1.23.2006

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.

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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.

1.13.2006

Dying well.

Last week, we learned of the death of a beloved member of the extended Sojourners family. Jeanie Wylie-Kellerman, who had fought brain tumors for seven years, passed away on New Years Eve.

I never got to meet Jeanie, but she and her husband, Bill, were a strong presence in the collective memory and ethos when I was interning at Sojourners. There was a little prayer table set up in the hallway outside the library with pictures of the W-Ks and their daughters, some writing that Jeanie had done, some candles. Everyone always spoke of them so warmly, so fondly. Their lives were about Kingdom work, about speaking truth to power and speaking up for the little guy and showing up.

Jeanie lived and died on the buoyancy of grace. Take the time to read two remarkable obituaries from the Detroit Free Press and the Metro Times, which chronicle her deeds as well as her community funeral. Even more moving is the website that chronicled her family's journey through the disease in the form of online diary entries, right up to the end:
"Recent days have been a gift of grief and grace. We are not crushed. We are held by a beloved community. We now know of ashes to ashes, but the days of surrounding and caring for her body were an incomprehensible gift. Every act of practical care proved to be simultaneously sacramental. ... We’re sending her off with a shout. Shout with us. Or shout where you are."
I shout with this family and its beloved community: Death is not our friend. It is our enemy, and oh, how deaths like Jeanie trouble me in my deepest parts. A wife, a mother, a woman who had done so much good and yet had barely even begun. But God has made his victory over death, which has bearing not only on the way we die, but the way we live. I hope my beloved and I will be able to do both with the firey hope and grace of Jeanie.