Want to Express Yourself? Then Ditch the Daisy Dukes and Dig Out the Iron.

Hope springs eternal. Or so they say. It certainly springs eternal for fashion historian Katy Werlin.

In the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s recent assessment of our culture’s fashion sense (or lack thereof), Werlin remarked, “Fashion is very cyclical, and if you study fashion history, you see trends repeat themselves. So, I’m sure maybe in 50 years we might be back to dressing very proper and dressing up….”

I hope she’s right. And not just because I’m tired of the fashion industry’s insistence that all women  should have the hips and thighs of pre-adolescent boys and dress like porn stars on Casual Friday. Or because I really, really, really want to wear dresses like this one.


More fundamentally, I hope she’s right because a return to the fashions of yesteryear will signify more than a change in style. It will signify a change in culture.

How so?

The Way God Made Us to Be

Fashion, for as frivolous as it may seem, is never just about fashion. It’s about people. It’s about cultures. The clothes we wear reflect the age in which we live. They incarnate ideas, expressing in cotton and wool what a culture believes.

As I explain in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, they do that because men are made in the image of God.

At the dawn of time, God filled the universe with expressions of himself, mountains and rivers and stars that each, in their own way, revealed something about him—his majesty, his power, his glory. Then, he created us, men and women who didn’t just express something about him, but who were actually made in his image, who could love, reason, and create in away akin to how he loves, reasons, and creates.

And we do. Following God’s lead, we make things that reflect us—who we are, what we value, and what we desire. We do that with the buildings we build and the paintings we paint. We also do it with the clothing we sew.

Consider the high middle ages, a time when people so admired the crusaders’ valor, that they incorporated military details into men’s daily wear. Or think of Regency England, where the craze for all things classical was reflected in women’s free-flowing, high-waisted gowns.

And today? Well, today —whether we realize it or not—much of what we wear unfortunately serves as a megaphone for our sex-crazed, me-obsessed, secular, consumer culture.

The Way the Culture Wants Us to Be

The low-cut blouses, skin-tight skirts, uber-short-shorts, and hooker heels? That’s the sex-crazed bit. It reflects the cultural habit of reducing people’s value to their sexual value and measuring a person’s happiness by the quality and quantity of their bedroom antics.

What about Steelers jerseys at Sunday Mass and jeans at weddings and cocktail parties? Well, it’s natural for the uber-casual to reign in a culture where one’s own personal comfort is king.

As for pajama pants in college classrooms, sweats for dinners out, and tattered, stained, bleached-out denim most everywhere you look? What more can you expect from a culture that doesn’t recognize the innate dignity of every human person, born or unborn?

Last but not least, there’s the current trend of turning bodies into billboards, wearing words on our purses, chests, and derrieres that market us—proclaiming that we’re sexy “Pink” girls or socially conscious marathon runners—as much as they market products and events.

So, again, would I be happy to see fashion do a 180 and bring back more graceful, modest cuts that highlight the true beauty of the masculine and feminine, reflect the dignity of the human person, and challenge us to show respect for ourselves and others?

Um, yes. Yes, I would.

Again, those changes would reflect a deeper change, a change in who we, as a people, are. They would reflect that we were once more becoming men and women who righty valued ourselves, others, and God.

As an added side bonus, shopping would also get a heck of a lot less stressful.

The Way I Am

In the meantime, with both the sartorial and philosophical tendencies of the culture out my control, I do what I can about my own sartorial tendencies, choosing what I wear and where I wear it in light of what I’ve learned from the theology of the body.

In other words, I try to dress like a subject, not an object—eschewing the plunging, the short, and the tight. I dress up when dressing up is called for. I use my iron. And I don’t wear words.

I do all that because I know who I am: a woman created by God and loved by God, possessing a dignity surpassing even that of the angels. When people look at me, I want them to see that. I want them to see me. I want them to see someone who is smart and funny and feminine and faithful, who isn’t looking to use or be used, who loves beautiful things and is attuned to the culture but is still a bit old-fashioned in her habits and tastes. I want them to see someone with style and confidence and joy, someone who respects herself and respects others, who’s not consumed by stuff, and who values quality over quantity.

Ultimately, in all that, I want them to see Christ in me. I want them to see how I uniquely image him, how I “transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God” (TOB 19:5).

The Way Things Are

And yes, I know: I am who I am regardless of what I wear. The clothes don’t make the man (or woman). But, in a way akin to the body itself, they do express the woman. They’re my first line of communication as I go about my business in the world, telling people to whom I will never speak something fundamental about me.

They do the same for all of us.

Now, we may not like that. We may wish it otherwise. But we may as well wish that people stop thinking we’re crabby when we frown and happy when we smile. The invisible is made known to us through the visible. It’s just how things work.

That’s not to say, of course, that the communication will always be accurate. We might be putting on a smile when we’re depressed. Someone might look like she’s selling herself when in truth she’s as chaste as the Virgin Mary.

But we can’t blame people for unthinkingly assuming we’re happy when we smile or unchaste when we dress like a dancer at Jim’s Gentleman Club, anymore than we can blame people for assuming someone dressed like a cop is, indeed, a policeman. If you’re wearing the uniform, assumptions will be made.

