St. Augustine's Phenomenology of Modern Fashion's Logic

The lights are dimmed. The audience is hushed. All eyes turn as the models emerge, marching across a sparkling, mother-of-pearl runway dressed in short, reptile-skin-patterned digitally printed dresses. These futuristic creatures suggest a cross between translucent sea nymphs and postapocalyptic super-humans; their massive, intricately designed stilettos simultaneously reference the grace of ballerinas en pointe and a large, menacing crustacean claw.

Through such arrestingly impeccable designs, famed fashion designer Alexander McQueen relayed the phantasmagorical story of a future rediscovery of Atlantis. As McQueen explained, “We came from water and now, with the help of stem cell technology, we must go back to survive.”

McQueen’s runways revealed fashion’s capacity to arouse the creative imagination, but this is not only true of glamorous runways. Although the average person may not have a mother-of-pearl runway to march, late moderns look to fashion as a vehicle to elevate everyday life into a new register of dramatic action, heightening one’s experience with time, narrative, and performance. This leads to the final, critical intersection between fashion and theology: fashion theology as everyday drama.

Life in the New-Now

This is what fashion is all about . . . the hope of something new.
—Bill Cunningham

One of the most conspicuous features of fashion is change. Indeed, when we say a garment is “in” or “out” of fashion, we are speaking of an ongoing process (independent of any particular garment) involving the continual replacement of articles of clothing. This dynamic, of course, is bigger than clothing. An internal logic of continual, systematic change is evident in a number of arenas; furniture, cars, technology, ideas, and more can also be assessed in terms of their embrace of systematic change vis-à-vis things within the system moving “in” or “out” of fashion.

Fashion’s logic of change pervades the modern world. Indeed, this permeation is actually encoded in the word modern. Modern comes from the Latin root modo (“presently, just now”), from which a number of languages get their word for fashion (la mode, la moda, moda, etc.). This indicates that fashion is one of the driving marks of modernity. To be modern is to feel a need to be up-to-date. Or, to say it another way, moderns are stricken with a sensitivity to anachronisms.

This posture is evident when comparing medieval and modern art. In medieval art, biblical characters were painted with little concern regarding the actual period clothing these ancient subjects would have worn. But in modernity, everything is coordinated in relation to time—in terms of something’s relationship to “the new” and “the old.” Incidentally, this concern for “the new” is, itself, relatively new—a heedfulness that did not gain expansive credence until the eighteenth century.

So, to be modern (mode-ern) is to be one who values the new, and vice versa. Note the tautology implicit in this predicament. Moderns value “the new.” Why? To be modern. What is it to be modern? It is to value “the new.” Because fashion’s logic for the new has pervaded modern society, modern society brings with it the logic of fashion. The new is presumed superior in modernity. In making this claim, modernity authenticates itself.

This bias for the novel shapes the way moderns experience time and history. For moderns, the past is not merely what has gone before but (all things being equal) signals deprivation. The past is “old,” “passé,” “tired,” and therefore obsolete. In turn, the new prizes “the now.” For moderns, the now is where it’s at. This posture is evident in the Pepsi global ad campaign: “Live for Now.” Filled with fashionable, attractive youth experiencing exceptional, exuberant moments, Pepsi’s multimillion-dollar “Live for Now” campaign unashamedly tapped into the high premium modernity puts on the fusion of the new with the now. It piggybacked on what those in an age of fashion take for granted: to live perpetually on the cusp of the present moment is to experience a qualitatively superior life; it is to inhabit the ever-moving center of life’s drama. For moderns, the cusp carries climax.

It is easy to see how the expanded role of the market in modern societies feeds the ideal of the new-now. But the reverse is also true. Consumer goods find added value by being part of the new-now—or, as the slogan says, “new and improved.” But consumer goods are not always able to be improved. Therefore, to keep up with the ideal, styles are given slight changes and reintroduced as the new-now. Because of the demand, increasingly in late modernity, styles dominant in a previous fashion dispensation are cannibalized and reintroduced as the new-now—the 50s patterned dress constructed with a contemporary textile, a ’70s short-sleeve collared shirt given military epaulets.

In the twentieth century, the new-now logic has reached a feverish pace of style replacement. Whereas changes in style used to be identified with a given season, the frenetic speed by which new styles have been introduced has compressed the distance between “the old-then” and “the new-now.” This has led to a collapse of the linear history of previous fashion dispensations, thereby challenging the veracity of the new-now. With this shift, fashion’s logic of the new-now cannibalizes itself, resulting in simulacra or the “hyper-real.” Indeed, younger generations may never experience the dramatic revolution of a new style like previous generations. So, while the ideal of the new-now remains, the mechanisms that gave rise to this ideal begin to undermine the new-now.

