The Church of Fashion

Illustration via Tom ‘The Papist’ Bolin

In 1987, fashion editor Melissa Sones heralded one of Calvin Klein’s biggest years, with the comeback of denim in style and his fragrance ‘Obsession’ rivaling with Giorgio for the place of No. 1 scent in America. The title of that article was “20 years of Calvinism.” Surely, it is a unique coincidence that Calvin Klein bares the name of denim’s Protestant heritage that goes back to the pious André family who invented and manufactured the blue fabric in De Nímes. Blue denim was invented to the image of Protestantism, it was made to work and made to resist.

In the Netherlands- a country that takes its denim very serious- the term ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Calvinism’ is laden with negative stereotypes to describe certain (annoying) characteristics of Dutch culture. A Calvinist describes someone who works hard, but doesn’t like to spend, is rigid of character and doesn’t favour standing out and therefore lacks any form of frivolity. All jokes aside, what if Calvinism is the biotope from where some of the greatest phenomenon such as fashion and pop culture are resurrected from?

Just in April, I was very fortunate to witness a lecture of philosopher and author Mark Alizart, during the first edition of Fashion & Philosophy in Amsterdam. Not unknown in fashion, Alizart has been writing for Vogue and Bazaar from the age of 16 and today he is LVMH’s prize director, leading the quest to find fashion’s next generation of talents.

In his book Pop Théologie, Mr. Alizart argues that fashion must be understood as one of the forms taken by the secularisation of ascetic values that were introduced to the West by the Reformation in the 16th century, that were then further developed by the Great Awakening that followed in the 19th century. Alizart explores fashion’s link between Protestant values through the frame of Weber’s protestant ethics thesis and challenges the idea that fashion is merely a symbol of the spectacle-commodity society to the example Thorstein Veblen’s modernity. He traces fashion’s ascetic roots to the Great Awakening, an event that sparked a revolutionary change in the protestant lifestyle, characterised through the transformation from the Lutherian term of ‘Beruf’ (calling) to the Calvinian ‘Bildung’ (building).

Simply put, to ‘work’ was no longer a calling -working for the sake of working- but a spiritual journey of self-discovery of building ones life and ultimately ones self. This spiritual process of ‘work’ as a way of building ones self and taking care of ones self, is what Alizart believes gave life to phenomenon such as sports, the leisure class and ultimately fashion. He gives clues such as the rise of Muscular Christianity, preaching the spiritual value of sports as god’s commandment to treat the body as the temple of the soul, as can be found in the Corinthians. He gives a historical reference the first form of pop culture with the charismatic evangelists of Methodism, a protestant religion that would conquer great parts of the world and gain over millions of followers worldwide, through charismatic leadership and energetic preach through music.

According to Alizart, this society of ‘building’ sparked by Calvinism never really stopped. Traces of it today can be found in magazines where consumers are encouraged to build and assemble identity, lifestyle and personal style through fashion photography. Another example of it can be found in the subject of durability of objects and clothes, which we see coming back today in the spectrum of sustainability and ethical fashion.

Back to Calvin Klein, it is important to mention that he was part of a generation of designers that helped shape American fashion. This was during a period where many young Jewish designers of immigrant decent desired to assimilate and in doing so, changed their name to fit in and succeed in post-war America. Here too, you will find traces of Protestantism, as many of these designers would come to define American fashion with sportswear; the style and culture of America’s elite leisure class, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Theology might be an intimidating term that one wouldn’t naturally put together with fashion, which is why Mark Alizart’s Pop Théologie is so incredibly valuable. It is an absolute must-read for those who desire to understand fashion as we know today, through the frame of a relevant chapter in history that has too often been kept away from fashion’s narrative. At the same time, Alizart provides a refreshing and rather a surprising view on calvinism, putting Protestantism in a new and less dusty perspective.