Christian fashion expresses our Lived Christianity

This article is adapted from the presentation of the book Christian fashion in the teaching of the Church, given by the author at the Calx Mariae Publishing launch on 9 June 2022 at the Brompton Oratory, London.

Dom Pollien concludes his book Lived Christianity, published by Voice of the Family, with a question: 

“You who have the noble ambition of wanting to live in a Christian way; you who are resolved at all costs to develop the most incomparable of lives in yourself; do you understand the need, in which you find yourself, of knowing beforehand what Christian life is? Do you understand that your most urgent need is to have the knowledge of Christian life?”

Well, the reason I have dedicated a small volume to Christian fashion in the teaching of the Church is because I am convinced that a life lived in a Christian way — and consistently so, especially for a woman — is partly expressed by the way one dresses, and that this is particularly important in today’s world. I will try to explain this briefly.

Allow me to present you with an image. In these summer days, not only holiday resorts but also big cities like Rome or London are invaded by people — men and women — dressed in the most indecent manner. This phenomenon represents, in my opinion, a brutal violence against Christians, because it jeopardises one of the most important but also most fragile virtues of our faith: chastity. In the streets and squares of large cities, scenes are imposed on passers-by that disturb the eyes, feed curiosity, provoke disordered desires and, in this sense, constitute a real assault. Yet we cannot deny that there is a certain consistency in this indecent attire: it corresponds to the dominant philosophy of life, which is that of materialism, hedonism and the dissipation of all values. Everything is permitted, and the pursuit of pleasure is man’s ultimate goal. There is a consistency in this scene.

Let us now look at a second image. A church in Rome or London — the Brompton Oratory for example — where Mass according to the ancient Roman rite is celebrated with great care, exactitude and magnificence. The liturgy, the celebrants’ vestments, the music, the recollection — all form an atmosphere opposed to that of hedonism, relativism, dissipation. This scene implies a philosophy of life ordered to God, which is the Christian philosophy of life, ordered not to man’s spasmodic pursuit of pleasure, but to his sanctification and the glory of God. In this scene, too, there is a supreme consistency.

But what would we say if the priest celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass were to leave the church wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals? It would be inconsistent, because just as there are sacred vestments suitable for celebrating Mass, there is also the cassock, which is the way of dressing by which the priest reminds himself and others, every day, of his vocation.

But why should the priest have the duty to always manifest his identity, and the layman — the simple Christian — not also have the duty to speak, move and dress as a Christian? This applies to both men and women, who in their outward order should always express the inner order they tend towards, which is a reflection of the infinite beauty that is God. 

This is what “lived Christianity” means and this is why there is a Christian fashion.

Pius XII affirmed that: “society, as it were, speaks with the clothing it wears; with clothing, it reveals its secret aspirations, and uses it, at least in part, to build or destroy its own future”. According to the teaching of the popes, the era that most perfectly expressed the Christian ideal of society was the Middle Ages, when (to quote Leo XIII) “states were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel. Then, the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people”.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and humanism, can also be identified in the domain of fashion. Fashion was also the great vehicle of the French Revolution. And fashion made 1968 a radical turning point in western social life. The criteria of beauty, decorum, harmony, elegance, which were already in crisis, were overcome by the egalitarian and anarchic spirit which was the very soul of the movement. In 1968, most of the girls at demonstrations were in trousers. Jeans became a sort of uniform for the youth, the quintessential symbol of the new egalitarian fashion.

Few know that a decisive role was also played by the Austrian designer Rudi Gernreich (1922–1985), who, in 1954, with his “partner” Harry Hay (1912–2002), founded the Mattachine Society, the first organisation promoting homosexual liberation in the United States. Gernreich exerted a profound influence on fashion, anticipating the notion of “fluidity between genders”. Among other things, he invented the Unisex Project, dressing male and female models in identical clothes. Along these lines, gender studies, which developed within American feminism in the 1970s, placed at the centre of their conceptual approach the denial of an authentic difference between men and women. The notion of a fluctuating and subjective identity based on a social construction of gender replaced the objective reality of biological sex. The concept which is being passed on is that the male–female difference is merely a cultural and not a natural fact. And, since culture can change, the next step is to suggest interchangeability in practice — through medical means which offer surgical operations to make a man “a woman” and a woman “a man”. And, precisely in order to make this utopia a normality, it must be imposed in schools, indoctrinating children from an early age. Clothing is once again a revolutionary tool: in kindergartens and schools where gender ideology is applied, boys dress as girls and girls as boys; boys can have their nails painted and are being taught embroidery and crocheting, whilst girls devote themselves to disassembling engines or playing with toy cars. 

Fashion is therefore a formidable revolutionary weapon and needs to be contested when it threatens to invert not only the principles of Catholic morality, but the core values ​​of western culture. On 6 October 1940, a few months after his election, Pius XII addressed the young women of Catholic Action, stating that: 

“Fashion and modesty should walk together like two sisters, because both words have the same etymology, from the Latin modus — that is, the right measure, beyond which one cannot find the right way.”

And on 22 May 1941, while World War II was raging, Pius XII stressed the need for a “crusade” against those who threaten Christian morality, pointing to the responsibility of the press, the cinema and variety shows. According to the same pope, it is very important to recognise that fashion has an influence on society and, through it, on the common man, for better or for worse. Pius XII wrote: 

“It is a crusade against those who threaten Christian morality, generated by the peaceful flow of morals among peoples; a crusade against the dangers of powerful waves of immorality, overflowing in the streets of the world and reaching every condition of life.

That such danger is to be found everywhere today is a warning repeated, not only by the Church, but even by men who are outside the Christian faith; the most clear-sighted thinkers, those solicitous for the public good, strongly denounce the sinister threat to the social order and to the future of nations; the poisoning of the roots of life by the present multiplication of incitements to impurity; while the indulgence (which we would do better to call a denial) of an ever-more-extensive part of the public conscience, blind to the most reprehensible moral disorders, slackens the brakes even more.”

Popes after Pius XII do not appear to have addressed the question of fashion and its consequences, firstly for women, but also cascading over the whole of society. Indeed, beginning with the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), it would seem that the women’s revolution, or rather the feminist revolt, has accelerated within the Church herself, leading to a profound change in the clothing and behaviour of priests, and of male and female religious.

In the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, it was thought possible to separate doctrine from the modus — the style or form in which it was expressed. But to express oneself in terms different from those of the past means to carry out a cultural transformation that is deeper than it may seem. The way in which one presents oneself — the style in which one expresses oneself — reveals a way of being and of thinking. 

Fashion is basically a person’s style. But style expresses the ideas which guide us. Through our clothing we express a world vision — and, if it is true that examples count as much as ideas, it is also in the way we dress that we will be able to express our “lived Christianity”.

Christian fashion in the teaching of the Church by Virginia Coda Nunziante is available to buy, along with all Calx Mariae publications on the Voice of the Family website.