Nathaniel Palmer


In this series, The Psychology of Fashion Blog will be delving into research surrounding the complex relationship between Fashion and Religion. In the run up to the Met Gala’s 2018 theme ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion And The Catholic Imagination’ which has been deemed it’s most controversial theme yet, we’ve taken a closer look at the history of the Catholic Church’s influence in fashion and pop culture.

For every lavish pendant that symbolizes a cross, including the extravagant rosary beads worn by Catholics and Non-believers alike, you’ll find a profound influence of Christianity that has contributed to that holy iconography.  Christian purview has always found a way to extend beyond the pulpit, but its compelling influence on fashion has been more salient than we realize. Catholicism, Christianity’s largest denomination, not only serves over 1.2 billion followers, it’s also projected an artistic influence on fashion that has seen designers mimic things like the Pope’s papal regalia, Priest’s cassocks, paintings of the Madonna, and Byzantine artwork. This Catholic influence is bigger than rosary beads and pendant crosses. It’s the artistic symbolization of paintings, vestments, and modesty that has influenced some of the most avant-garde designers in the industry.

Catholicism is one of the denominations in Christianity that strictly adheres to the Bible’s regard for priestly clothing. Much of what Catholic followers know about holy garments emanates from the biblical narratives of Moses and his exodus from Egypt (Tvedtnes, 1994). In the book of Exodus, the second book in the Bible, God speaks to Moses about clothing his brother, Aaron, in holy garments, “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). All throughout the descriptive Exodus narrative, you’ll find examples of what God calls priestly, holy, or beautiful garments, with descriptions as intricate as a man or woman’s jewelry. This form of dress has become known as ‘ecclesiastical dress’ or vestments—garments worn by Christian leaders during religious ceremonies and rituals (Arthur, 1994). The connection between clothing and Christianity continues to be unveiled with the recent opening of the Museum of the Bible, in Washington D.C. A display in the museum, articulating how the Bible has influenced fashion, is accompanied by a statement from Simon Ward, formerly Chief Operating Officer of the British Fashion Council, in which he states, “So much of the imagery in the Bible is about garments and clothing. God is interested in these things”.

The Psychology of Fashion and Religion Met Gala Catholicism

In addition to external adornment, Catholic cathedrals and institutions of worship boast some of the most iconic artwork in the world. From Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, “The Last Judgement”, to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, Catholic symbolism has granted the fashion industry a myriad of inspirational artistry. It’s no wonder many iconic fashion designers, who grew up Catholic, draw inspiration from its vestments and artwork so conveniently. Names like Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Gianni Versace, John Galliano, and Ricardo Tisci were all infused with Catholic traditions as children. Exposure of such artistic inspiration will come to the forefront during Vogue’s 2018 Met Gala, themed “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will beautifully display the evidence of Catholic inspiration with displays like Balenciaga’s ‘Evening Coat’ from his A/W 1954 collection, which draws inspiration from El Greco’s oil painting of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara. Gianni Versace’s interpretation of the Processional cross, designed on an evening dress in her Fall ’97 collection, will also be featured in next year’s gala. 

Lady Gaga The Psychology of Fashion Religion and Catholicism

The fashion industry has already seen a number of Catholic inspired collections, namely Jean Paul Gaultier’s SS’07 runway show, where he used haloed models wearing clothing and make-up that resembled symbolic stillness in early catholic paintings. We’ve also seen Givenchy’s F/W 2010 collection in which Riccardo Tisci used gold crown-of-thorns necklaces, finely tailored black suits, and crisp white shirts mimicking monastery ecclesiastical garments–even shirts boldly displaying “Jesus is Lord”–as sentiments to his appropriately titled “Monastery Chic” runway show. Alexander McQueen’s final Fall 2010 ready-to-wear collection interpreted catholic iconography on beautifully seamed dresses, while Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall 2013 ready-to-wear collection flourished with displays of Byzantine mosaics. 

The juxtaposition of strict Catholic structure and fashion’s affinity for creativity with no bounds is unquestionably oxymoronic. But it’s also what makes Catholicism’s influence on fashion so intriguing. What attracts designers to Catholic iconography is the beauty of its artistic tradition. The timeless paintings, modest vestments, and iconic symbols, all connect with a modern desire to create significance through artistic expression. Perhaps the majestic vestments and art of Catholicism has something to do with the “creative” God that breathed life, color, and vibrance into existence. After all, according to the Bible, God was the first fashion designer, designing the first clothing for Adam and Eve after their perilous fall (Genesis 3:21). As Ward so eloquently stated, “God is creativity…God is a designer, too”.

