A chorus of camera shutters clicks over a throbbing bass as models emerge onto the runway in single file. Clad in black leather and lace, they confidently maneuver the catwalk despite the veils over their faces and the towering stiletto heels on their feet. A woman in the front row pulls out her phone to Instagram a textured cape, and a reporter scribbles notes on a yellow legal pad.
As a fashion blogger, I’ve flown across the country to observe this fashion show for myself. But I’m not in New York or LA—I’m in downtown Tampa, Florida. And while I’m surrounded by media personalities and fashion aficionados, the audience is also peppered with pastors and Sunday school teachers. When the show closes, attendees stand up and fall into a queue as they wait to take pictures on the catwalk. The sign they want to pose in front of? A simple red and white logo reading “Christian Fashion Week.”
About a year before I took my seat at this runway, I learned of Christian Fashion Week (CFW) online—and my instinct was to cringe. Visions of T-shirts bedazzled with crosses danced in my head; proof-texted verses about modesty rang in my ears. Would this be another example of well-meaning Christians baptizing one more creative medium in Christian “relevance”?
A rapid Google search proved my T-shirt premonition correct, as well as my guess about an emphasis on modesty. Its website explained that the focus on modest clothing was part of CFW’s desire to “create a series of international fashion shows and events around the idea of fashion from a Christian worldview.”
Now I was in Tampa at the invitation of CFW’s founders to see what “fashion from a Christian worldview” looked like to them. And what I found there was less easily dismissed than I expected.
Modesty and Beyond
As someone who writes about fashion from a faith-based perspective, I spend a good deal of time interfacing with other Christians on the subject of clothing. You can’t do that for long without discovering one thing: Talking about fashion with the Bible in mind typically means talking about modesty.
The association is not unfounded. The Bible explicitly addresses modesty, perhaps most famously in 1 Timothy 2:9, which instructs women to adorn themselves “with modesty and self-control” (ESV). Other Scripture passages similarly encourage Christians to focus on inner beauty over outer adornment (1 Pet. 3:3–4; Prov. 31:30).
Yet modesty discourse today rarely acknowledges how the meaning of the word has changed over time. Modesty in our 21st-century context typically means “not revealing too much skin.” Today, a burqa-clad woman encrusted head-to-toe in pricey designer goods is considered more modest than a homeless teenager wearing a handout tank top and running shorts. But the New Testament’s original audience would have understood the word modesty as “unassuming or moderate.”
‘Fashion matters because bodies matter. We have to reconcile ourselves to bodies, the sensual and the creative. And fashion is a means for doing that.’ ~ Lucy Collins, Fashion Institute of Technology
In focusing the modesty discussion primarily on sexualized bodies, many Christians have lost the thread of the biblical discourse on clothing. The Bible addresses socioeconomic issues in the church as well as sexual ones when talking about apparel. For example, James 2 warns against showing favoritism to wealthy churchgoers who displayed their status through clothing. Paul’s charge in 1 Timothy 2 can be read as a similar caution for people choosing to flaunt their wealth. Today’s modesty rhetoric tends to add skewed gender politics into the mix without looking at the way motive and context inform modesty. In general, Christian conversations about clothing tend to let modesty overshadow all other dimensions. Thus, I was unsurprised to learn that CFW’s original platform in 2013 was built almost entirely on advocating modest clothing.