By Robert Covolo
Baylor, pp. 216, $39.99
Review by Travis J. Bott
Robert Covolo’s Fashion Theology begins with two epigraphs. The first comes from the French philosopher Yves Michaud: “Fashion is the identity of the age.” The second comes from St. Paul: “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14). As modern Christians, we dress ourselves somewhere between these two quotes.
We inhabit a cultural world profoundly shaped by rapidly shifting forces of fashion. Try as we might, we cannot escape this world. Yet while fashion may determine the identity of the age, it should not determine our identity. Our fundamental character must be given by our Lord Jesus Christ. So we must discern how to live in but not of the world of fashion (John 17:15-16).
Covolo calls on Christian theologians and fashion theorists to engage in respectful dialogue, rather than dismissing or dominating each other. We have much to learn from listening in on their conversation. Fashion theory can help us better understand the cultural world in which we live and move and do our dressing. But we need theology to remind us that it is ultimately in God that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
Fashion Theology is short but dense. The writing is always lively — with many sartorial puns and pictures — but its academic level may prove difficult for some readers. Nevertheless, those willing to put in extra effort will be richly rewarded, and interested scholars will discover treasures in the endnotes and bibliography.
Overall, Covolo’s book is more an argument that fashion theory and Christian theology should start shopping together than a completely decked out fashion theology. In five chapters, he presents five areas of interaction between fashion and theology.
The first two chapters are historical, tracing the ways that premodern theologians reflected on dress and that Reformed theologians responded to the emergence of fashion in the modern period. The last three chapters are more conceptual, focusing on public discourse, aesthetics, and everyday ethics.
In chapter 4, Covolo proposes an intriguing contrast between Catholic and Protestant sartorial imaginations. On the one hand, he describes the Catholic imagination as visual, heavenly, and hierarchical. Picture a priest celebrating the Holy Eucharist while wearing liturgical vestments. On the other hand, he describes the Protestant imagination as oral, earthly, and egalitarian. Think of a pastor preaching a sermon to a congregation while wearing a suit. Although Covolo has deep appreciation for Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he clearly locates himself in the Reformed tradition with Calvin, Kuyper, and Barth.
What would a fully outfitted fashion theology look like from a Reformed perspective? How would it appear different in Catholic garb? Can the threads of both traditions be woven together into a single garment that is elegantly Christian? For answers to these questions, we will have to wait for future work from Covolo and others.
In his final chapter, Covolo returns to St. Paul’s sartorial metaphor (Rom. 13:14) and reads it backward — from figural to literal. If we have put on the identity of Jesus Christ, how will that affect the clothes we choose to express ourselves? By reflecting on various dimensions of Christ’s person and work, Covolo suggests that the style of Christian dressing will be culturally engaged, hospitable, joyful, convivial, prophetic, and hopeful.
Covolo rightly recognizes that there are few hard and fast rules for Christian dressing. Rather, he gestures toward a certain savoir faire: in each new age and situation, we learn afresh to clothe ourselves in light of the timeless truth of God — in but not of the ever-changing world of fashion.
The Rev. Dr. Travis J. Bott is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.