Book club: Wearing Well: Exploring the biblical imagery of clothing, by Frances Shaw

by
06 March 2020

Rachel Mann assesses the power of dress in Frances Shaw’s book Wearing Well: Exploring the biblical imagery of clothing

ABOUT four years ago, I learned to sew. I think it’s fair to say that it has transformed my outlook on life; for, while I’ve spent much of my life dismissing sewing as something my grandmother did, I’ve now discovered previously unimagined vistas of creativity and craft through fabric, needles, and patterns.

Little did I realise when my friend Daisy asked me to be one of her bridesmaids — or “shield-maidens”, as she called us — and invited me to be involved in making our wedding clothes, that I’d never quite see the world in the same way again. I began to sidle up to strangers and — to their bewilderment — ask about the fabric that their dress was made from. I dreamt about tweed. I would look at other people’s clothes and wonder if I could make them.

The “eye-opening”, “perspective-shifting” power of sewing is also to be found in Frances Shaw’s fascinating book about clothes and faith. Once you have read it, you can never read the Bible in quite the same way again. Before engaging in her lively study of the meanings of biblical clothing, I had rather underestimated how much the scriptures have to say about fabric and its power to conceal, reveal, and unfold the stories of our lives. Now, I see cloaks, robes, and belts at every twist and turn of the Old and New Testaments.

Shaw is both a scholar — she holds a doctorate on Matthew’s Gospel — and a teacher and churchwarden. This lively combination prevents Wearing Well from being either a dry study in the meaning of John the Baptist’s preference for hair shirts and thongs or simply a romp through the Bible’s sartorial highlights. It is always grounded in a desire to bring alive our faith and discipleship.

Wearing Well is a fine book in and of itself, as well as a study guide, comprising six breezy chapters with helpful questions along the way. The thread that links these meditations is an invitation to wrestle with St Paul’s injunction to “put on Christ”. Whether we come from Catholic, liberal, or Evangelical perspectives, that is fertile ground, and Shaw makes the most of it. Indeed, this would make a good book for Lent.

Frances Shaw, author of Wearing Well

It is tempting to imagine that, as a cleric and, therefore, someone invested in the power of clothing (in my case clerical), I would be especially susceptible to Shaw’s book. Certainly, I am attentive to the effects of clothing. I know only too well how the colour of a clerical shirt can signal which church “tribe” one belongs to, and clerics can be comedically and embarrassingly energised by the nuances of liturgical dress. I am also alert to how much wearing a clerical collar in church generally confers respect and deference — although, in a place like Manchester’s Gay Village, it can be a trigger for scowls and other understandable acts of passive-aggressive hostility.

In fewer than 100 pages, Wearing Well reminds all of us of the fun, strangeness, and power of clothing. Chapter One, for example, reflects on the power of clothing to signal status and position. If a silk robe’s or kingly raiment’s ability to display power may seem obvious, Shaw patiently invites us to go further and reflect on how clothes might signal a Christian’s true dignity as God’s beloved child.

Thus, she drills down into the significance of baptism and baptismal “robes”, and — very quickly and accessibly — one finds oneself “doing theology”. But she doesn’t stop there: in her final chapter, which examines the Passion narratives, Shaw asks her readers to consider difficult questions about what it means to be stripped of the disguises that we use to keep us safe from exposure.

Perhaps the most fascinating dimensions of Shaw’s work concern the way in which we use clothing to disguise as well as express ourselves. She recognises that both Christianity and wider society have used clothing to set people apart. Sometimes, this has taken the form of the intense and jealous policing of “gendered” clothing. She reminds us of the case of the woman fired from her office in 2015 for refusing to wear high heels and considers the extent to which “wearing the uniform” is necessary to negotiate a world in which meaning is not set by individuals, but by corporate dress codes. This becomes especially fascinating when she reflects on how these codes operate in religious orders of monks and nuns.

This book contains things that will wind some readers up, and Wearing Well is all the better for it. I would have liked a bolder discussion about how the biblical injunctions against breaking gender dress codes can be negotiated by those Christians who refuse them.

Shaw cleverly sets up her end-of-chapter questions in such a way, however, that book groups can go to town on those matters, should they wish.

The clothes that we wear always form part of a visual language, either consciously or unconsciously. Wearing Well provides a rare opportunity to draw out the spiritual and theological meanings of clothing in the company of a writer who brings to bear both the forensic eye of the scholar and the suppleness of the fashion critic.

Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

 

Wearing Well: Exploring the biblical imagery of clothing by Frances Shaw is published by Regent College Publishing at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop, £8.10); 978-1-57383-576-3.

WEARING WELL — SOME QUESTIONS (taken from the book)

  1. When you read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, what do you imagine he is wearing, and why?
  2. How far does having a secure identity in Christ influence (or not) your relationship with clothes and what you wear? And should it?
  3. Do you find the symbolism of being naked before God helpful? If so, why? If not, why do you think that might be? Are other images more helpful to you?
  4. “I cannot make up my mind whether high heels are a liberating personal choice or a sign of cultural enslavement” (Canon Angela Tilby, Church Times, 3 June 2016). What do you think?
  5. Have you ever been forced to wear clothing you didn’t want? How did that make you feel, and how did you respond?
  6. If you have experienced a very difficult situation when you felt stripped of nearly everything, what was left, and what kept you going?
  7. In a world where many are forced to make cheap clothes for the wealthy, what does a Christian response to fashion and clothing look like?



IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 April, we will print extra information about our next book, Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson. It is published by Duckworth Books at £10.99 (£9.90); 978-0-7156-5368-5.


THE BOOK

Stanley and Elsie is a work of biographical fiction set in 1920s rural England. The titular Stanley is based on the English artist Sir Stanley Spencer, while Elsie is the Spencers’ maid, also a real-life figure, who featured in several of Spencer’s paintings, and who befriended both Stanley and his wife, Hilda. The story focuses on the years that Spencer spent painting the Sandham Memorial Chapel, a decorated chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, which portrays his experiences of the First World War. The resulting novel is a compassionate portrayal of the artist’s complex and often difficult family life.

THE AUTHOR

Born in 1970, Nicola Upson is best-known for her series of historical detective novels set in the interwar years, featuring the real-life Scottish crime author Josephine Tey. The first of these, An Expert in Murder, was adapted for Radio 4 by BBC Scotland. Described by P. D. James as an “assured talent”, Upson won an Escalator Award from Arts Council England, and was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger in 2018. She lives with her partner, fellow author Mandy Morton, and divides her time between Cornwall and Cambridge (where she read English Literature as an undergraduate).

 

BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

May: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

June: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

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