By Andrew Petiprin
Kirby Allison is the founder of the Hanger Project, whose website describes the company as “luxury clothing and shoe care.” Allison and his family are Episcopalian, members of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. Allison told me by email that his “love of tradition and beauty” are what led him to call Incarnation home and raise his children there. I have lately become a connoisseur of Mr. Allison’s videos, the best of which are his detailed shoeshine tutorials. I thought I knew how to take care of my footwear. Boy, was I wrong.
Allison’s mission is perhaps unwittingly much bigger than making a living “helping the well-dressed take care of their wardrobes.” Like another popular luxury menswear entrepreneur, Sven Raphael Schneider, Allison is reviving a host of lost traditions. He is conserving beauty and articulating it for a new generation. For example, he sells a $400 Simonnot Godard “fil de bouche” pocket square, an extravagance that would seem absurd to most of us. But there’s a story behind it. Allison is a supplier of a previously lost batch of these classic accessories, discovered recently in a storehouse in Paris. The technique used to make them died out before World War II, and once these are gone, they’re gone. I won’t be buying one; but Allison also sells much cheaper, high-quality alternatives from the same company, serving to connect yesterday’s everyday beauty (which is now scarce and costly) to a version that we can afford and adapt to today’s needs. The old may have just about passed away, but we can do our part to sustain the legacy with the materials and techniques available to us now. Past beauty need not come to an end, so long as we know its purpose.
Another example among many is this video, in which Allison unboxes a pair of Russian reindeer shoes from George Cleverly, who possesses a supply of rare leather recovered from a 1786 shipwreck off the southwest coast of England. In order to use it, Cleverly had to obtain special permission from the Prince of Wales, who granted it on the promise that HRH would receive the first pair. Again, once it’s gone, it’s gone. We conserve what we have while we have it, and we look ahead to crafting and wearing new things that are in continuity with the aesthetic traditions of an earlier time.
For someone like Kirby Allison, beauty has a purpose — an end — that contrasts with mere vanity.
The godfather of iconic, throwback men’s fashion is Tom Wolfe, whose bespoke white, double-breasted suits are as famous as his New Journalism prose style. Moreover, in two magnificent novels, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, Wolfe rivals Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes in exploring (among many other things) the virtues of selfless beauty, contrasted with the vices of aesthetic self-absorption. In 1975 Wolfe appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, where he defended his short book, The Painted Word. Wolfe was saying then what few intellectuals had the courage to articulate: A handful of critics were shaping elite opinion in the direction of nearly valueless art at the expense of a deeper appreciation of the great works of renowned masters. And like Kirby Allison today, Wolfe showed us what lay behind us so that we could do more beautiful things in continuity with our forebears. Beauty in a certain tradition is for something. Far from advocating a stagnant or reactionary view, Wolfe wanted a revival of aesthetics.
As Wolfe notes, however, the art world has always been an extremely small one, and even the best-known example of the emperor’s new clothes touches very few ordinary people’s lives. But architecture, like clothing, is entirely different. We all see, walk around in, and live in the structures made for us by professionals who design our homes, workplaces, and everywhere else we spend our time. On a return visit to Firing Line in 1981, and with a new book to defend, Wolfe argued for the conservation of beauty in decisions about how to build. The post-war high-rises, purpose-built for working people, are buildings that working people simply do not want to live in. Similarly, the brutalist constructions that sought to bring unrealizable ideals of beauty to heel at the side of a real-world master, inspire an escapist desire for castles in the clouds rather than contentment with the grit and grime of the brave new world.
One of Wolfe’s chief targets is the 1950s annex to the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven.
In the interview, Buckley tells Wolfe that “in the 1930s Yale exploded as a re-creation of medieval architecture and Georgian architecture.” Anyone who has spent time at Yale knows the familiar features of the “girder Gothic” look, which provide more than a little taste of Oxbridge in New England. Both Buckley and Wolfe were students at Yale in an era when the architectural philosophy turned sharply away from traditional forms. To Wolfe, the sticking together of pre-war nostalgia and mid-century modernism created an aesthetic mess. For those who walk the campus today and find their way from the Sterling Law Building (1931) to Green Hall (1952), the mess is most obvious by contrast. The Architecture School’s new Paul Rudolph Hall (2008) unfortunately looks more like the latter than the former; but Yale’s two brand-new residential colleges (2017) both represent a return to the “girder Gothic” style. This no doubt warms Mr. Wolfe’s heart as blessed throwbacks to the style of the 1930s, itself a legacy of the Victorian fascination with the Middle Ages. Spectacular recent buildings like the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville (currently my favorite place on earth) and Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth offer the same encouragement, albeit in a Classical rather than Gothic idiom. We don’t have to accept the soulless glass, steel, and concrete wrongly prescribed for North America in recent decades. Likewise, we don’t have to abandon our neckties or wear cheap plastic sandals made in sweatshops.
