In my “Whole Cloth Manifesto,” I claim that, as Christians, our clothing should tell God’s story. Even though I wrote those words, I can’t help cringing a bit when I imagine how they might be interpreted. As a 90s kid, I owned quite a few Christian t-shirts that tried to spread the Gospel with “clever” puns on popular name brands.
Cringe-worthy as they are, they tell God’s story, right? I mean, the words are printed boldly and unequivocally. Some even have pictures of Jesus. What could be more clear? If a play on Abercrombie or Reese’s cups can trick someone into reading a Bible verse, then why not use it?
For all their earnest intentions, these shirts point to a central difficulty facing any effort to discern a genuinely Christian ethic of clothing: they assume that if the right words are emblazoned on the front, nothing else matters.
We all know, of course, that quite a lot else matters. The Bible itself makes it clear that simply saying the right words does not a Christian make (cf. Matthew 7:21). We know that our faith in Christ should affect our everyday actions.. But when it comes to clothing, can we do better than corny t-shirts that imitate a culture of brand-name obsession and conspicuous consumption?
We live in a world where clothing seems cheap and plentiful, a world in which the garment industry’s devastating labor practices, pollution, and waste is largely hidden from us. Most Americans only wear a garment a few times before throwing it away (or donating it, which in many cases is not much better), and since the year 2000, global clothing production has nearly doubled, with retailers and designers introducing new lines every week (source). This glut and hurry is the despairing opposite of Christ’s call not to fret over what we will wear (Matthew 6:31-32). As Christians, we must discern a prophetic response, a daily challenge, to this wasteful cycle.
A very simple way to challenge “fast fashion” is to buy less, resisting the lure of clearance sales and shop windows. However, fasting from a destructive clothing cycle is not the only form of response, and Easter is the perfect time revive the slow, faithful custom of Easter clothes.
As a child, I always received a new dress for Easter. While the majority of my everyday clothes were hand-me-downs, my Easter dresses were almost always handmade. My mother would let me select the fabric (usually either purple or turquoise), and then stitch something beautiful just in time for Sunday. Many years, my favorite doll would receive a matching garment. Even after I had left home, Mama would often find a way to get my measurements and send me something new for Easter.
These childhood Easter dresses trained my desires in ways that continue to guide my clothing ethic. Although my Baptist church never talked about a liturgical calendar or Christian year, the delight of a new dress on Easter drew me into the ancient Christian rhythm of fasting and feasting: giving up something good for a time, that our hearts might attend more fully to things that are greater. Because I did not often have new clothes, an Easter allowed me to feel–and in turn, to proclaim–that this day was somehow different from all other days.
Unlike silly t-shirts that imitate a culture of branded excess, Easter clothes help us embody God’s story of redemption and resurrection. Looking to Scripture, we see God clothing His people both in the beginning, as he gives Adam and Eve clothes of skins (Genesis 3:21), and at the triumphant in-gathering of Revelation. Those who conquer are giving white garments in 3:4-5, and in 19:7-8 the Church appears as a bride clothed with fine linen. On Easter, we draw upon this biblical imagery: the unveiling of new garments, celebrating Christ’s victory over death.
The gifts of a new Easter dress–participation in the Christian year, and in the imagery of resurrection–become even more powerful if we make our own Easter clothes, or know the person making them for us. For with the slow work of measuring, washing, cutting, sewing, and fitting, we remember that we are still on our journey home. We remember that the work God has given us is beautiful, but also hard, and slow, and that we must often undertake it with whatever we have on hand, in circumstances less than ideal.
Tonight, I am cutting out my Easter dress–the first I’ve made for myself in a year, and only the second since my wedding dress. It won’t have any words festooned across the bodice or skirt, but when I rise before sunrise on Sunday, put it on with pearls, and gather with my brothers and sisters, I hope it will say enough: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.