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”.
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.
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”.