catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 2 :: 2013.01.18 — 2013.01.31


Breaking the rules

I have a difficult time writing about clothing and fashion when I know it’s going to be read by a “Christian” audience.  When I am going to present at an academic conference, or write for a class or publication, the ideas spring forth, and my (written) words find a voice of confidence rare in my everyday interactions. But if that conference suddenly became a gathering of only Christian colleges, or if that publication were, say, a super-cool, online Christian community instead of a cultural criticism peer-reviewed journal, my brain turns fuzzy.

And I don’t mean for this fuzziness to be part of a critique of Christianity. I have wrestled with the church’s tendency towards modernism or worried about its fear of culture at different times in my life. Other people (like Andy Crouch and David Dark) address that tendency regularly, boldly and concisely. But if that were all, it would be easy to start writing about fashion in the already-existing context of challenging Christians to be a part of culture. It’s more personal than that.

Maybe, partly, the discussions I’ve had while growing up in the church overshadow my view of who is listening (or not). The dreaded modesty talks that accompanied even the story of Adam and Eve in the Sunday schools, summer camps and (especially) youth groups of my childhood and on up through college mostly set new lows for gender relations in my life and really shaped my sense of self. It’s not a terribly new idea: the female body is objectionable in its mere existence and causes things to happen of which I can be unaware, but still held responsible (by God, no less). People with bodies outside of the dominant norms have encountered this fetishizing, shaming and blaming of their physical existence for longer than I care to recount. And bringing an all-powerful, sovereign God into the picture is enough to terrify and silence an imaginative young woman for a long time.

Still, I’ve experienced a broad enough range of Christian communities and individuals at this point in my life to know that those hurtful warnings about midriff-barring shirts and short skirts (yes, Cher from Clueless was the style icon for me and most of the other culturally enlightened seventh graders) are not representative of all of Christianity or Christians. Sometimes I think such strange, zealous morality primarily accompanies the more reformed Protestant traditions and it pops up in unexpected moments; whether it’s veganism or bike riding, Christians who believe themselves to be more culturally and intellectually engaged tend to create a New Puritanism out of whatever the given task may be. It’s not just “my way or the highway,” it’s more like, “My way is so obscure and requires so much more faithfulness, it’s really a chosen few who can ‘get it.’” I remember having conversations with a super thoughtful young woman who desperately needed a new winter coat, but because she could not find one satisfying a lengthy list of requirements (…environmentally and socially responsible production of all materials and the coat itself, modest images in the advertising, minimal manipulative sales language in the advertising campaign…), she was planning to go through winter wrapped in a blanket (this was pre-Etsy, obviously) rather than even jbuying something from Goodwill. If anything I wear can be part of either continuing oppression or representing the face of God, and I’ve decided that I’m going to write about and study fashion and clothing for a living, the door for moralizing is wide open and is, almost instantly, paralyzing.

But while moralizing about everyday decisions is annoying, it’s not enough to derail me. Immersing myself in the work of Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard has taught me to think in terms of power instead of morality, and this helps tremendously. Elizabeth Wilson’s Adorned in Dreams has served as my anchor as I learn to see clothing and fashion as often holding together opposing ideas and making cultural intangibles tangible. What I’ve learned about clothing is that most everyone just wants to know the rules. When I watch Downton Abbey, and it’s all about what clothing is proper, I register that it’s supposed to seem absurd and laughable; the wrong coat for dinner? The horrors! A tuxedo? This isn’t a barbeque! But I’m afraid that it’s all more familiar than I want to admit. How many people, when they hear about what I’m studying, sheepishly ask, “What does this outfit say about me?” As I study the fashion blogs and read and read and read anything I can get my hands on containing thoughtful (or even not all that thoughtful) engagement with ideas about clothing, meaning-making and social interaction, I find so much anxiety lurking between the lines. Is anyone going to notice me? If they do, is it good or bad? When we buy a piece of clothing, for good or for bad, we are buying the glance of others.

And, perhaps, that’s why interacting with Christians when it comes to clothing is so unnerving. The glance of Christians has not been, historically, one of forgiveness or kindness, but of judgment and hierarchy. Well, to be fair, I should say that judgment and hierarchy characterize the glance of human beings in general. Still, the Christians I’ve known haven’t tried to break the mold, and I’ve heard these negative assessments from Christians in particular all my life: from my parents who were visibly unnerved by my friends who had tattoos or black nail polish and long coats; from my teachers who wanted prayer “back” in the public high school and who treated the crew-cut jocks and sweater-set blondes better than the rest of the class; from Christian leaders with an audience who treat certain bodies like a punch line in a joke and show images in a category that I’ve taken to calling Wal-Mart Sightings ( mostly featuring very large and usually female bodies wearing cheap clothing so tight that it defies the laws of gravity or physics); from well-meaning, big-sister types in my Christian college who scoffed at the girls who spent too much money on too-short skirts.  Wearing insecurity on your sleeve is so obvious. The glance of Christians is filled with all the same troubles as the glance of everyone, but we think we have God on our side.

I don’t know if I will keep trying to disperse the fuzziness and write for Christians. That may be a task I leave to more capable minds that don’t have the fog of past anxieties and confusions settling over them and their laptops. I will write, with my whole self, beliefs and all, about fashion and clothing and identity in other contexts, and I’m sure those audiences will include Christians. All of the unspoken and spoken bits we communicate about ourselves through appearance management are fascinating, and life circumstances have allowed me to have eyes and ears attuned to the identity work being done in unremarked-upon places. I just hope that by the grace of God, as I present myself and my ideas, there will be a few glances of kindness and interest. And I hope that as I receive them, I will give those glances to others as well.

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