catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 3 :: 2006.02.10 — 2006.02.25


What to wear?

College professors are not known for their interest in dressing fashionably?but at Calvin College last semester, the hot topic among faculty and staff was, of all things, what to wear.

It all started when a professor posted to the faculty listserv that he had seen a student in a snug t-shirt that bore the image of a lemon and the words ?Squeeze Me.? Distraught, he wondered what he should do in the future if he saw a female student dressed in a manner that he deemed sexually lascivious. Over the next several weeks, a heated conversation developed, as some argued for modesty at all costs, some argued from feminism against these increasingly popular t-shirts, and some argued that students should never be instructed by their professors about how to dress.

Most everyone was in agreement, however, that students needed to give more thought to what they wear. Indeed, many students at Calvin, like their non-Christian counterparts, are content to buy their clothes from mall racks with little mind to creativity?hence the recent spate of flirtatious sloganeering on shirts, which are readily available from arbiters of cool like Abercrombie and Fitch.

Little did the professors know, however, that a small group of students was out in front of them on this issue. A month after the listserv dust-up, my co-worker drew together a group interested in textiles. They called themselves FAB and began planning a fashion show, a risky venture in an environment unusually hostile to fashion industry hopefuls. But I observed that rather than defeating the students, adversity only made fiercer their devotion to their craft and their eagerness to share it. Many of the designers, men and women alike, have been told their entire lives that fashion is a waste of time for Christians. Some were even told they being a fashion designer was akin to being a drug addict or a prostitute.

It was out of this conflicted identity and experience of adversity that I wrote the following essay, which was published in the program handed out to audience members at the fashion show. You can find additional commentary and photos from the show here.

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 one-ups-manship 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.

Kate Bowman Johnston is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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