Fashion psychologists suggest that the link between style and mood is stronger than we think

The subjective complexion of human emotions has made distinct sensations, like “happiness”, difficult to quantify. Happiness is generally contingent upon a person’s unique perspective, perception, or preference. The way we dress can flamboyantly express our preferences, but it can also attract superfluous perceptions. When we wake up in the morning, we have a divine power that no other species on this planet has. That power is called Choice. Unless you have an occupation that issues standard uniforms, when you begin your day, you have a choice of what you can (and should) drape over your body. If you’re happy, you’ll more than likely wear something that expresses your happiness. If you’re sad, you’ll more than likely wear something that expresses the feeling of sadness. The correlation between how we dress and how we feel have raised questions in the psychology community that researchers are in the midst of passionately pursuing. If how we dress commences the feeling of happiness, is it possible that being consistently happy can affect what we choose to wear?

While fashion experts continue to capitalize on the effects of clothing, psychology experts are examining the influence that clothing has on moods. Professor Karen Pine, a leading expert in fashion psychology, confirms that the more we know about enclothed cognition and how it can lift a person’s mood, the less we will need anti-depressant medication. In a current news release published by, several Applied Psychology professionals conducted research on the link between clothing choices and emotional states.
A group of one hundred women, ranging from the ages 21 to 64 years old, participated in this informative study. The results of this study found that clothing choices such as jeans, sweatshirts, and baggier apparel, could all be associated with depressed or sad moods. Interestingly, 51% of the women in the study wore jeans when they felt sad or depressed, while only 33% of the women wore jeans when they felt happy or positive. Donna Stellhorn, a Feng Shui expert who contributed her professional thoughts on how we interact with our environment, agreed with these results.

“When we reach for jeans we want something familiar because things around us are stressful”

​​She believes that lazy attire, such as jeans or t-shirts, indicate where a person’s mental energy is focused. “When we reach for jeans we want something familiar because things around us are stressful”, Stellhorn explained. Other results of the study found that accessories, such as hats and jewelry, can also affect women’s moods. Hats in particular, on men and women, usually pinpoint a person of power. Hats warrant attention, and in some cases, it helps a person cover up an insecurity so that the person can feel confident enough to interact with other individuals. Interacting with the opposite sex has been another major point of emphasis for clothing choices as well, but limited studies have yet to secure concrete results in this area.
Although men weren’t included in this study, some results could be similar for them as well. “A separate study on men should be considered. Men are much more focused on functionality in their wardrobe than women, regardless of emotional state. So, I do think there may be some general similarities, but overall women’s results would probably be more dramatic”, explained Shauna Mackenzie Heathman, owner of Mackenzie Image Consulting.
Overall, the emphasis of the study explained fashion’s powerful ability to create a perception of happiness.  When we’re feeling happy, we generally wear clothes that have good quality, good fit, and bright colors. When we are feeling unhappy, we take the focus off of our appearance and put our mental energy on whatever is making us unhappy. While women tend to be more in tuned with their emotions, they’re more likely to express their moods through visual stimulations—a theory that adheres to how women attract men. Men’s emotional adherence to clothing tends to be associated with colors—colors make a person standout more. Dressing happy when we’re happy isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just predictable!

Being predictable, based on your mood, isn’t what fashion is about. Fashion isn’t about making the effort to “look the part”. Fashion is about being the part. Fashion is about expressing who you are, no matter what mood you’re in. Daniel Gilbert’s concept of Synthetic Happiness suggests that we have the power to manipulate what makes us happy. In other words, we can either give clothes the power to make us happy, or we can use clothing as a tool to express how we’re feeling at any given time.

​Even without designers warranting these major responsibilities, the role of creative director has evolved over the last decade. Creative directors aren’t just responsible for just the design layout with the clothing, they are also responsible for market.

Innovation propels the excessive need for a person to want to create. As humans, we take ownership of our space, time, and work because these platforms ignite our creative intuition. Creativity begets control, and control breeds ownership. In any good business you’ll find that ownership creates the demands that, in turn, creates the need for supply. What makes fashion designers so obsessed with their product is the fact that it’s their creation that’s in demand. Whether that creation is in high demand or irrelevant is up to the consumer. But, like every other creative genius, designers have a knack for wanting to control the things they can’t. The insatiable desire to control one’s creation usually leads to uncontrolled habits that cause damaging effects. Burn-out, decrease in sales, and creative differences are corollary effects of trying to fit the wrong pieces in a metaphorical “fashion puzzle”. So, has what we’ve seen in fashion, within the last few years, been designer’s genius turn control freak? Or has it been unwarranted responsibility on creative mind?

