Theologians on Fashion


Thomas Aquinas wrote on a multitude of topics, and I was delightfully surprised when I discovered that he wrote on outward apparel. In Section II-II, q. 169, Article 1, the question is whether there can be virtue and vice in connection with outward apparel.  Thomas writes, “it is not in the outward things themselves which man uses, that there is vice, but on the part of man who uses them immoderately.” Aquinas notes the importance of moderation, which is akin to Aristotle’s Golden Mean: not too little, not too much. For Aquinas the lack of moderation occurs in two ways: 1) “in comparison with the customs of those among whom one lives” and 2) an “inordinate attachment of the user,” quoting Augustine: “we must avoid excessive pleasure in the use of things…” There are three ways that this attachment occurs: 1) when a man [or woman] seeks glory from excessive attention to dress 2) when a man seeks sensuous pleasure from excessive attention to dress and 3) when a man is too solicitous in his attention to outward apparel.  

With regards to excess, Aquinas writes that this occurs “when a man (or woman) seeks glory from excessive attention to dress; in so far as dress and such things are a kind of ornament.” Glory is a type of pride, as glory should be given only to God. Now, “excessive” goes against moderation. We are to enjoy worthwhile things in moderation. This perspective is in both the Bible and in Aristotle’s writings as wisdom.  Interestingly, Aquinas also notes a kind of glory that can arise from a lack of attention to outward apparel: quoting Augustine: “that ‘not only the glare and pomp of outward things, but even dirt and the weeds of mourning may be a subject of ostentation, all the more dangerous a decoy under the guise of God’s service.” If I dress in a way that brings attention to my own religiosity rather than glory to God, then that’s also not appropriate.  Aquinas does allow for “the use of coarse raiment to those who by word and example urge others to repentance.”  This involves intentionality, and it depends what one plans to accomplish with the choices of one’s attire.  I think this ties in with his idea of custom – dressing to fit within what is proper to the customs of one’s culture, such as not wearing clothes that are too excessive that they belong in a fashion exhibit or too mendicant that they draws attention to the person’s pious acts. 

Outward apparel in of itself is not a bad thing.  While Aquinas takes us beyond this earthly dimension into higher thought, he is also quite practical.  He notes that we can use our reason to discern the proper application of outward apparel.  Like most things, outward apparel is an item, something that in and of itself has no vice or virtue.  It is up to the person who has the free will to decide how she wants to use the item. 

In fashion, there is also a harmony that lends itself to moderation. For example, if I wear a colorful print dress, I will keep my shoes neutral as well as my jewelry. On the other hand, if I am wearing jeans with a plain black tee, I will opt to wear statement shoes or jewelry.  In that way, I am personally managing and adjusting the levels of my look.  I don’t want my clothing or accessories to be the center of attention; I want the items to complement me as a person, as a valued person made in the image of God.

– Quotes are from the Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 169, Article 1.

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