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.