This time of year, I keep half an eye on each city’s fashion week, to see what will be coming down the pipeline to conventional stores soon. Paris, Copenhagen, New York, London, and Milan each have major fashion weeks and each city has its own strengths and weaknesses. Paris’s not-so-secret weapon is its specialized workshops (ateliers) filled with skilled seamstresses, embroiderers, and beaders. Copenhagen is the most experimental, especially in terms of shapes and silhouettes. London excels in traditional textiles and tailoring. New York has the best business sense and the best understanding of which trends will take off and what will sell. Milan values femininity and glorifies a woman’s form.
But each of strength comes with corresponding weaknesses. Paris can get so obsessed with details that the fashion becomes purely for its own sake with nothing to ground it in reality or practicality. Copenhagen can experiment itself right into Dr. Seuss-style weirdness. London tries to push against history so much that it runs away from the traditional craftsmanship that makes it great in the first place and in trying so hard to defy expectations, ends up being predictable. New York can push trends past exaggeration and into ridiculousness. Milan takes femininity and pushes it into overt sexiness.
In the past, there were overarching trends and designers who defined decades – Chanel’s slim-cut suit and little black dress in the 1930s, Christian Dior’s fit-and-flare New Look in the 1950s, Givenchy’s column dresses and Mary Quant’s mini skirts in the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent’s peasant dresses and caftans in the 1970s. But in recent years, there haven’t been as many overarching trends. In fact the only trend I can think of that has been a dominating theme of every city’s fashion week for the past few years has been Guilt. Guilt over the fashion industry’s carbon footprint, guilt over the amount of stuff people own, guilt over cultural appropriation, guilt over body image portrayal in the media, etc.
Now this shouldn’t be surprising, shame and guilt have always been a part of fashion. Adam and Eve fashioned the first clothes out of shame over their sin. Mankind’s relationship to clothes and body image have been complicated ever since. But over the past couple of years, guilt has been so broadcasted and publicized and marketed that it gets more and more difficult to see. It has become part of the air we breathe.
There are a few reasons why guilt has become such a universal trend when it comes to fashion and beauty. The first is that guilt connects everybody. Who doesn’t feel guilty sometimes? And that feeling can be manipulated and monetized and turned into a call to action. Another reason is that the internet defines fashion now and the internet is not a culture of law or grace, but of shame and honor. The Internet chooses who it will honor and who it will shame, like the caste system in India or the pecking order in a high school cafeteria. Just post a photo of a disposable plastic water bottle on Instagram and watch the lynch mob form in the comments section. They are there to shame you into good works and recycling and reusable water bottles (usually whatever brand of reusable water bottle Instagram finds most aesthetically pleasing).
You might be wondering, “Is guilt such a bad thing? The fashion industry definitely has things to apologize for and feel bad about.” Without a doubt, the fashion industry has sins to repent and turn from, but this guilt culture has nothing to do with real repentance. Real repentance leads to joy and contentment, neither of which are easy to manipulate. Where would the trend-makers be if everybody suddenly became content all of a sudden? It is in the seller’s best interest to keep their customers feeling guilty.
What kind of things do we feel guilty about? I know from experience that women can feel guilty about almost anything, even good things. I can feel guilty about having so many clothes in my closet and so much food in my fridge. If I hear a friend’s story about a messed up family situation, it is easy to feel guilty (in comparison) about having a family who loves me so well. I’m supposed to feel guilty about how much trash I generate, where I buy things from, where my clothes are made, and how much water I use. I can feel guilty about not exercising enough or for not loving my body just as it is. Guilt can catch us from both sides.
And for all the young moms out there, bless you. You get more guilt thrown at you than almost anybody else I know. What to feed your kids, the constant vaccination vs. anti-vaccination debate, how to discipline and what to discipline for, and when you should start teaching your kids French, etc. It’s an overwhelming mountain of guilt. When I have kids, I may stay off the internet altogether. Men also get a lot of guilt thrown at them, with all the claims about mansplaining and manspreading and inherent male privilege. But I don’t think that men absorb guilt in the same way that women do. This can be very frustrating to women.
So what’s the point of all of this? My first point is simply to point it out. Pay attention and notice when somebody tries to manipulate your behavior through guilt. A technique for keeping pickpockets at bay is to make eye contact and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t blindly allow guilters to steal joy from you. This joy theft is so common that we sometimes stop noticing it. So keep your eyes open and identify guilt when it comes.
Next, remember that guilt is a terrible place to live. Guilt and shame should prompt us to turn away from sin, repent, and enter into joy. It should never be our permanent address. In Christ, we should enter into and live content in the joy of our Lord. Why set up a tent city in Shame when we can live in Joy? Sometimes guilt and worry feels righteous and productive, because in our Pharisaical little hearts, we want to make other people feel guilty for whatever we think they should feel bad about. Don’t let other people steal your joy and don’t steal joy from the people around you.
Lastly, when you start feeling guilty about something, take a moment and figure out whether it is something you should actually feel guilty about. If it is, repent and turn to joy. If it is not something you should feel guilty about, stop feeling guilty about it. If you aren’t sure which category to put it into, ask your mom. Surround yourself with wise people and practice living in contentment. A content life is a stable life. When guilt dictates our actions, we are like ships without rudders, at the mercy of the tide.