Fashion Theology

Written by Robert Covolo Reviewed By Steven Lindsey

Fashion Theology is a fascinating analysis of the interactions between Christian theology and fashion throughout western history. Many Christians feel tension, whether consciously or unconsciously, navigating their desires and choices in personal dress and style while also seeking to celebrate beauty and creative personal expression. They want to remain sensitive to the social messaging and symbols of presentation, honoring special events and the people with whom we live, work, and worship, and retaining a humble posture. Robert Covolo does an especially sensitive job at highlighting these and many other related topics. At the same time, he provides strong biblical support and extensive research on history and culture.

Readers will appreciate the reflections from many of the most impacting figures of church history’s attention to customs of dress, culture in general, and how believers should faithfully engage their public life. This filled in a number of gaps for me and left me with unique insights on the intersection of faith and culture from evolving conversations over the centuries that continue today. There does seem to be a large historic jump of several hundred years from the influence of Calvin to the appearance of Abraham Kuyper. Other than a very brief discussion of the French Revolution and related political and cultural events, this may leave the reader wondering if there is a gap the analysis of other cultural or theological movements in intervening periods with events and figures still to be explored.

However, several especially insightful historical concepts emerge throughout the text. A poignant example is in Covolo’s reflections on Barth’s view of fashion. Barth saw fashion “as representing a long, a misplaced but legitimate hope to actualize a lost image … (which) retains … an unquiet fascination with an allusive glory that corresponded to humanity’s rightful claim to their true King, Christ” (p. 42). The church has always expressed concern over fashion, with it easily being an expression of prideful hubris. But the church rarely promotes this insight over image-bearing humanity’s intrinsic place of glory within the Creator’s design.

This work is clearly for academics and the thoughtful believer who likes reading theology and cultural analysis. The very specific academic focus narrows the field of readers likely to work through this study. The most helpful insights and applications for thoughtful leaders and instructors in the field of fashion come in the all too short final chapter and especially in the final sections of that chapter. It is here that the theme of fashion as “performance” emerges. The text shifts to practical application and illustrates how fashion, when carefully related biblical theology, can serve well the earlier important themes of narrative, identity, and human longings to be seen and understood.

For example, “people approach the Bible as narrative creatures; that is, narrative is part of the condition of being human” (p. 106). We better see ourselves and understand our place in a larger narrative (the storyline of scripture) by identifying the parallels and identity “markers” of dress, gender, class, and race in our own stories as these same markers are presented and worked out in the biblical narrative (p. 107). The final “Performing Christ” framework that Covolo outlines, which is based on the apostle Paul’s “putting on Christ” imagery, is incredibly insightful and helpful. This section directly relates to using fashion as an aid to every believer’s call to be “culturally engaged … hospitable … joyful … convivial … prophetic … and hopeful” (p. 112–14). Unfortunately, he does not elaborate in detail on this list. Yet, each of these descriptors could be expanded into helpful fuller discussions or chapters in and of themselves.

Fashion Theology sets the stage for more accessible works that spend less time explaining the philosophical, theological, and historic backgrounds. Such texts could give more time to expanding on the current trends and biblical implications of faith and fashion in our increasingly fragmented, naturalistic, and postmodern culture. I look forward to expanded discussions on these topics and am deeply grateful for Robert Covolo’s rich contribution to a clearly underserved field.

Steven Lindsey

Steven Lindsey
Center for Faith and Work Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California, USA

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