Frances Shaw completed a PhD in New Testament at Durham, and has recently published a fascinating book Wearing Well: Exploring the Biblical Imagery of Clothing. I asked her about the book—why she became interested, and what we can learn from the imagery of clothing in the Bible.
IP: Clothing is clearly an important aspect of culture—but it is curious that others have not explored its use in Scripture before in this systematic way. What drew you to explore this subject?
FS: I tend to read the Bible, in what may turn out to be shorter or longer sections, until something strikes me – a word, a phrase, a concept—and then I stop to reflect. Romans 13.14 says: ‘But put on the Lord Jesus Christ’. I wondered what exactly that might mean, and how can you put on a person? Is it more than putting on certain qualities or virtues? This idea then spun off in lots of directions to do with clothing, and being clothed. I found that a lot of clothing is to do with status—status in its broadest sense—cultural, social, religious, literal and symbolic. Then I moved on to thinking about whether what you wear affects the way you behave and why we like to wear the same as everyone else. Then, is there such a thing as Christian clothing, and can you tell a bunch of Christians by what they are wearing? (Probably not!)
Then I found that there are many references to clothes in the Bible, not specifically ‘the kinds of clothes they wore in Bible times’ but clothing language used symbolically—from being naked in the Garden of Eden, to decorated priestly garments and Joseph’s coat of many colours, through to John the Baptist’s camel’s hair, Jesus’ cloak and clothes of resurrection, and Paul’s description of the armour of God.
I couldn’t find a book that covered all these different aspects, so I started looking at more specific Bible references and gathering material to write one myself—I found a lot.
IP: You include a wide range of examples of the symbolic significance of clothing in Scripture. Why do you think the language of clothing is helpful in theology?
FS: I think clothing is a ‘language’, which symbolically expresses style and status, values and aspirations. Exploring the relationship between physical clothing and spiritual clothing struck me as an interesting topic. What you choose to wear can send all sorts of messages, intentional or unintentional, subtle or not so subtle—there is much more to clothing than meets the eye. We are of course, clothing our bodies. How we understand ourselves and our bodies is theologically important—we don’t have a body, we are a body, and so what we do to our bodies and put on them is also significant. Thinking about our bodies and clothing in this way, positively affects how we think about and use something we see and put on every day—something that is literally all over us.
IP: The language of ‘putting on’ Christ, or being clothed with virtues, occurs a number of times in the NT—but I think can often be misunderstood as pretending to be something that we are not! Is there a good way to read these comments well?
FS: In Paul’s time the language of ‘putting on’ had certain parallels in drama, where an actor may be said to ‘put on’ the part of the person they are acting. And of course it is possible to ‘put on an act’, which can make us appear to be, or have the characteristics of something we are not.
When we put on clothes, we do in a sense become another person, and take on the attitudes that those clothes represent. Clothes definitely affect our behaviour, but as Tom Wright says, ‘Clothes don’t just fall out of the wardrobe and put themselves on you; you have to think about what you’re going to wear’ (Virtue Reborn, p.127). Clothing ourselves with Christian virtues gradually changes us into different, more Christ-like people.
A certain amount of ‘performance’ is required in many roles, and you can change by just stepping out of your front door. For example, preaching involves certain elements of performance, but it is not play acting, and should reflect the genuine you, as well as conveying something that reflects your spiritual relationship with God, and leads people to him.
IP: You reflect on the idea of ‘nakedness’ and its meaning—but some of the biblical material here is very hard to read, for example in Ezekiel 16. Can these images be redeemed? In what way might they become helpful for us?
FS: After the stories in Genesis 1–3, the OT reflects a deep and instinctive dislike of nakedness—a matter of considerable shame and distress. If you were naked, then you were poor, or being humiliated by your enemy. Conversely, clothing others was a sign of love and concern. So it is this clothing/love and nakedness/judgement imagery which is being explored in Ezekiel. God’s tender care for Jerusalem is expressed in provision of clothing of ‘fine line, rich fabric, and embroidered cloth’ (16.13). In spite of all this, she ‘played the whore’, and as a symbol of judgement God exposes her nakedness, which is where some of the more graphic language comes in.
