Fashion Theology

Robert Covolo, Robert. Fashion Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020. 216 p. $39.99, cloth.

What does fashion have to do with theology or Jerusalem with Paris? Robert Covolo’s book offers a theologically and historically informed account of Christian reflection on fashion. Far from strangers forced together, what emerges clearly is that theologians ancient and modern alike took “fashion seriously well before the discipline of fashion theory” (21). Indeed, by exploring the intersection of fashion and theology through the lenses of tradition, reform, public discourse, art, and everyday life, Covolo shows not only the many ways in which fashion theory and theology can be fruitfully connected, but also “the debt fashion theory holds to theology.” (115) In many ways, Covolo’s work here is a vindication of what Herman Bavinck had said a little over a century ago in one sphere of life: “There is nothing human that cannot be called Christian” – and fashion, as a facet of human existence, can indeed be traced fruitfully to Christian thought.[1]

In the first chapter on tradition, Covolo outlines the responses to fashion by Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas. While Tertullian insisted on an antithesis between Christian dress (arguing, for example, that Christians ought to avoid the Roman toga and opt for a Pallum to distinguish their dress), Augustine made several concessions to the cultural plurality, relativity, and usefulness of fashion. Aquinas, on the other hand, adopted Augustine’s concessions while synthesizing Aristotle’s moral theology to argue that dress should be moderated by temperance, with social harmony as a goal. Following the Aristotelian framework of distributive justice, Aquinas argued that appropriate dress should be followed in accordance with one’s status and social standing within society, arguing as well that subjective considerations play a role in why someone might put on make-up or a particular outfit. Though there’s a variety of opinions presented here, what emerges clearly is that fashion was considered to reflect particular objective realities in nature and society, and that what one wears is for the goal of conformity to those external conditions.

Chapter two begins with a discussion of Calvin on fashion. While Calvin maintained the common pastoral concern to warn the laity about the moral excesses associated with dress and to pursue modesty, he linked clothing with food as gifts of God. Far from the stereotype of Calvin as a killjoy, Covolo argued that Calvin rooted a beauty for fashion in the lavishness of the Creator himself, who presents his own glory in the theater of creation. Removing the crux of the divine drama from the Mass to the ordinary, Calvin imbued a sense of transcendence into the mundane lives of the public. Strikingly, what emerges in Calvin is both a nuanced theological appreciation for fashion and a public moral imperative tied to it that anticipates what Christopher Watkin has recently called diagonalization:

Whereas Luther’s two kingdoms tended to retain sartorial hierarchies in society, and [Menno] Simon’s radicalization of Luther’s two kingdoms recapitulated a Tertullian limitation of sartorial directives to the church, Calvin’s approach created a dialectic that both recognized and relativized sartorial distinction across society at the same time. (26, emphasis his).

When one turns to Kuyper in the 19th century, what emerges is an emphasis on the deadening uniformity that arises from the French Revolution for fashion. Kuyper argues that the hegemonic influence of secularism from the revolution led to a halting of the colorful and decadent diversity of the past, with a self-proclaimed elite class imposing its bland style on others. Kuyper’s visit to America showed him that American style was at once more elegant and diverse than what he was used to in Europe – an achievement that he would characteristically trace back to America’s Calvinist origins, which, in his (rather dated) words, only “produced well-dressed people” (36).

Kuyper’s comments about the uniformity of secularist dress would be radically challenged as the 20th century continues. No longer is it possible to speak of a singular fashion of a singular period, the 20th century saw the booming of fashion theory and particularized fashions for every aspect of modern life and preference. Barth, likewise, suggested that fashion was at once both a legitimate creaturely enterprise often hijacked by dark forces, and pointed out that the fashions of the day often reflected a culture’s zeitgeist.

