What to wear?

Originally uploaded by kebojo.
My office at Calvin sponsored a student-run fashion show this Saturday. Calvin is an unusually hostile environment for people who are interested in textiles and the fashion industry, but the reception garnered by their original designs and creatively assembled outfits was nothing but enthusiastic. The response was invigorating, particularly given the near-constant antagonism our office has received (mostly from faculty) since the show's inception.

Following is a piece I wrote that was included in the program for the fashion show.


What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? You probably shower, brush your teeth—and then, you stand in front of your closet and figure out what to wear.

To some, this decision may not seem important. Clothing is purely functional; society requires people to cover their bodies in fabric, and so they do—no matter what that fabric feels like, how it drapes, or how it complements or clashes with other fabrics on their body.

But others are considering just that. Would this top look better with a belt or hanging loose? Do these two patterns contradict one another or bring out the unique qualities of both? Is adding earrings to this outfit overkill or just the right touch? What does a skinny tie say when paired with this shirt?

Unfortunately, that people ask these questions is often derided as materialistic, narcissistic, and vapid by those who dress for comfort or utility. This is especially common among Christians who have been influenced by traditional Protestant values like thrift and modesty. To them, fashion is the antithesis of faith, representing all that is worldly and vulgar.

Certainly there is much in modern fashion that Christians ought to criticize. Impossibly thin models are held up as the standard by which all other women are judged, nevermind the health risks and distorted ideas of what it means to be female. Working conditions for those who make most of our clothing are dismal, and our purchases reinforce an economy that thrives on cheaply made goods. And among popular mall designers, fashion lacks subtlety and class, as evidenced by the particularly gauche trend of labeling t-shirts with brash sexual solicitations.

But adorning one’s body does not necessarily have to be an exercise in the sexier-than-thou oneupsmanship that permeates popular culture. As the students behind tonight’s show will demonstrate, the question of “what to wear” is about more than what’s hot in fashion, whether in mall windows or on the runways. Calvin’s designers, make-up artists, and hair artists are just that—artists. From hand-sewn evening gowns to found-object accessories to hodge-podge thrift-store castoffs, the clothing in tonight’s show is a testament to the potential of fashion to speak truth aesthetically, culturally, and theologically.

These students are motivated by a variety of considerations in deciding what to wear. Some dress to shock, to awaken, to give affront to homogeneity. Others say that their clothing is an opportunity to literally wear their personalities on their sleeves. Others select their outfits mindful that not everyone in the world has that luxury, favoring designers who pay seamstresses a fair wage and use materials that are gentle on the earth. For still others, fashion is primarily a creative act; to design clothing or apply make-up or arrange hair is to work with a living canvas and make a walking, talking work of art.

In a cultural climate that sees fashion as a means of adhering to the status quo, attracting sexual partners, or demonstrating wealth, these students’ attitude towards fashion is profoundly countercultural. It is also profoundly Christian. In the Reformed tradition, we believe in the redemption of all things, including the earth on which we stand and our bodies that work and play and eat and, yes, dress every day.

In this economy, even the most quotidian activities matter. People need food, shelter, and clothing to survive, but we need beauty, too, to point beyond mere survival. Like a delicious meal or innovative architecture, clothing can be a celebration of the life abundant, and of the bodies that God created and called good.

This is what we celebrate tonight. We invite you to enter the creative process with us, considering thoughtfully and imaginatively what to wear.


At 1/25/2006 4:50 AM, Blogger Dan said...

Hi, Kate:

I think that only someone who has attended or worked at a fairly conservative Christian college could appreciate that a small student-run fashion show might be a bit controversial. My wife and I are grads of Houghton College, she of Wesleyan background and I of Presbyterian (USA). Sometimes we remember our Houghton days--certain chapel sermons, certain conversations--and almost wish we had recorded them on tape so we could document that these things really happened! Maybe it's just as well, though, that we didn't.

I now pastor a PCUSA congregation, and can report that feelings of alienation between people Jesus loves are in this branch of the Family of God as well. Seems to be in the air these days.

Anyway, nice blog. Looks like your kids had fun at this event; at a Christian college, even styles of clothing become opportunities for theological reflection... on the whole, not a bad thing, I think. Congratulations on your recent marriage, and (if your life permits) do keep posting.

At 1/25/2006 8:43 PM, Blogger rachel said...

wow, kate! you are such a good writer.

(and you are becoming quite the reformed theologian! ; ) ha. you might have some interesting discussions with baptists in pennsylvania!)

At 1/26/2006 1:06 PM, Blogger kate said...

Dan, wow! What a small world. My sister goes to Houghton (she's a senior), and has called me several times over the years to laugh as well as lament with me over very strange CCCU behaviors. Thanks for the kind words about my blog, and for appreciating what we're trying to do with fashion (among other things) at Calvin. If you don't mind me asking, how did you find your way here?

rachel, thanks for your kind words, too! Luckily, the Baptists we're going to encounter in Philly are probably coming from similar places theologically... and if not, I'm always up for a debate. :) (And by the way, if you looked at the fashion photos... did you notice that one of the skirts included virtually identical fabric to the orange/brown, v-neck, formerly-pillowcase shirt you have? There must be a lot of that floating around GR or something!)

At 1/26/2006 1:35 PM, Blogger Holy Moly! said...

You know, before reading your column, I think I would have been solidly in the "fashion shows just generate materialism and shallowness" camp. You've totally changed my mind. Good to be reminded that even nutty liberals like me need to watch out for legalism and not be so quick to judge.

Maybe fashion, like music, should one of those things that is as much about process as it is about product. Upon reflection, what excites me about this event is that it encourages people to take the instruments of creating culture into their own hands rather than letting the Culture Industry tell them what's cool. Any time that happens, it's a good thing.

At 1/27/2006 12:23 PM, Blogger kate said...

Kevin, that was my attitude before this event, too. But from the first time I met with these students (most of whom are freshmen, incidentally), I had to reevaluate my opinions. They were so thoughtful, passionate, informed, and creative that it was impossible not to take them seriously and catch their enthusiasm.

I think your second paragraph really sums up what this is all about. Standing backstage and watching these young designers put the finishing touches on their models' make-up and adjust their outfits just so showed me that they were inventing and re-inventing, rather than just mimicking. The field of fashion has been neglected by Christians, but these students really give me hope that a profoundly counter-cultural movement can and should and WILL take place in that industry.

At 2/05/2006 10:29 PM, Blogger Matthew61 said...

I am glad to have found your weblog. I will bookmark it and come back to visit.

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