At first glance, the worlds of fashion and theology might appear to have little to do with one another. A shallow survey of each might even frame them as opposites, equating fashion with frivolity and ephemerality while painting theology as concerned with matters more eternal and profound. But the truth is that there are more Christians quietly shaping the fashion industry than one might suppose. And major Christian thinkers, from Augustine of Hippo to John Calvin, have had plenty to say about sartorial matters.
In his new book Fashion Theology, cultural theologian Robert Covolo explores the complex relationship between fashion and theology throughout history, highlighting the richness these disciplines stand to forfeit when they ignore each other. Journalist Whitney Bauck, who reports on the intersection of fashion and faith, spoke with Covolo about the theological depths opened up in the simple act of getting dressed each morning.
Why write a book on fashion and theology?
So many books have been written about the relationship between theology and film or literature or psychology or food. But dress is just as essential to our everyday existence. I realized there was nothing theological out there taking fashion studies seriously beyond a chapter here or there. Fashion studies is an expansive field of theoretical discourse that has spread to universities across the globe. And there has been little to no Christian engagement with it.
The other side of what interested me is that theology itself is a cultural pursuit. We’re always going to be producing theology because culture always has new questions about the relevance of the Christian faith. If we don’t understand theologians within their cultural context, we’re missing an awful lot about who they are.
Augustine, for instance, was a North African in the late Roman republic, dealing with those material and cultural realities. John Calvin was a French Protestant refugee who had to flee for his life during a time of great upheaval. How did his theological mind think about dress? When you look at the details, you actually get to see what this theology looks like on the street. All theology comes from the experiences of the theologians themselves. When you find out so many interesting details about these theologians, it really opens your eyes to how human they were.
If fashion and theology are this interconnected, why are they so often treated as totally separate realms?
They have often been considered divorced from one another because of superficial characterizations of both: that fashion is about appearances, vanity, fad, and thoughtlessness; and that theology, by contrast, is about profundity, solemnity, and what’s eternal. The reality is that once you start drilling into them, neither of those areas of inquiry fits the stereotypes. There has been tension between the two, and I’m not going to sweep that under the rug; some theology is more friendly towards fashion than other theology. But there are just as many resonances as there are dissonances. And we don’t really help the discussion when