deep within the rules and the protection and the judgment there remains a reality. That reality says that my neighbor’s life is my life, and he is not as independent of me as I pretend. We draw hard lines between people, but the boundaries smudge more than we like to admit, perhaps nowhere as ubiquitously as with modesty. The modesty argument exposes our individualistic, court-room stance toward sin; at best, the conversation can remind us that we are morally bound to one another not by blame or fault but by the possibility of really harming or really helping one another.

While the liberal side may want to blame the harmed for being harmed, the conservative may want to cast all the blame on the immodest for being immodest, it seems like throwing blame around will not undo damage or prevent further harm. Without intending to, I can do genuine harm to others by my misunderstanding of modesty. This harm is no less real because it was unintended, nor is the fault either fully mine or fully that of the harmed. What the individualistic, juridical arguments often forget is that the harm of immodesty is not simply fault, but also damage. This is the highest calling of my wardrobe choices: that I do my best to make those choices in love, not simply on the basis of avoiding fault or denying that fault is possible.

So, my point is not to let anyone off the hook, but only to point out some of the complexity which the modesty debate tends to miss. We bear some responsibility for one another. Yet, those who “know” the rules of modesty must accept that the reasons for that pair of heels at that inappropriate time or place may be less intentional than they appear from outside.

Bodies, Dating and Modesty: Misunderstood but Important

A friend of mine posted a link to this blog over at Christianity Today’s blog for women. The blog responds to the common phrase that “modest is hottest” which seems to run around in many Christian circles, particularly youth groups. The response is a good one, pointing out that the phrase actually objectifies women by making the female body a thing to be feared rather than an expression of God’s beauty. Continue reading Bodies, Dating and Modesty: Misunderstood but Important