On the Fashion of Religion and the Religion of Fashion

The thud with which the VOGUE September Issue landed on my desk some days ago provided a gentle reminder that I have yet to write about the current exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. And after finally finishing what could at least be considered a first draft of a paper for a conference on Baudrillard next week in Oxford, it seems opportune to finally put some of my impressions and some ideas that emerged in discussions with other fashionistas onto this blog’s pages.

First and foremost, the exhibition is spectacular, up there with China Through the Looking Glass of 2015, and a welcome return to form after two rather underwhelming fashion exhibitions during the last two years. If you have the opportunity, do go see it, it’s worth your time.

What, then, does the show tell us about the role fashion plays in religion, and, perhaps more interestingly and challenging, what role does religion play in fashion? With regard to the first question, the exhibition refers to Andrew Greeley’s concept of the ‘Catholic Imagination’. As the blurb of his book describes it,

Catholics live in an enchanted world: a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are merely hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. The world of the Catholic is haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of Grace.

We can easily add Catholic vestments to the above elements of the ‘enchanted world’. The display of the garments, tiaras, mitres and jewellery provided by the Vatican for the exhibition was simply stupendous. If these are ‘mere hints’, then the Catholic imagination must truly be other-worldly. Unfortunately, in this part of the exhibition photography was not allowed, so I can only offer a link to the Met’s selection of images here. As someone who has a rather sceptical attitude towards religious claims of transcendence, I approached this exhibition not as an illustration of a particular transcendental reality or truth, but as a performance of Catholic transcendentalism. Drawing again (as in the book) on Judith Butler’s work on gender, I consider ‘the transcendent’ not a given or pre-ordained reality, but as a performance that pro-duces, i.e., makes visible and thus real, what it claims to express or illustrate. The other-worldliness and divine intervention of the Catholic Church as such has no reality prior to, or is independent of, the symbolic performances that Greeley hints at. The sublime beauty of the vestments on display – when worn by the relevant persons, of course – becomes a central element in these performances. This argument does absolutely nothing to diminish the beauty and magnificence of the mantles, chasubles, dalmatics, stoles, headwear and jewellery on display. The silk of the cloth, the gold and silver threads of the embroideries, the polychrome silk used in what amounts to painting with threads, the spectacular decorations of the mitres and tiaras, all this certainly provided a glimpse of the power and persuasiveness of Catholic rituals. Marzia Cataldi Gallo provides a very useful essay in the exhibition’s catalogue that helps the reader ‘de-code’ the different signs of papal and sacred vestments.

One of the chasubles stood out in the exhibition with its emphasis on symbolic and allegorical themes and decorations. A chasuble created for Pope Pius XI (the second image provided by the Met in the link above) included illustrations depicting the life of Saint Francis ‘and of Franciscan friars conducting missionary work around the world’ as the catalogue describes it. The vestment, created in 1926, is in effect an advertisement for the Catholic Church’s rather problematic involvement in Western colonialism and imperialism and clearly illustrates a time in which this involvement was yet to be understood in terms of its violence. The vestment stands out in terms of its ‘empirical’ theme, in contrast to the more abstract and symbolic garments in the exhibition. There is perhaps also an element of unintended irony here, as St Francis was the son of a prosperous silk merchant who devoted himself to a life of poverty, as M.C. Gallo points out in her essay on ‘Sacred Vestments’.

This part of the exhibition begs a number of interesting questions when we extend our investigation beyond Catholicism. What are the ‘sartorial imaginations’ of other religions and faiths? And does any other religion match the Catholic Church’s obsession with sartorial sublimity?

The transition from the Vatican collection to the fashion displays is made somewhat easier by placing most of the latter in the European Mediaeval Art section of the Met, which provides a rich atmospheric backdrop. Also, on a rather small screen tucked away in a corner, the infamous ‘Ecclesiastic Fashion Show’ of Federico Fellini’s film tribute to his adopted home town Roma plays in a loop. While funny in its caustic comment on the Catholic Church, the video does not fit properly with either the Vatican section, nor with the fashion displays around it – and thereby provides a welcome moment of distraction and a chance to regain some critical faculties in the midst of overwhelming beauty.

Most interesting from a critical point of view is the question of what religion does to fashion. What purpose does it serve, what sartorial strategies does it inspire? There are a variety of answers to this. We might start with a structural understanding of fashion as a system of differences, as signification without a message. Fashion refers only to itself and the need to invent itself anew all the time. Hemline up last year – hemline down this year. From this perspective, ‘religion’ becomes relevant just as a set of signifiers distinguishing this season’s fashion from last year’s and next year’s fashion. Religious symbolism is simply different from more profane or mundane styles that precede and succeed its appearance on the runways. We can expand on this structural perspective and refer to Baudrillard’s observation that

Fashion is immoral, this is what’s in question; and all power (or all those who dream of it) necessarily hates it. … Fashion … knows nothing of value systems, nor of criteria of judgement: good and evil, beauty and ugliness, the rational/irrational – it plays within and beyond these, it acts therefore as the subversion of all order … It is power’s hell, the hell of all relativity of all signs which all power is forced to crush in order to maintain its own signs.