Interestingly in Genesis 1–3, nakedness is something positive: ‘the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed’ (2.25), and then God provides a means of healing what is broken, by providing clothes (3.21).
Are there clothes in heaven? Well, if we have an understanding of some sort of recreation of the Garden of Eden and our ‘natural state’, then no. But there is another image in Revelation showing not a garden, but a heavenly city, where the saints are not naked, but clothed in robes of fine white linen, washed in the blood of the lamb (Rev 3.18; 7.13; 19.8).
Nakedness is seen in negative terms as exposure and judgement. In positive terms, we are not naked before God in repentance so that he can humiliate and shame us, but so that he can clothe us.
IP: Most people are aware that there are some big ethical issues around the clothing industry and the use of clothing in culture. Is there a case for a ‘Christian’ approach to what we wear? If so, what might that involve?
FS: This is not something new, and second century Tertullian addressed this issue as well. In the book I summarise a Christian approach under the headings of fashion, money and modesty. We all have a deep need to belong—to belong to a social group. One way of belonging is to be seen to be wearing the same kinds of clothes. We do also need to be dressed appropriately for the occasion.
There is of course a certain tension between recognising that God has made us to be creative beings and to express that creativity; but this has to be balanced against practices that can be exploitative and a throw-away fashion culture. Tearfund’s Lift the Label campaign addresses some of these issues. Simon Ward asks the question, What if God ran the fashion industry? And we now have titles such as How to break up with Fast Fashion, or the idea of fasting from fashion during Lent (after a suitable sackcloth and ashes service on Ash Wednesday).
Apparently the average wear for a garment is 7 times. I find that very worrying. I think as Christians, we don’t have to go round looking scruffy or frumpy, but we can have a more responsible attitude by having fewer clothes and wearing them for longer. As Christians we are called to be generous with our resources, so we can choose to spend less on clothes and more on other worthwhile projects.
Christians come in all shapes and sizes and are not primarily defined by body shape or what is on the outside. That is not the same as saying, ‘I don’t care what I wear’, but rather knowing that it is not of ultimate significance.
IP: You highlight the significance of mentions of clothing in the Passion narratives. Were you surprised to find this? Why is it important?
FS: I came across Stephen Cottrell’s book, The Things He Carried, both physically and spiritually through the Passion. I am often amazed by how different themes can come out of Scripture, and when I looked at the Passion narratives I was surprised by how many references there were to clothing. I have heard the story read many times, but not really made that connection before, so that did surprise me – starting with Bartimaeus and his cloak, followed by the entry into Jerusalem, Caiaphas tearing his robes, Jesus being dressed up and then being naked, the seamless tunic, gambling, folded grave clothes, and so on. Each reference to clothing has a spiritual and deeper meaning, which is not always obvious when the account is read. So for instance, Jesus ‘rose from supper, laid aside his garments’ is deeply symbolic in the context that he knows ‘his hour has come’ (John 13.1).
FS: I like having a writing project on the go, and I enjoyed picking up references to clothing from many different sources. I also learnt that you need some sort of system to keep track of them, and also that it’s easy to get side-tracked. When you become aware of a topic, you seem to find examples of it all over the place. Just notice how many references there are to clothing in our hymns and songs.
My vicar son did a whole series from January to Easter on this theme, which he called SuperHoly (reflecting a certain well-known clothing brand), including a Fasting from Fashion Lent challenge. This led to some great conversations about faith. We also worked together on some of the discussion questions. I learnt that it’s hard to come up with good questions, that aren’t either too trite or too difficult, that recognise where people are at, but also give the opportunity to go deeper. Quite a challenge, but I’m happy with the result.
What did I learn? Wear well, and ‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love’ (Col. 3.14)
IP: Thanks very much, Frances, for your time—and for this fascinating exploration in the book!
Frances Shaw taught diploma and degree level gospels modules for her local ministry course for many years, while completing a PhD at Durham, Discernment of Revelation in the Gospel of Matthew (Peter Lang). She has worked as a religious books editor, and is enthusiastic about literacy and theological education, being a Trustee for Feed the Minds and Grove Books. She tries to be organised and keep fit; is an occasional preacher and churchwarden; married, with three children and (so far) five grandchildren.
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