Covolo’s third chapter explores precisely that relationship between fashion and public life. Covolo challenges the narrative that suggests that the rise of fashion is incompatible with a healthy democratic society. This narrative suggests that a focus on fashion shifts the imagination away from public rationality to personal taste determined by an aristocratic elite from the top down. The opposing narrative that suggest that fashion actually flattens the social classes – especially in the modern age of bottom-up pluralization – is also too simplistic. Nonetheless, these twin problematic narratives hold in common that faith is a negative influence for rational public life, with the former suggesting that faith, like fashion, prefers blind representation over rationality, and the latter that faith, as opposed to fashion, is an authoritarian tyrant that suppresses freedom and expression. Covolo notes that this rejection of theology and social ontology inherent within the rise of secularism and modern fashion renders fashion inherently unstable. Freed from claims of the good, fashion is reduced to mere self-display with no other basis than an arbitrary appeal to taste.

Yet, such micro-level reductions of fashion to individual preference can never be fully abstracted from broader, contextual, normative, and societal concerns. Society inevitably imposes itself, as every individual demands mutual recognition for what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of fashion. The secular world, despite its claims to tolerance and freedom, actually impinges on the choices of particular cultures precisely when what one wears reflects theological convictions that challenge the secular status quo – as displayed in the secular suspicion of the Muslim woman wearing the headscarf. It is in seeing these opportunities that Covolo retrieved Kuyper’s desire to articulate a “Christian fashion,” that is, a fashion that arises out of a holistic Christian world-and-life view (weltaanschaung). Without denying the reality of pluralism and a legitimate public space where religious and areligious expression obtain, a Christian (Kuyperian) theology, Covolo suggests, provides good grounds for engagement with this public space of fashion.

Chapter four explores whether fashion should be included as an art. While Kantian schools argue that fashion stifles contemplation and distracts with aesthetic forms, others argue that fashion, like real art, can produce the same “aura” that roots that artwork in a particular place, time, ritual, and tradition. This insight brings Covolo to a discussion of priestly garments and the role of beauty within the broader Catholic imagination, noting that beauty – for thinkers like Augustine – is a “signpost for the Christian” that recalls the soul’s contact with infinite Beauty himself (77). Aquinas argues that perception of beauty is cognitive, a path of knowing that leads the mind to a right contemplation of the object. Dante articulates beauty as a transit toward the divine. Contemporary understandings of fashion, however, reflect the view that sartorial choices are based on shifting social consensus. And, despite the desire to appropriate Catholic style in modern fashion, as reflected, for example, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit ‘Heavenly Bodies,’ the relationship between Catholic beauty and modern fashion remains tenuous at best.

Here, Covolo then considers again a Reformational view of fashion as an alternative to engage modern fashion discourse. Calvin argued that art’s place was not to picture the divine (for that would be idolatrous), but rather to capture that which was already visible. Kuyper took this insight and argued that the Reformation had freed art from the Church’s dominion and allowed it to come to its own. Yet, Covolo then turns to more contemporary neo-Calvinist thinkers like Calvin Seerveld and Nicholas Wolterstorff to critique Kuyper’s (rather Kantian) ideal of art as invoking detached contemplation. Seerveld argues that art is a “God-given sphere of cultural endeavor uniquely tasked with a normative aesthetic based on the fabric of creation’s ‘allusiveness’ – a quality of ‘nuancefulness’ that stimulates the senses and emotions through the free play of symbolic action” (87). This leads Seerveld to caution against fashion’s tendency to be mired up in consumerist fads, but simultaneously to affirm that human beings were duty-bound to dress in a way that echoes ‘the multifaceted aesthetic modality of the world God made” (87). Wolterstorff, too, critiques the classical and Enlightenment views of art as contemplative rather than constructive, for such models leave art out of the ordinary lives of individuals embedded within society. An illumining summative paragraph concludes this section and anticipates the final chapter:

Seerveld and Wolterstorff offer a theological basis for understanding the art of fashion that departs from the Catholic imagination. Because humanity is called as God’s agents to purposeful action within creation – working with both physical realities and social, cultural, and hermeneutic worlds – such purposeful aesthetic action is already theological. Drawing from Calvin’s view of art as one of the good gifts given in creation, and retaining his suspicion of art as a conveyor of transcendent beauty, Neo-Reformed thought brings new theological lenses to the art of fashion. Whereas the Catholic imagination looked to art to capture the timeless, the universal, and the beautiful, the Protestant imagination gave theological justification for art to capture the ephemeral, the particular, and the mundane. And whereas the Catholic imagination retained images as stand-alone artifacts to be experienced through absorbed attention, the Protestant imagination reframed images as conceptual sites of meaning. These schools of thought issue two very different approaches to the art of fashion: (1) fashionable art as enchanted artifacts that life the viewer into another world, and (2) fashionable art as sites of meaning that challenge convention while raising conceptual issues. The first is an art that connects the viewer upward; the second is an art that is comfortable retaining a terrestrial conversation. (89)

With this observation in view, Covolo argues that the Protestant imagination for art is a fecund resource for empowering and engaging with contemporary modes of fashion.

The last chapter offers a theological reflection of fashion for the everyday. Covolo begins by discussing the modern preoccupation with the novel and Augustine’s views of time in the Confessions. Fixating on the new signals at once the fallen condition of eluding the divine and yet also the desire for something that would finally satisfy the human heart. Covolo then discusses the way in which one’s fashion choices reflects mini-narratives that imagines audiences and arcs within the day. These observations invite Christians to think of fashion in terms of God’s time and narrative in redemptive-history. Drawing from the recent ‘theatrical’ turn of the Christian life as actors in an over-arching theo-drama, Covolo argues that Christians ought to take their sartorial cues from Christ himself. Fittingly, this chapter concludes with a sketch of what this means for Christian dress: culturally engaged (for Christ too did not repudiate but lived and dressed within his own cultural milieu), hospitable, joyful, convivial, prophetic (for dress can be used to challenge post-lapsarian status quos), and hopeful.

A project of neo-Calvinism was always the bringing to bear of theology to every area of life, and a common, rather cynical, retort to that aim is the taunt in the form of a quick reductio ad absurdum – something to the effect of: “surely Christianity doesn’t change anything in the way we view food, or what we wear!” Indeed, I have a vivid memory of an interlocutor claiming that the Kuyperian project is fixated on high culture far detached from the concerns of the mundane, and talk of a Christian world-and-life-view is irrelevant to normal domains of food and dress. At times Kuyperians can also blunder by offering theologically thin and thoughtless responses to such queries. Herein is the value of Covolo’s work as a beginning of a vindication of this neo-Calvinistic (or neo-Reformed) impulse: he shows not only that fashion can be connected to theology, but that fashion is indeed indebted to theology. The broad Christian tradition has always offered a theological engagement with fashion, and neo-Calvinist thought has drawn from and extended those insights.

Neo-Calvinists need these performative works that not merely repeat the dictum that all things can be related to Christ: they need to show, not tell. Covolo, along with the recent work of other fresh thinkers like Matthew Kaemingk and Cory Wilson (e.g. Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration, Eerdmans, 2018; Work and Worship, Baker Academic, 2020), are helpful in showing how the Kuyperian impulse is deeply traditioned, practical, and fruitful.

Several questions, of course, still remain. I wonder if it was necessary, for example, to pit the Protestant instinct of interpreting art as a depiction of visible realities with the classical view of art as depicting another world. A Reformed eclecticism might argue that these options are not mutually exclusive but rather can be brought together. And I wonder if at times the neo-Calvinist philosophers here have too quickly criticized their own Catholic tradition. Further, the discussion of the theo-dramatic and neo-Reformational views of art and the everyday might benefit from a more substantial analysis of phenomenology as a philosophical tool that grants significance to everyday, nonconceptual embodiment and perception.

These questions merely show that Covolo was right to note that his explorations are starting points for further work to be done. Indeed, I should note that Covolo’s prose was smooth and lucid – the book serves not just as a theological reflection on fashion, but also an invitation for students and scholars alike to enter into this theologically fruitful program of linking particular spheres of creational life to Christ’s lordship.


[1] Herman Bavinck, “The Kingdom of God, the Highest Good,” trans. Nelson Kloosterman, The Bavinck Review 2 (2011): 158.

N. Gray Sutanto
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.