Where Should Christians Buy Clothes?

Where Should Christians Buy Clothes? March 1, 2013

The relatively recent food movement toward local, responsibly produced, and unprocessed foods is one example of a broader social movement afoot. We’re moving beyond simply conspicuous consumerism. People realize that their purchases matter and that realization has naturally extended into how we buy clothes.

And that leads to a certain tension. Should I buy only fair-trade clothing? Should I avoid fast fashion chains (like Forever 21 and H&M) that are said to use exploitative labor? Is it ever okay to spend more than $300 on a single item of clothing or a single pair of shoes? These are good questions that require more than a yes or no answer.

I’ve heard many thoughtful and smart people use different strategies of clothes buying. Many encourage thrifting and consignment as a way to be a good steward of limited resources and not directly contribute toward any socially irresponsible retailer’s bottom line. Many frequent discount retailers like Forever21 and Target to satisfy their need to be budget-friendly and on trend. Others shop at the mall for the convenience factor. As of yet, I have heard no Christian encourage the purchase of designer or luxury clothing. It would seem indescribably wasteful and privileged to recommend a shirt that costs more than some people’s rent.

In regard to couture fashion, author Rachel Marie Stone wrote the following about Oscar gowns:

The opposite of “modest” is not “sexually provocative,” but “flashy.” In the context of the Academy Awards, perhaps it’s not the skimpiness of the dresses that should alarm us, but rather the amount that they cost.

First, I couldn’t agree with Ms. Stone’s definition of modesty more. It seems an overlooked aspect of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:9: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” She then goes on to say:

A better definition of Christian modesty might, in our context, have more to do with fair-trade clothing—or clothing purchased secondhand and mended again and again—than low-cut necklines. Most Americans wear clothes coming from China or Bangladesh, where conditions in garment factories are little better than they were during the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City.

And this is where things get complicated. The irony of writing off the couture Oscar gowns while simultaneously encouraging fair-trade clothing is this: Couture is the ultimate in fair trade. They are made, from start to finish, by people who are paid a living wage and work in hospitable conditions. And not just the highly skilled seamstresses and tailors, but also the fabric makers, the couriers who deliver the gowns, the makers of the embellishments, and the people who sweep the thread and fabric scraps off the floor. No one is working 18-hour days, seven days a week, and still enduring crushing poverty.

Additionally, many (though not all) designer and luxury clothing brands operate in much the same way as couture. They produce their clothing in New York, Paris, or Milan, which ensures that they are held to regulations that protect their employees. Fair trade operates on similar guidelines, though not mandated by law, but by a fair-trade watchdog organization.

However, even the very rich are going to have a difficult time purchasing a couture gown, which can cost in the thousands of dollars. Even if we were able to spend that type of money, Paul’s exhortation on modesty should give us pause before shilling out the cost of a small car on a dress.

Yet, both designer and fair trade carries with it a bit of status and caché. Even supporting fair trade implies a bit of privilege. You’re educated enough to have heard about it and are able to pay a premium for it. Certain economists have leveled criticism at the fair trade movement that for a quasi-charitable organization, it pays a tiny percentage of its income out to producers and potentially prevents free markets from developing organically. Many of us can’t spend $600 on a designer dress made in the United States. But neither should we feel obligated to pay $80 on a fair-trade organic cotton tunic. Buying fair trade is a perfectly legitimate choice; however, its potential drawbacks should give us pause before making others feel guilty for not doing so.

And this is the part where I tell you what to wear and where to buy it so that you’re being socially responsible and supporting biblical principles. But the truth is, I don’t know. The global economy has made clothing manufacturing an immensely complex process with problems ranging from blatant abuse to unintended consequences. If I had to make a recommendation, it would be to buy high-quality brands secondhand, which cushions you against directly supporting any unsavory retailers and reduces waste.

Consciousness about clothing is a good thing but leads to a tangled web of tradeoffs, no matter what you choose to purchase. Yet, pride loves to masquerade as consciousness, patting our backs for not shopping at Forever 21 or smugly thinking about our sacrificial purchase of a fair-trade sweater. Consumer choices do matter, but we should recognize the privilege of having the knowledge and resources to make informed decisions about the clothing we buy.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • VERY well said, Lauren. This can be applied to the fair trade food movement, too, and almost any other area where the concept of fairness can drive our decisions about how to spend our money.

    Your encouragement to buy quality secondhand warms my heart, too. Don’t spread that around too freely, though – we need people to keep buying nice stuff at retail so that we can pick it up secondhand, later. ;-)

  • S. L. Whitesell

    I can’t help but think that the project of knowing where the clothes come from and what it means to buy them is too unweldy except at the margins. If it’s a company that brags about how many sick children it employs or a shirt that costs $750, the answer is obvious. But past that, I keep thinking that the same problem applies to attempts to organize national economies. It might not be perfect but the market pricing system is the most effective way to allocate assets and for consumers to make decisions. I will buy a shirt from H&M because it fits well, looks like I want it to look, and is well priced. But I don’t know if it is reasonable to look in to the specifics of their manufacture facilities and evaluate whether the practices are exploitative or merely dissonant with American labor regulations.

    As you say, it is hard to know. I try to avoid the Scylla of peacocking around in fancy expensive clothes and the Charybdis of wearing cheap clothes out of prideful principle and looking like a hermit or something. I’m not sure I can granulate it any finer than that.

  • “Consciousness about _______ is a good thing but leads to a tangled web of tradeoffs, no matter what you choose… Yet, pride loves to masquerade as consciousness…”

    This is dead on, Lauren. I took out the word “clothing” above because you make a very wise point that is true in many, many areas. Just replace that space with Politics, Food, minor theological nuances, income, movies, education, etc.

    Ultimately, we are more driven than we care to admit by fear of man and pride in self. Maybe the place to start developing wisdom about clothes isn’t in the rules we follow, but in our commitment to patience and discernment, and to humility in our own hearts.

  • Good post- I think fair trade is a good idea, but definitely more complicated than “This is the RIGHT thing to do and other choices are oppressive.” It’s not the magical answer to poverty.

  • Thanks guys.

    And Jeff, yes we definitely need people buying retail. Preferably 12th Street by Cynthia Vincent and Stella McCartney. :)

    I was definitely one of the obnoxious people who, upon learning about the socially conscious food movement, decided I could change the world by posting facebook statuses about the evils of factory farming. Lesson learned.

  • Hannah Griffith

    Goodwill. Except for the underwear.

  • Michael

    I agree for the most part. Though I would be weary to redefine, or define for ourselves, what modesty really means. Though Paul did seem to include flashy and expensive things, this does not mean it is okay to wear a mini-skirt and a very revealing top just because it was cheap or not flashy. It is both/and, not either/or.