Secularization and Life on the Cusp

Living on the cusp of the present, the new-now is a correlate of secularization. Indeed, some have identified fashion’s faith in the new-now as complicit with secularism (note the “ism”—here, we are talking about a philosophy that seeks to shed religious belief). For these, compounded with fashion’s logic of change is a phenomenology of time that underwrites an immanent frame: an interlocking constellation of cosmic, social, and moral orders understood as devoid of a meta-historical, providential perspective.

It would be hasty to deem the weight modernity places on the present tense as necessarily secular. For a concern with up-to-date discoveries, current thought, and the latest epoch is itself digested within all kinds of comprehensive perspectives, including Christianity. Christianity (as with other Western religions) takes seriously the linearity of history, and therefore the present tense has a “once only” quality that gives it a unique freight. The New Testament announces the new way God has spoken through Jesus (Heb 2:1-2), which has launched a new age (1 Cor 7:3; 1 John 2:17) that transforms people into new creatures (2 Cor 5:17). Additionally, reform movements in Christian history have often been birthed out of a strong sense that the Church was confounded with anachronisms.

The most dramatic of these movements, the Protestant Reformation, witnessed theologians in the West—resourced by Renaissance humanism’s rediscovery of the classics and the powerful cultural transformation of the printing press—striving to present the gospel anew in a way that (they believed) was free of irrelevant archaic accretions. Indeed, this desire to embrace scholarly progress without compromising the immutability of God drove the Reformers to reinforce strong distinctions between Creator and creation, between divine transcendence and a culture of change. Christianity is not new to the new-now; it has always proclaimed that God addresses the immediacies of present life.

But the friendliness of the Christian faith toward the new-now is at odds with consummate fashion—that is, the new-now as ultimate reference, fashion as the ideal, progress qua progress apart from a comprehensive perspective and the moral horizons such provide. Christian theology might assert that something new is afoot; that new cultural forms, movements, and ideas contain unique on-ramps and sources for the faith; and that each new moment pushes history toward its denouement.

However, it does not merely posit a value for the new-now ipso facto. Paul may have spoken of “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13), but that strain pushed him beyond the present, to a “world without end.” In contrast, fashion as an abandonment to the cusp of the present, driven by liturgies of novelty seeking new forms and constellations ad infinitum, is only possible when there is no cosmic climax. The new-now as an ideal in and of itself (think Pepsi’s “Live for Now”) introduces a soft-hedonism free from the moral guidance of the metanarratives found in comprehensive perspectives.

One of the great ironies is that those who embrace consummate fashion and invest their lives in the new-now apart from the lens of a larger narrative or perspective can feel as if the weight of experienced time shifts. To the degree that the new-now is divorced of a larger drama from which to invest the meaning of any given moment, the new-now takes on a repetitive and, therefore, inconsequential nature. It becomes, as Walter Benjamin famously put it, bits of “homogenous, empty time.”

Living for the new-now as a philosophy of life may mimic Paul’s ideal of embracing each moment of life’s pilgrimage, but it does so by rejecting life as a transhistorical pilgrimage and offering in its place a particular version of traversing temporality en route to worldly bliss. The new-now is no longer the finite gift of providence to be sacredly stewarded within the limits of creaturely space on pilgrimage to the summum bonum but the eternally beeping dot of ahistorical, disenchanted time. This is a temporality sterilized by soft-hedonism, a lack of strong belief, and the immanent frame of exclusive humanism, all of which result in a future that is neither clear nor distinct.

Eternal Novelty and the Confessions

Augustine’s Confessions supplies an interesting theological assessment of fashion’s phenomenology of the new-now. Considered one of Augustine’s major works, Confessions is a literary, theological, and philosophical masterpiece. The book’s structure suggests a three-part division: the first nine books retrace Augustine’s past life, book 10 deals with his present life, and books 11 to 13 are oriented to the future as they comment on the first seven days of creation (Gen 1:1-31). This threefold movement of retracing the past (memoria), taking an intensive look at the present (contuitus), and anticipating the future (expectatio) mirrors Augustine’s own account of memory, attention, and anticipation.

