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Photo: Peter White/Getty
Photo: Peter White/Getty

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Why I'm Okay With Fashion Shows in Churches

As a Catholic, I think fashion and faith make for intriguing bedfellows

When I first heard that Gucci would be showing its next cruise collection in London’s historic Westminster Abbey, I was confused, to say the least. After all, the relationship between fashion and religion has always been fraught with twists and turns.

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Crosses, hijabs, and the Virgin Mary have all made their way down the runway at one point or another, causing outrage from high-ranking religious members across the globe. One reverend branded the recent Gucci revelation as "Disneyfication," telling The Independent that "we are in the process of selling our soul for a pair of trousers."

It's clear that fashion loves to capitalize on all things sacred. The question is, Is religion now returning the favor?

Christianity, at least, appears to have forgiven the industry for its past discretions. Instead of refusing to acknowledge designers' requests, churches are inviting them in. And it's not just the safe brands either.

Alexander Wang's latest runway show took place in Manhattan's impressive St. Bartholomew's church. Yet his collection couldn't have been further from holy. Racy outfits consisting of sheer tops with the word "strict" covering models' chests and severe mini skirts made for an obvious juxtaposition. Then there were the marijuana-leaf and exotic-dancer prints. I have to wonder, did the clergy have any idea what they were in for when they let these designers in?

Fashion loves to capitalize on all things sacred. Is religion now returning the favor?

I'm all for freedom (especially in the way we dress), but as someone who was raised Catholic, I can't help but wonder if religion is willing to forgo its moral codes for some extra cash. Growing up, I was taught that church was a place reserved for respect and silence, not flashing cameras and half-naked girls stomping to the beat of a heavy track. My friends and I wouldn't dare to stand out from the crowd, no matter how much some of us longed for a bit of excitement. Even now, on the rare occasions that I enter a church, I'll leave my loud jackets and see-through shirts at home. Conformity is the key to success, or so your childhood teachers would have you believe.

But in a weird way, maybe the worlds of religion and fashion aren't so distant. Their similarities are best seen in a four-hour-long 2013 German documentary called Mode als Religion, starring self-proclaimed "fashion missionary" Karl Lagerfeld. It's rife with comparisons: Fashion magazines are the equivalent of the Bible, models are angels sent down from above, and trend-followers are no more than religious fanatics keen to stick to every rule (or look). Jokes aside, documentary-maker Martina Neuen found fashion's love of symbols and close community to be strikingly similar to that of religion's.

Karl Marx once said that "religion is the opium of the people." Just like fashion, people use their faith to escape everyday life. And like religion, which can be used to place restrictions on bodies, behaviors, or beliefs, fashion can be used as a means of control, determining how we are perceived by others, and whether we fit in. Even A$AP Rocky combined the two in this quote for the ages: "Fashion is almost like a religion. It's subconscious."

It may or may not come as a surprise to some that Christianity has been adhering to that very saying for centuries. For a member of the clergy, what you wear defines who you are. It defines your status. Just look at Catholicism. The Pope always wears white and is the only person allowed to wear expensive watered silk. Priests stick to black, with brighter colors reserved for special ceremonies. The clergy all wear loose robes, a genderless style that hides the body and one that hasn't changed since the sixth century. It's become a longstanding uniform, just like Karl Lagerfeld's high-necked suit-and-gloves combo or Anna Wintour's bob and sunglasses.

Another quality that these two communities share is their love of the grandiose. From ornate accessories to luxury fabrics, both fashion and religion adore wealth. This is where controversy hits.

Just like fashion, people use their faith to escape everyday life.

The symbol of the cross came way before Christianity but has since become its biggest icon. Similarly, using a crucifix has become de rigueur for both high fashion and the high street, much to the chagrin of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his book Looking Through The Cross, he shoots back at all the designers using crosses in the name of beauty, writing, "A cross that has no weight is not worth carrying. For those early Christians, it was a badge of shame. As a friend of mine once said, you might as well hang a tiny golden gallows or an electric chair around your neck."

Designers who err on the wrong side of divine inspiration are branded blasphemous. It's a title Dolce & Gabbana know only too well. Religious iconography has played a huge part in almost all of the duo's collections since their start in 1985. Taking inspiration from mosaics, the original Madonna, and their Sicilian upbringing, Domenico and Stefano have churned out saintly shows full of gold crowns and crosses. The pair also recently branched out into new religious territories with a collection of hijabs and abayas for their Muslim clientele.

Is pulling inspiration from your own culture really that offensive? Riccardo Tisci doesn't think so. Givenchy's creative director, an Italian who grew up surrounded by devout Catholics, told WWD about his upbringing, which may have sparked the ecclesiastical feel of some of his designs, including his 2013 Virgin Mary T-shirts: "When I grew up, I was scared of [religion], and then my fear became love, and then hope, and then it became an obsession. Religion has been a big part of my life. At the end, it is true that Italians have this in their blood."

That statement is certainly true. Gianni Versace, another great Italian designer, was among the first to prove that religion can and will sell just as well as sex. His designs included cross-covered silk shirts, stained-glass-window prints, and denim featuring medieval illustrations of saintly icons. In 2002, the Versace label even attempted to buy fabric woven by nuns and traditionally used to make priests' robes. Male members of the church gave their blessing. Interestingly, the nuns didn't. Despite this, the house did come under fire for a different design bearing the slogan "the devil made me do it," eventually removing it from the Italian market altogether.

Maybe religion is finally hearing the line it's been preaching for centuries: Forgiveness is everything.

If risqué designs don't upset the Catholic church, fashion campaigns that harness religious imagery certainly will. Several brands have stirred up controversy with sexualized (and sacrilegious) adverts. Fitness company Equinox is known for its provocative marketing. Its 2008 ad campaign portrayed a group of nuns intently sketching a very naked man. The church wasn't amused, calling it a "perverse obsession" and accusing the entire fashion industry of "exploiting and mocking Catholic religious imagery."

Similarly, religious leaders weren't too happy with Benetton's 2011 "Unhate" campaign, which featured a Photoshopped image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing a prominent Egyptian imam. According to a Vatican spokesperson, it showed "a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offense to the feelings of believers, [and] a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people." They got their way: Benetton agreed to remove the image from its campaign.

Anything that riffs on sacred images won't go down well with religion, which is why a certain two designers have encountered criticism time and time again. Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (both worthy candidates of fashion's enfant terrible title) religiously cooked up provocative designs ranging from McQueen's fall 1996 Jesus-esque "crown of thorns" headpiece to Galliano's spring 2001 styling of models as a Biblical football team.

As most of us know, Galliano's fall from grace began and ended with religion. After an anti-Semitic rant got him fired from Dior, his career looked to be over. But where fashion was stubborn, religion was quick to forgive, with the Jewish community welcoming Galliano in with open arms. And McQueen's last collection focused heavily on the beauty of religion, pushing angels and demons together in a celebration of Byzantine opulence, complete with respectful head coverings.

Looking back, perhaps it's Gucci and Wang's lack of religious connotation that has prompted the church to let them in. Or maybe religion is finally hearing the line it's been preaching for centuries: Forgiveness is everything. I, for one, am only too happy that the church is stepping into a new age. Even though fashion and faith may sound like a strange combination, it's about time people saw that religion isn't the be-all and end-all. That it's OK to have fun while still believing in a higher power. Whichever way this goes, let's hope this is the start of a truly modern romance.

Lauren Sharkey is a fashion and culture writer whose work has been published by Wonderland, The Debrief, and The Huffington Post.


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