Religion hypnotizes. Religion seduces. Religion fascinates. Religion absorbs. Religion is powerful. Religion is nostalgic. Religion is sacred.
If divinities could speak, what would be the impact on the way we dress? Is the dress a career of specific religious orders? Well… to say the least, religion offers eclectic choices for the fashion industry.
Ahead of the Costume Institute of Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition – “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, which is set to portray the dialogue between fashion and Catholicism, we offer an entrée into the complex maze of religion, culture and fashion.
Though this monumental exploration of Catholicism in fashion has been endorsed by the Vatican with 50 garments and accessories on loan from the city itself, which are set to be be displayed next to religious art and 150 Catholic-inspired designer pieces, this exhibition is set to be theatrical, provocative and in some manners controversial. The display of these overwhelming ecclesiastical pieces will emphasize the continuing influence of religion and liturgical vestments on fashion, from Cristóbal Balenciaga and Elsa Schiaparelli to Valentino and Donatella Versace who at the same time is this year’s sponsor of the show. Among the 150 religiously infused ensembles that will be on display will be pieces by Coco Chanel, who was educated by nuns, and John Galliano, whose scandalous Fall-Winter 2000/2001 Couture collection for Christian Dior opened with a pope-like figure wearing a miter who proceeded down the runway to a voice intoning: “Understand the concept of love.”
Religion has always had a significant influence on society, culture and fashion. There were moments in history when the ecclesiastical would dictate on almost every aspect of the individual’s life. The Catholic sacred dress traditions are constructed out of intricate and changeful relationships between personality, Church and the world, emphasized in “by their dress shall ye know them.” In this line, religion has a monumental impact on the fashion industry and sculpts an unbreakable bond between designers, devotion and divinity. The Costume Institute curator in charge Andrew Bolton expressed: “Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another, although this relationship has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion.”
Vatican seismic shift towards liberal-modern has had an impact on the sacred dress. The dress has been a powerful agent for social and cultural change, and a main ‘protagonist’ in the creation of the shared vocabulary for identity expression.
In the battle of saints vs. sinners the designers have incorporated religion into the dress with overt references to divinities and delicate depictions of devotional practices and traditions. The devoted fashion industry has ‘paid homage’ to religion by staging shows in churches, repurposing religious iconography or even taking inspiration from nuns.
The synergy between fashion and religion could not be discussed without Alexander McQueen ‘reinventing the crucifix’ Fall-Winter 1996/1997 collection entitled “Dante”, Jean Paul Gaultier Fall-Winter 1993/1994 collection “Chic Rabbis” or the Atelier Versace Fall-Winter 1997/1998 featuring the epic Gianni Versace’s molten gold dress embroidered with a Byzantine cross.
The attempt to grasp the complex nuances of the intersection of faith and fashion is clearly represented in numerous 21st century collections. Karl Lagerfeld was inspired by the mosaics in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo for Chanel Pre-Fall 2011, Jean Paul Gaultier Couture Spring 2007 transformed the models into angels by attributing decorative halos, Riccardo Tisci was inspired by nuns for Givenchy Spring 2013, A.F. Vandevorst infused the same incentive in Spring 2007 and later on Thom Browne in his Fall 2014 collection. Dolce & Gabbana Fall-Winter 2013 featured dresses printed with Byzantine and Venetian mosaic, and in their Naples 2016 alta moda collection they revealed the dress inspired by the golden miter of the patron Saint of Naples – San Gennaro studded with 3964 precious stones made in 1713 which is considered as one of the most precious jewels in the world. Other collections that intensely display this inspiration are the monumental Guo Pei Haute Couture Spring 2017 titled “Legend”, John Galliano for Christian Dior Spring 2006 Couture where models came out with crucifix-festooned necks or Valentino Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2017 where Pierpaolo Piccioli drew inspiration from the religious work of the Spanish painter Francisco di Zurbaràn.
In many occasions fashion’s literal or figural interpretation of religious symbols or meanings can result in controversies or sometimes it can even cause rebelliousness.
In the 1960’s, the British stylist Mary Quant, dared to fight the impact that the Catholic church had on the dress and appearance, inventing the mini skirt and it was an immense shock for the church. Nevertheless, she received the Order of the British Empire medal from Queen Elizabeth II for having designed the most popular skirt which put London in the forefront of fashion. In 1994 for the Chanel Haute Couture show Karl Lagerfeld mistakenly used sacred passages from the Quran, thinking it was a love poem, as decoration on three dresses which immediately provoked outrage and protests among the Islamic community. Later on, he issued an apology and destroyed the offending garments.
Fashion collusion with the Catholic imagination at the Met Gala tonight and during the Costume Institute’s exhibition proposes many discussions. Is it going to be the most controversial theme ever or a milieu for reconciliation, or maybe a window for unveiling the interplay of other religions and fashion in the years to come?
Well… only if divinities could speak.