And no, we are not free to indulge in those assumptions or let them color how we treat a person. Christian or no, part of being a decent human being means not forming hard and fast judgments of people’s hearts based on their wardrobes and being kind to people regardless of how they look or dress.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t go about encouraging wrong first impressions either. And ignoring who we are and what we believe, dressing exactly as the culture tells us to dress—without modesty or beauty or dignity or care or a mind to occasion and others—does just that. It stunts the body’s ability to express what we are and honor others for what they are.

Which, one last time, is the image of God.

Why stunt that?

*This is the third post in a series about the ideas discussed in These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body. Other posts include: “What the Pope Taught Me About Food, Sex, and God”  and “What Makes a Body Beautiful.”




Categories:Culture Theology

  • FashionDame

    Emily, I just want to point out that fashion IS going back to feminine, proper, and polished clothing. Shows like Downton Abbey and the 100th anniversary of Titanic created a huge craze for quality clothing. Tight and sexy clothing is last decade. Vintage is the new look!

    • Quanah

      Fashion Dame,

      Every time the students at my school get a dress down day the girls come to school wearing yoga pants, incredibly tight stretch jeans, and leggings without shorts. This is common dress for teens and women in their early twenties.

  • Sara C

    While I can certainly see the author’s point regarding revealing clothing, I find it troubling that she would lump people who wear revealing clothing along with people who wear shabby clothing and peg both as those who don’t recognize the innate dignity of humans. it’s well and good to wear fashionable and beautiful clothing when that is something you can afford, but there are plenty of people in this country who are more concerned with filling their children’s bellies, or feeding the bellies of the poor, than filling their own closets. What it seems the author has done is taken her own particular taste in clothing and elevated it to a theology that we all must follow in order to be accurately reflecting our relationship with God and with our society. I do not see this example in the Bible. In fact, I see many in the Bible following Christ and wearing rather shabby clothing while doing it. Think of John the Baptist. Think of the disciples themselves, who eschewed all their earthly possessions and followed Christ around for three years. Certainly we shouldn’t believe they had gracefully tailored clothing. The bottom line is that true religion is caring for the widow and the orphan, not wearing nice clothing.

    • Quanah

      Sara C,

      It’s not about imposing a theology of clothing on the masses. Fashion is certainly indicative of a culture as a whole; it’s why some fashions are accepted and others are not. When fashions that are truly beautiful are discarded for those that are not that does indicate something about society and since society is made of people that means it indicates something about people. My wife and I cannot afford expensive clothing, but that doesn’t mean we have dress immodestly or shabbily. Lack of money is not an excuse for not looking presentable and respectful.

  • A

    Great points! First of all, let me say that I LOVE me some Betty Draper fashion! Everything she wears is DIVINE! On a more serious note, in many cases, you stole the words right out of my mouth! I’ve long hated letters on t-shirts (or anywhere else lower on the body, for that matter) an occasion. I’ve lived in Europe, and as a result silently gasp! and guffaw! to myself at a wedding or at Mass when jeans or a football jersey are worn.

    I’ll add another point. Although knee-length denim skirts, frumpy shirts off of Dress Barns’ bargain rack, and 6 foot long braids seem to be the norm for moms of 10 at many devout Catholic Churches, dressing modestly does NOT mean that a woman has to dress like Laura Ingalls Wilder, or, if she’s younger, that she has to dress like a sickeningly cutesy goody goody two-shoe. There ARE ways to show off one’s feminine charms with class and dignity and in a way that maintains modesty. A woman who properly covers herself in classy attire that is well-chosen for her body and the occasion is far more attractive than a woman who either dresses like a hooker. Traveling to the other end of the spectrum for a moment, she is also far more attractive than a woman who engages in an overly Puritan and legalistic way of thinking and hides all of her God-given feminine charms by dressing like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    A lot of fashion has to do with the quality of the fabrics and the way they are cut. You can get modesty at Burberry, TopShop, BCBG, Bottega Veneta, etc. Quality clothes make a woman look classy. It doesn’t have to be the sort of blaise “wholesome high-school senior from the church group” look purchased at Target, either, you know?

  • JF

    Wonderful post. As a flight attendant, what spoke to me: “And no, we are not free to indulge in those assumptions or let them color how we treat a person. Christian or no, part of being a decent human being means not forming hard and fast judgments of people’s hearts based on their wardrobes and being kind to people regardless of how they look or dress.” That said, I would love to see a more presentable population. I try to do my part with the iron. On layover in Las Vegas ….

  • Michele Clark

    Jolly good and cheeri…o…great article…will print for my daughter and her 9 year old daughter……less is more…and that means modesty…:>

  • Micah

    Very good points. I’ve long thought that a good model of modern, American working-professional clothing would be dark denim jeans, belt, proper leather shoes, button-up shirt, and jacket, vests optional. I fudge the rules on the jeans a bit because I think they *can* be classy way to show an aspect of American identity. I eschew ties whenever possible. Aside from their being non-functional holdovers from an age past, to imply that the top couple inches of my male chest (already covered by an undershirt) can’t be seen and has to be literally tied off is a rather Puritan concept.



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