In the last three years, fashion houses have seen a copious number of impetuous shifts in creative control. Designers – creative directors – are either leaving for the opportunity to create their own brands or they’re being terminated due to a decrease in sales. A recent decision by Burberry, to strip CEO from Christopher Bailey’s list of titles, comes at a time when luxury brands are opting to return the creative director’s job to its roots; designing. According to a recent article by Business of Fashion (BOF), Burberry handed over the CEO position to Céline’s current chairman and chief executive, Marco Gobbetti, so that Bailey could focus more on the design aspect (Hoang, 2016). Bailey will resume his title as chief creative officer and president, which will allow him to oversee the creation of new products (Hoang, 2016). This news plays a contradictory antagonist to the recent announcement that Alexander Wang will absorb the role of CEO for his namesake brand. This will be Wang’s first time in this role as CEO, but according to Vogue, Wang and has been preparing for this role ever since he started his own women’s line in 2007 (Conlon, 2016). The paradigms in fashion are shifting and when the shifts take place adjustments become necessary.

​Designers are now pushing the pace of exclusiveness and originality instead of cherishing the patience that creativity demands. 

​Even without designers warranting these major responsibilities, the role of creative director has evolved over the last decade. Creative directors aren’t just responsible for clothing design, they are also responsible for marketing, store layouts, and digitalization that comes with the brand’s name. It can be argued that fashion house executives have lost touch with the creative process. An example of this is last year’s termination of Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz. Elbaz’s termination came after sources reported “creative differences” between the creative team and executives. According to a New York Times article, Elbaz and Lanvin did not have a steady designer-chief executive pairing (Friedman, 2015).

This lack of partisanship can cause a rift in any major establishment, let alone in the business of creativity. It can also be assumed that creative production in the fashion industry has been expedited due to the fast fashion movement (Joy, Sherry, Venkatesh, Wang & Chan, 2012). But, what used to make fashion so appealing – the exclusiveness and originality – has now made fashion overwhelming for designers. Designers are now pushing the pace of exclusiveness and originality instead of cherishing the patience that creativity demands. The skills necessary to operate with both a business mind and creative mind are skills that are only refined through trial and error. If a creative minds wants to assume control over all aspects of their product, they have to understand that inundation can be a grim reaper. 

In 2008, Wendy Malem conducted research that helped specify the necessary skills fashion designers needed to survive in the “business of fashion” (Malem, 2008). Included in Malem’s research was the realization that the studied fashion designers did not innately possess the necessary business skills to operate the business side of fashion (2008). Although Malem’s research was conducted in the UK (2008), her results can be relevant for most creative people. Business skills are not elusive for creative people. To make that assumption would be just as much of a fallacy as saying all creative people have mental health issues. However, it does take time and effort to learn relevant business skills (for anyone who doesn’t innately possess them). If a designer is taking on the role of creative director, chairman, and CEO, is the time and effort they’re contributing to the business side compromising their creative sustainability?  

Fashion designers are driven by their innate creativity. Their need to be creative subsumes their need to control what they create. Controlling what is created means having the power to make decisions about how your product is created, where it is created, where your product will sell, and who the product will be sold to. When these factors are included in the aspect of control you begin to understand why fashion designers are pursuing roles that would otherwise be pursued by trained business professionals.

​As someone who surrounds himself with creative people, I understand the propensity to want to control. I also understand that creativity does not limit one’s ability to be trained through systemic operation. Progression is a process that plagues ambitious individuals, so to be limited in an area that encourages growth can silence the creative minds that desire expansion. Designers require room for expansion, but when they are stymied it effects their creative process. If a designer wants to control their products and absorb more responsibility, let them. Don’t limit the minds that produce greatness when they’re allowed to roam free. I think any designer has the potential to be successful in both executive roles and creative roles (Tom Ford is a great example). However, I encourage designers to understand that control doesn’t have to correlate with excessive toiling.

Delegation can produce the same results (if not better results) as creating the work by one’s own hands. If the excessive need to want to control one’s creation isn’t tamed as it should be, we will continue to see burnout in the world’s most eclectic creative industry.