Previous posts on this site analysed every now and then the connection between fashion and religion, two rather different things that throughout history found themselves linked together.
While the Catholic Church often used its pomp and fast or its connections with certain designers (remember Jean Charles de Castelbajac designing the vestments for the 1997 Paris World Youth Day, Italian fashion designer Nanni Strada creating an architectural chasuble in 2005 or Giorgio Armani donating a while back the ecclesiastical vestments for the opening of the parvis of the new church on the island of Pantelleria?) to project an aura of power on people, creative minds quite often took inspiration from certain religious symbols and themes for fashion collections, photo shoots, presentations or music gigs. Besides, it is not rare for the semantic field of religion to be employed in fashion with designers being considered as prophets, while certain magazines are dubbed as fashion's "Bible", and style is the one and only virtue, replacing the teleological virtues of faith, hope and love.
Karl Lagerfeld even called himself a "fashion missionary" and talked about fashionable Popes declaring Pius XII (who was definitely more interested in the looks than in the message...) was chic in a soon to be broadcast German documentary that compares fashion to religion, entitled "Mode Als Religion". According to a piece published a while back on WWD, the author of the documentary, Martina Neuen, even spoke to a neurologist proving that the emotional reactions of the brains of a Catholic priest and a fashionista are the same when facing their own "religions".
Even the Autumn/Winter 2013 collections present some images borrowed from religion and when they were showcased in February in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, they seemed extremely fashionable.
In the last few weeks Pope Francis also developed the habit of picking the phone and calling people who write him letters as if they were old friends.
In a way, it is as if fashion showing connections with the most ostentatious side of religion is suddenly unfashionable. Think about it: while a Pope rejects the pomp and decides to chat with ordinary people, fashion designers - still terribly unreachable and quite often pretentious - turn once again to specific religious symbols to echo untrendy visions of splendour and magnificence.
A few examples? Dolce & Gabbana's Autumn/Winter 2013-14 women's ready-to-wear collection includes richly embroidered dresses (some of them in cardinal red, others in gold to evoke the richness of chalices and icons) featuring images of mosaics lifted from Sicily's Cathedral of Monreale, that can be accessorised with golden crowns, cross earrings, branded rosary necklaces, or with a bag named after Agata, Patron Saint of Catania.
If you can afford it, you may even opt for D&G's Spring/Summer 13 high fashion collection that includes a golden wedding outfit complete with crown and veil that perfectly reproduces the attire of certain statues of the Virgin Mary in a more blasphemous key than Christian Lacroix's "bride Vs religion icon" design that closed his Haute Couture 2009-2010 fashion show (View this photo).
Fashionistas who want to comment on the excesses of Catholicism, can also opt for Sarah Burton's Autumn 2013 collection for Alexander McQueen, with its punk representation of nuns, cardinals, and popes, while for those who want to go for more colours and less pomp there is Karla Spetic's collection with a series of dresses, tops and skirts featuring prints of the placid face of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
There are obviously enough religion-themed garments also for what regards menswear: Riccardo Tisci delved once again into the depths of his Catholic education for his S/S 2013 menswear collection for Givenchy that included images of the Virgin Mary sampled from William Adolphe Bouguereau's paintings "The seated Madonna", "The Madonna of the Roses" and "The Madonna of the Lilies" remixed with images of a beheaded Baby Jesus (again from Bouguereau's "The seated Madonna") or with parts of Bouguereau's "Pietà" (Tisci has taken to extremely silly levels his fake obsession with the Catholic religion, including in previous collections designs that called to mind First Communion dresses and priest's vestments, or coming up with more "arty meditations" on the same theme such as a picture with Marina Abramović portrayed breastfeeding him in a Pietà kind of pose...).
Those who prefer the more classic Fellini-esque obsession with Catholicism à la Roma will find enough inspirations in D&G's Autumn/Winter 2013-14 menswear collection featuring tops with prints of images of assorted saints, of Our Lady of Fatima and the three shepherd children; shirts with priests on bicycles, scarves that look like clergy stoles and, for the evening, lace jackets that seem to reproduce the intricacies of fine sacramental linens.
But the list of exchanges between fashion and religion is actually pretty long and goes back to the late '30s when Elsa Schiaparelli borrowed the symbols of the Vatican flag and embroidered Saint Peter’s keys on an evening suit launching the "Celestial Line"; twenty years later, the Sorelle Fontana created the "pretino" dress (literally "little priest dress").
"The little priest dress was created in 1956," remembers Micol Fontana, "it was the result of a sort of combination between creativity, friendship with Ava Gardner and respect for the religious institutions. My sisters and I - all faithful practicing Catholics - asked the authorities the permission to design the dress and the Vatican approved it. Their positive answer filled us with pride and gratitude."
Voluptuous Anita Ekberg donned a similar version of the "pretino" in Fellini's film La Dolce Vita, disturbing the bourgeois consciences of the self-righteous (Krizia recreated two models of the same dress in the '90s; and a fake "pretino" was also donned by Victoire de Castellane as Anita Ekberg in a Pitti installation by Olympia Le Tan) but it was only in the '80s that the religious theme became a folkloristic product of consumption and that the secular and the mundane were invested with a sacred aura.
There were hints at religion in a photoshoot by Helmut Newton for Vogue Italia in December 1983 (featuring jewellery by Prada/Ugo Correani), a shoot that anticipated the less original one styled by Maurizio Cattelan and featuring supermodel Linda Evengelista for W’s Art Issue (November 2009 - View this photo).