Confessions 11.1–3 begins with a protracted prayer for God’s help to understand Genesis 1:1: “In the Beginning you made heaven and earth.” Having prayed for help, Augustine starts his exegesis in 11.4 by noting that, as created things, heaven and earth are subject to change and variation. In 11.5–10, Augustine credits the eternal Word, which exists outside time, as the basis for all created things that exist in time. This leads to 11.11–13, in which Augustine contrasts eternity with time. While in eternity “nothing moves into the past,” in time, “the past is always driven on by the future, the future always follows on the heels of the past, and both the past and future have their beginning and their end in the eternal present.” Whereas God stands in an eternal, never-ending present (“before all past time and after all future time”), humanity must forever be ahead of the past and before the future in the ever-disappearing present.

In Confessions 11.14–20, Augustine begins the first of three puzzles regarding time with his famous question, “What, then, is time?” His first aporia concerning the existence of time starts off with a rather skeptical view. If the past is already, the future not yet, and the present ever disappearing, how do we speak of the existence of past, present, and future? To do so, Augustine insists, requires speaking about “a present of past things, a present of present things, and a present of future things.” In other words, time exists in memory, awareness, and expectation.

This threefold existence of time “in the mind” leads to Augustine’s second aporia in 11.21–26. How, Augustine queries, can time “in the mind” be measured? Without extension, time seems incapable of measurement. Resolute not to ignore the fact that we do measure time, and having shown that moving bodies are variable and, therefore, inadequate for measuring time, Augustine argues that time is measured via a distensio animi—the soul extends itself into a present of the past (memory), a present of the present (awareness), and a present of the future (expectation).

The final movement of Confessions 11 is driven by the question of how to relate this threefold present with the distensio animi. To address this, Augustine looks at three examples—two passive and one active. The first two examples involve passively hearing a sound and concluding that it is only after the sound is past, when it is “no longer,” that an impression in the mind is measured. In the last example, Augustine actively recites a psalm, and it is here that he makes an important discovery: to actively recite requires a praesens intentio—an engagement with the threefold presence. But to engage himself, Augustine must distend himself. Augustine characterizes this as being “divided between time gone by and time to come”; it is to be “torn this way and that in the havoc of change.” Augustine closes Confessions 11 in a hymn of praise to the eternal God who is able to help those in the throes of the unbearable lightness of temporality.

Confessions 11 moves from the past/creation to address humanity’s current experience of being in time and fallen. In contrast to life in the capacious room of memory, which still harkens back to creation as gift, everyday experiences of time present an exhausting balancing act over the precipice of nonexistence on the ever-disappearing temporal tightrope. Since Augustine claims evil to be a lack of being, to adequately explain this picture, we need look to not his theory of God’s eternal presence but rather the nature of sin. Sin fractures and destroys; it is the absence of being and is, itself, an aporia. In its grip, one gropes for answers as it stretches, distracts, and limits one’s view, bringing havoc and tearing one apart.

Moreover, the ravishes of sin on time lead us into Confessions 12–13, which, in its allegorical description of the sinless creation, draws humanity to anticipate the new creation remade without any distension. Like humankind, time was made by the Triune God and therefore was analogically meant to carry itself as a reflection of this seamless unity in past, present, and future. As such, time was created to be an experience of the threefold present that would reflect the seamless present that the angelic creatures experience in heaven. In other words, unfallen temporality past, present, and future was to work as a whole.

Distensio reminds us that both humanity and time are fallen. In their fallen state, people are dispersed within, unable to coincide with themselves, flitting from one moment to the next. But this is not merely humanity’s problem, for time itself is shaped by the fall and, therefore, is experienced no longer in its capacious fullness but in its ever-disappearing state—a constant reminder of mortality. Augustine believes this state would be unbearable if not for two things. First, by God’s grace, through moving inwardly in intentio, people (redeemed and unredeemed) can gather disordered memories, thereby offering a more coherent experience of time (narrative offers a reprieve but not a solution). Furthermore, through moving outwardly toward God in extension (extendere), the soul is open to experience God’s eternal presence and, therefore, an additional release from distensio.

EDITORIAL NOTE; Excerpted from Fashion Theology by Robert Covolo. Copyright © Baylor University Press, 2020. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Antonio de Carro, St. Augustine, c. 1400; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Robert Covolo

Robert Covolo is a cultural theologian residing in Los Angeles. He has served as a scholar at the Visual Faith Institute of Art and Architecture, on faculty at the Torrey Honors Institute, and currently directs the Center for Pastoral Residents, Christ Church Sierra Madre. He is the author of Fashion Theology.

Read more by Robert Covolo