Should any of this aesthetic conservation matter for Christians? I struggle with it myself sometimes. We remember that John the Baptist “was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist” (Mark 1:6). But this is not cheap stuff nowadays! And indeed, John’s prophetic forebears and monastic successors make as much of a statement about their devotion to God with their (lack of) clothes as the Pharisees with their “phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (Matt. 23:5). As I have discussed before, Jesus has no major problem with aesthetic extravagance as long as one’s heart is in the right place. Exhibit A is Mary’s use of pure nard to anoint Jesus’ feet, inviting his reminder, “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11).
Ancient Israelite religion was not always about practicing piety before men, and neither is contemporary Christian living — even fancy Christian living. Then and now, the saga of King Solomon in 1 Kings illustrates the use and abuse of beauty and wealth in the service of the Lord and his people. At long last the Almighty fixed his home on earth in a stone temple: the Lord declares, “I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel” (1 Kgs. 6:13).
The lavishness of the house of God is pleasing in the sight of God, so long as Solomon and all the people “walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them” (6:12). As long as beauty is about and for God, then bring it on! Extraordinary details about the Temple’s construction follow, culminating in Solomon’s personal work of casting the golden altar, lampstands, and other sacred items (7:48-50) — later carried off as prizes to Babylon. Solomon then blesses the Lord and dedicates the temple to his name (8). The Queen of Sheba visits to see the beauty she has heard about “concerning the name of the Lord” (10:1). “Happy are your men! Happy are your servants! … Blessed be the Lord your God!” she declares (10:8-9).
But Solomon turns away from the Lord and loses himself in the arms of his many wives and concubines. He loses his mind, his heart is deterred, and Israelite religion and society are marred and divided. In the aftermath of Solomon’s demise, once beautiful things, at the hands of Jeroboam and his wicked successors, become idols instead of means to honor and worship the living God (1 Kgs. 12).
Centuries later, as the Israelites toil in Babylon, they dream of God’s restoration of what had once been, and they conserve in their memories the beauty of a holistic life of worship. Finally, the long conservation project comes to fruition, and the people of God weep and shout for joy as the Temple is rebuilt (Ezra 3:12-13). They hear the book of the Law and celebrate the richness of God’s provision (Neh. 8). All of this, as St. Paul reminds us, is “holy, righteous, and true” (Rom. 7:12) — beautiful, but also dangerous. Two centuries later, the Temple is desecrated. Two centuries after that it is renovated, but the God-man foretells its destruction (Matt. 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6).
The danger of idolizing beauty, and the necessary wealth and power that enable it, are a major concern of Jesus with the Pharisees. In his third “woe” in Matthew 23, he points specifically to the Temple, the epitome of the beauty of holiness, and he challenges those who are its savviest connoisseurs:
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.” You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. (Matt. 23:16-22)
The house that Solomon built, Ezra rebuilt, and Herod restored can be ugly in the sight of God, despite its seeming beauty, if its end is misunderstood or misconstrued.
We Christians do not swear by our altars or the precious metals that surround them; but we should focus on their purpose, their end. We build beautiful churches, design beautiful buildings, and care about our personal appearance for a reason. We who love the Lord cherish the stuff around us because it is his, and he has given it to us to honor him. In building our temples and in dressing ourselves and planning our cities, we conserve beauty because it raises our hearts to his truth and goodness. G.K. Chesterton says, “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds,” but if earth is just as full of the glory of God as heaven is, our aesthetic choices in a new world destined to be the domain of immortality matter just as much as Solomon’s choices did. Eternity is beautiful, and eternity begins here and now.
Until our Lord returns in glory and the New Jerusalem descends upon us, we give thanks for the likes of Kirby Allison and Tom Wolfe, who champion the everyday sacredness of beauty and encourage us to conserve it too. May our aesthetic sensibility here prepare our hearts for an eternity where everyone wears the same white robe and lives without a temple, in a city of pure gold, clear as glass, with walls of jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, and amethyst (Rev. 21:18-21). Then, we will see beauty’s end. May we who love the Lord conserve what is beautiful in our personal and corporate lives in the hope that animates our existence: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”