Religion Seen through the Eyes of Fashion

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It often goes ignored the ways in which fashion has been shaped by religious beliefs. Throughout the course of history, religion has dictated everything from the ecclesiastical robes in church to the length of women’s skirts. Religious influence in fashion hasn’t crossed many minds until this year’s Met Gala with is theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”While fashion is considered frivolous and superficial to some, it is often a window into society. It can give insight into a culture’s rules, customs, conventions, and rituals. Clothing can also be an important symbol of religious identification. From the hijab to the holy cross, religious apparel and accessories are heavily ingrained is society’s consciousness and have shaped the course of fashion throughout time. Designers, whether they intend to or not, respond to religion in some way.

Jean Paul Gaultier has often looked to religion to inspire his collections. His spring/summer 2007 couture collection was considered an ode to Catholicism, but the first notable occasion of his religious inspiration was his fall/winter 1993 “Chic Rabbis” collection. The collection was inspired by a group of Hasidic Jewish rabbis leaving the New York Public Library. The runway show featured models in long coats, big hats, and curls down the side of their heads. The collection was so controversial at the time that supermodel Christy Turlington later revealed that some audience members booed the collection.

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Often, the influence of religion on fashion is left to interpretation. For his spring/summer 2000 show, Alexander McQueen was inspired by religious conflicts between Christianity and Islam. Models walked the show in a pool of water that represented the Middle East’s oil reserves. Burkas were featured with sequined windows. A model even floated cross-legged with her hands on her knees, referencing both Buddhism and Hinduism. However, no one has influenced fashion, as much s the Catholic Church. (Perhaps, that is because most European designers came from countries where Catholicism is the main Christian faith of that country.) One of John Galliano’s most memorable couture shows was his fall 2000 Dior “Freud or Fetish” collection, which featured a menacing priest who opened the show in what could be the most ostentatious interpretation of a priest’s religious attire to date.

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It was during the second decade of the 21st century that the power of Catholicism began to infuse the collections of many European couture and ready-to-wear collections. Ricardo Tisci’s Madonna-print sweatshirt for Givenchy became one of the brand’s top selling pieces from the spring/summer 2013 collection. References to the Italian Renaissance also began to appear in fashion collections, as well. Versace, Dolce and Gabbana, and Moschino over the past decade have incorporated religious symbolism, often blatantly, into their collections.For its fall 2015 collection, Dolce and Gabbana created a gold corset with a bejeweled sacred heart encrusted in the center. That same season, the collection also featured a floral print dress with images of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus. Their ride on the religion train didn’t end in 2015. In 2017, they created a t-shirt and floral pants suit, with the t-shirt baring the image of a crowned Virgin Mary and an infant Jesus.

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Versace’s history of using religious iconography dates back to when the legendary Gianni Versace was helming the eponymous brand. In 1997, for his final couture show, just a week before his death, Versace presented a collection of cross-embellished pieces that received rave reviews from critics. It was the collection that Versace would forever be remembered for after his untimely death.In 2012, Gianni’s sister, Donatella, would create a collection that was remarkably similar to Gianni Versace’s 1997 collection. Many of the pieces in this collection, featuring crosses and crucifixes, were left unfinished by Gianni Versace before his death. As fashion journalist Tim Blanks said, “Donatella felt she finally could, as she put it, face her demons.” With her brother’s death almost fifteen years in the past, this was one of Donatella’s biggest homage to her brother.

Unexpectedly, Jeremy Scott, the acclaimed enfant terrible of fashion, also adopted religious iconography for Moschino. In January of 2016 at London Fashion Week Men’s season, Scott held his show inside a church in Mayfair, and was inspired by the work of East London English-Austrian art duo Gilbert and George. The artists are known for their trademark religious cross motifs. Scott interpreted this with bright colors and intricate patterns and incorporated them into his collection.

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Scott didn’t stop there. At the 2018 Met Gala, Scott dressed model Stella Maxwell in a column gown adorned with relief icons of the Virgin Mary. Rapper Cardi B showed up as Scott’s date wearing a beaded, bejeweled floor-length gown custom-made for her baby bump. The dress had long sleeves, a slit up to her left hip, and a scoop neckline, along with a cream-colored train attached by a matching beaded belt. According to E!’s Live coverage of the red carpet, the Moschino look took four weeks to craft. The literal crown jewel of this ensemble was a tri-point hat covered in pearls, rhinestones, and jewels that took three days to make.Don’t think Italians have a monopoly on religious-inspired fashion. Rihanna showed up to this year’s Met Gala literally dressed like the Pope in ecclesiastical-like garments designed by Maison Margiela’s John Galliano. Pop sensation Ariana Grande attended the Met Gala wearing a Vera Wang dress whose pattern was an exact replica of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece.

While the influence of religion on society may be an arguable point of view, what is not up for debate is religion’s influence on fashion. Les voies de Dieu sont impenetrables. ( Translated: God works in mysterious ways.)

—Kristopher Fraser


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