Thierry Mugler's fashion show for his Autumn/Winter 1984-85 collection featured nuns, cherubs, a Madonna and Child (View this photo); Hasidic Jews, the crucified Christ, the bleeding Sacred Heart, ex-votos and the Communion chalice, often reappeared here and there in Jean Paul Gaultier's collections (among them also in the Spring/Summer 2007 Haute Couture collection).
The Patron Designer of the "Kitsch and Shock", Gianni Versace, was among the first ones to tangibly prove that, if sex sells, so does religion: some of his sensual creations from the early '90s featured monumental crosses and icons of the Virgin and Child, elements inspired by the opulent and gilded Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. Icons and crosses also characterised Versace's screen-printed twill scarves and the Greek cross motif came back a few years later in Versace’s glamorous gold evening gowns.
Before Versace, Chanel and Balenciaga were inspired by the opulence of Byzantium, a theme Karl Lagerfeld explored again in Chanel’s Pre-Fall 2011 collection, borrowing ideas for his designs from the mosaics in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo; ten years before that, John Galliano's show for Dior's Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2001 collection was opened and closed by a cleric wearing a gown with embroideries by Lesage.
Pop star Madonna appropriated religious imagery into her music and her lifestyle since the '80s, appearing in her videos and on stage wearing rosary beads and crosses as necklaces, sparking a huge debate when in the video for "Like a Prayer" a Holy apparition manifested to the singer, or when she sung crucified on stage during her tours.
As the years passed we grew so accustomed to seeing religion entering fashion and pop culture that not many people criticised models wearing luxurious bags covered in Miraculous Medals or gold and silver heart-shaped ex-votos pinned at the waist (Dolce & Gabbana’s Autumn/Winter 2010-11 collection) or questioned Anna Dello Russo cavorting outside a fashion show in a D&G black cloak with golden floral embroideries (Autumn/Winter 2012-13 collection) that simply replicated the traditional dress donned by statues of Our Lady of Sorrows.
For the Autumn/Winter 2011-12 season Cantarelli did an advert showing a painting of a crucified Christ dressed in a trendy sharply cut suit accompanied by the slogan "Devoti allo stile" ("Devoted to Style") that bizarrelly seemed to offend more the members of the right wing party in Italy than devout Catholics.
Many designers find the pomp-and-circumstance of the Church, the craftsmanship behind the rich vestments, and the beauty of some icons and statues incredibly inspiring. But there is one main reason why fashion designers love using religion as inspiration: on the surface you may think they are trying to be extremely controversial, but the truth is that copying religious paintings and imagery is copyright free. It is indeed very unlikely to end up in court for copyright infringement if you reproduce in your design a dress donned by a statue of the Virgin Mary.
In fact, you could argue that, employed by fashion, religion does not turn into an object of profane consumption because, in most cases, there is no meaning attached to these images. Critics, sociologists or researchers may tell you the key to understand the fashion and religion connection stands in the object, in the garment or accessory that becomes “sacred”, or in the designer or the model who becomes a religious icon, an untouchable and unreachable saint and so on, but the sad truth is that these symbols are not used in provocation or to find holiness in a wardrobe, they are essentially employed to save money.
Yet not all designers could be considered as exploitative: in 1992 the late swimwear designer Lea Gottlieb created a collection entitled "Jerusalem of Gold". The title of the collection - which was not meant to be sold - referred to a gold jewel (believed to be a necklace) that Rabbi Akiva gave his devoted wife Rachel as a sign of his love and appreciation.
The collection was indeed characterised by bejewelled garments and pieces decorated with Jewish symbols including the Star of David, the Menorah, and the priestly breastplate (Hoshen) inlaid with twelve gems in twelve squares representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
After Gottlieb's death, some garments from the collection were found in her bedroom drawers folded in silk paper with a Siddur (prayer book) besides them.
Ayala Raz, curator of the exhibition "Lady of the Dasies", that a few months ago homaged Lea Gottlieb at Design Museum Holon, states: "As far as I know there was never any objection for using these Symbols; on the contrary, she was mostly respected for using Jewish sources of inspiration, while representing Israel abroad".
Genet originally wrote it to attack the Church (apparently the writer was also inspired by the frequent apparitions of Pius XII in the papal chair - note the contrast: Genet wrote a vitriolic play inspired by Pius XII; Lagerfeld thinks the same pope was chic and stylish...), but the play also touched upon many modern obsessions including celebrity and the power of the image. At a certain point in the play, The Pope wonders if, when a man kneels at his foot, he venerates the foot or if it's the act of kneeling that is significant.
In the Pope's dilemma there is the key to understand the way modern fashion uses religious imagery: the fashion industry doesn't even refer to the pomp and circumstance and the apparatus around religion when it employs religious images, it doesn't criticises its links with the state, with politics or power, but very simply "venerates the foot", hoping that, in return, fashionistas will very simply keep on revering, venerating and - possibly - buying and wearing what it produces.
The above post was the background research for a longer piece written a while back for another publication. Contacted through their PR agents, the following houses - Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier - refused to provide feedback about fashion and religion (in some cases the PR agents were more scared than the actual designers), proving there is not much controversy in fashion, while there is a lot of money and fear of losing buyers.
Image 14 in this post: Attributed to Balenciaga (circa 1960s), France; designer: Lina Baretti. Cross pendant. Simulated pearls, glass cabochons, velvet, gilt trim.© Pablo Esteva.
Images 15, 16 and 17 in this post: "Jerusalem of Gold" Collection by Lea Gottlieb, "Lady Of the Daisies" exhibition, Design Museum Holon. Photo by Keren Lachman.Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
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