The very ‘meaninglessness’ of fashion, its ‘liquidation of meaning’ subverts and relativises what the Catholic Church imbues with strict and dogmatic meaning. Catholic symbols and sartorial elements become ‘liberated’ and turned into mobile signifiers that reject any order imposed upon them, or by them. If, as Nietzsche asserts, God is dead, then perhaps fashion, by appropriating Catholicism’s semiotic order, points to the particular way of being in the world that Nietzsche in The Gay Science identified with ancient Greek civilisation:

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearances. Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity.

There is for instance Christian Lacroix’s ensemble (titled ‘Gold-Gotha’) that includes a jacket with a large cross, encrusted with polychrome crystals. Perhaps it is nothing but a witty play on the designer’s name?

© A Behnke

The jacket is in fact one of the iconic fashion images; in 1988, it appeared on the first VOGUE cover with Anna Wintour’s as the editor.

lacroix cover

Paired with a pair of stone-washed jeans, the jacket becomes a more playful piece of clothing than at the Met, where the surrounding medieval artefacts and the pseudo-sacred music of Michael Nyman’s ‘Time Lapse’ suggested a much closer connection to Catholic religion.

We can also discern fashion’s irreverence to religious authority, taken to the edge of blasphemy, in a gilet designed in 2008 by Karl Lagerfeld. The vest combines very colourfully ornamented crosses, interspersed with mother-of-pearl encrusted stones – which display the famous Double C of the House of Chanel. Perhaps we shall have no God but Karl? Some fashionistas I talked to suggested an affinity between Church and Fashion, with the idea of a Creators, worshipped by his disciples, defining a similar structure of hierarchy. I shall return to this point below.

© A Behnke

Other designers such as Riccardo Tisci (left) and Yves Saint Laurent (right) exhibit a more respectful attitude towards the church, designing garments for religious statues.

© A Behnke
© A Behnke

For Donatella and Gianni Versace, Catholicism was the backdrop of their daily lives and an ‘inevitable’ inspiration for their fashion designs. In Donatella’s words (in the catalogue), ‘Gianni’s use of [Catholic] images … was never literal. Nor was it profane, While he often juxtaposed religious symbols with something provocative, his intention was to make people  stop and contemplate their wonder’.

© A Behnke

Raf Simons suggests a different attitude towards Catholicism in his A/W 2000/2001 collection, which stays much closer to the Catholic Imagination, explaining ‘It was about memory, but also a settlement. There were many religious references … but also deconstructions. The collection represented a restriction that I tried to free myself of’.

© A Behnke

Perhaps a similar inclination to display the dark and restrictive side of Catholicism can be discerned in Alexander McQueen’s black ‘headdress’ and gilet (which don’t seem to be included in the catalogue).

© A Behnke
© A Behnke

McQueen’s fascination with religion is well-known, and two garments from his last, indeed posthumous show, uncannily named ‘Angels and Demons are displayed, which include details from paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Stefan Lochner. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed in this part of the exhibition.

Perhaps the most disturbing garment was an ensemble by Rick Owens. The catalogue coyly introduces it as ‘Owens’s playful, subversive “habit” with a “pee(p) hole at the crotch… evokes the popular literary stereotype of the debauched and scandalous mediaeval monk, perhaps best satirized by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales’.

© A Behnke

In light of the recently revealed scandals regarding the Catholic Church and its continued pattern of child abuse and cover ups, Chaucer’s tale might not be the most powerful reference for this garment. Rather, it serves as a reminder that the debauchery and scandals are still a deeply ingrained part of the Catholic Church. And it also demonstrates the power of sartorial signs and symbols beyond the intention of the designer.

One final note about the exhibition in general. One might very well approach it with scepticism, after all, the fit of fashion and religion is anything but obvious. With its structural preferences for the novel, the provocative, the profane and irreverent, fashion seems to be far removed from religion and its traditions, dogmas and rituals. Hence the most stunning aspect of Heavenly Bodies was how well fashion and religion spoke to one another. No doubt, the spectacular mis-en-scène at the Met and the Cloisters played a significant role here. But I suspect there is more to it. Perhaps Karl Lagerfeld is up to something with his gilet. Fashion, after all, has its Gods and Deities, its High Priests and Priestesses, and its avowed and devoted disciples. And with New York Fashion Week just around the corner, another season of fashion pilgrimages is upon us.

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