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Since the beginning, rosary beads have been a symbol of rebellion.
An early legend asserts that Saint Dominic (circa 1170 to 1221 AD), the founder of the Dominican Order, saw the Virgin Mary in a vision. According to the book Consumption and Spirituality, “In this vision, Mary exhorted Dominic to use the rosary as a spiritual weapon against the Albigensian heresy. Historically speaking, the rosary developed between the 12th and 15th centuries." Its use consisted of meditations and prayers to Christ and the Virgin.
During the 16th century, the Protestant Church considered worship of the Virgin Mary idolatry and an act of heresy. As a result, the Catholic Church “strongly supported the rosary" in order to counteract Reformation doctrine and practices. And, as Catholic missionaries spread “the word of God” throughout Mexico, the Philippines, and Central and South America, they also spread the worship of the Virgin Mary and the significance of rosary beads for prayer. To this day, Latino and Filipino people gift rosary beads as a rite of passage and as symbols of protection. It’s also common to see them wear rosaries outside of the home as representations of their spirituality.
But reinterpreting what rosaries symbolize and wearing them as an object of devotion outside of a place of worship has been a point of great controversy within the Catholic Church.
The Catholic religious document the Code of Canon Law reads: “Sacred objects, which are designated for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated reverently and are not to be employed for profane or inappropriate use even if they are owned by private persons.” So, to more conservative members of the Catholic Church, wearing rosary beads as a fashion object removes the rosary’s sacredness and transforms the object from sacrament to fashion accessory.
However, how to define what wearing a rosary for “profane or inappropriate use” means is up for interpretation, especially if the person is Catholic and wearing it as an expression of faith.
Mark Miller is a Catholic theologian and an associate professor of systematic theology at the University of San Francisco. “I’m totally not against people wearing rosaries for fashion,” he says. “I don’t know that I would quite go so far as to say it’s heretical. But the [type of] heresy [it’s related to] is called pelagianism. It’s named after Pelagius, who was born around 360 AD... Pelagianism is connected to wearing the rosary or doing various other things for protection. And the thought is that you have a certain type of control over grace; a kind of control over God. It makes grace no longer a free gift, which it is supposed to be.”
So, the intention behind wearing a rosary is directly related to whether or not it is viewed as heresy by practicing Catholics.
But wearing a rosary as a fashion statement is often a hybrid of religious homage and a symbol of personal selfhood.
One of the earliest moments when rosaries appeared in the popular fashion consciousness happened in ’30s and ’40s Los Angeles. Chicano youth, known as pachucas and pachucos, wore rosary beads in part to proudly highlight their Hispanic heritage. The American-born sons and daughters of Mexican migrants began to form their own identity, one that was emphatically separate from white Protestant America. Men wore a flamboyant style of draped pants, colorful shirts, and loud suspenders, often paired with black or wood rosaries. Women would often wear fishnet stockings, flowers in their hair, and fitted skirts that responded to the hyperfemininity of the time. The style was popularized by the play and film Zoot Suit, which was about the East LA Zoot Suit Riots.
Pachucos were victims of systemic racism and segregation by white America, and were often considered “not really Mexican” by their first-generation Mexican-American peers, so wearing rosary beads connected them to their past while also helping them adopt a new language and style. This style evolved into cholo and chola culture in the ’60s, which borrowed many aspects of pachuco fashion, reinterpreting it as a more tomboy, lowrider, and pin-up aesthetic. In some cases, rosaries also signified gang affiliation, with beads of different colors representing the different gangs that members belonged to. In others, the rosary was worn as a symbol of protection and reflection of Latinidad.
In the late ’70s, rosaries made an appearance in both goth and punk subcultures. Goths and punks often wore rosary beads as a rejection of conservatism, and sometimes as a way to critique the stranglehold that puritanical values held on American and British culture. Early goth and punk figures who wore rosaries as fashion and used them in their video imagery include Christian Death’s frontman Rozz Williams, members of Bauhaus, and Depeche Mode.
“Although there is no overarching religion for goth culture, many are drawn to imagery of the sacred — be that early-medieval artworks, Mexican Day of the Dead altars, Celtic crosses, etc.,” says Liisa Ladouceur, author of Encyclopedia Gothica and creator of the video “40 Years of Goth Style.” “These things are ‘memento mori’ as much as anything. Catholic imagery in particular is appealing because of its overly dramatic beauty — the rosary is not an austere item of worship; it's also intricate, and a pleasure to see and to touch. So apart from the convenience of finding them plentiful and cheap in thrift stores, especially in the early ’80s, before goth-branded merchandise was widely available, I can see why so many goths are drawn to wearing them.”
Pachuco, goth, and punk all embraced wearing rosary beads as fashion. But the notion did not enter the mainstream until the early ’80s.
In 1984, Madonna wore rosaries in her “Like a Virgin” video. She has described her relationship to them as a “security blanket”: They symbolize the Catholicism that she grew up with and became part of her religious branding. All aspects of Catholicism were incorporated into her act, from her name to her album title (Like a Virgin) to her pursuit of icon status.
"She was the first to use mainstream culture and be visible through videos with rosaries,” says Diego Rinallo, a professor of marketing at Kedge Business School and co-author of Consumption and Spirituality. “Madonna was transgressive… She normalized wearing the rosary outside of a religious statement. It was a disruption, moving something from the religious world and putting it into a profane moment of fashion.”
Many fashion historians credit Madonna with not only popularizing rosaries, but also sparking fashion’s interest in playing with religious imagery and iconography.
Fashion photographer Shawn Griffin wrote his thesis, The Church of Fashion, on the intersection of religion and fashion. He studied the ways that fashion designers, marketers, and photographers have employed imagery in fashion that mirrors Enlightenment-era religious iconography. In Griffin’s opinion, religious imagery in the fashion world today ranges from models posing like saints to clothing draped in a way reminiscent of religious art to the use of rosaries and crosses as adornment. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s,” he says, “[the rosary fashion trend] really started with the Immaculate album with Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier [who designed her looks]. That’s when you saw [rosary beads] reaching into high fashion.”
Then, in the 2000s, Dolce & Gabbana and Alexander McQueen both featured rosaries on their runways. Rinallo believes that Dolce & Gabbana’s use of rosary beads was a landmark moment in fashion, especially because of the significance of two gay Italian designers designing rosaries against a predominantly Catholic backdrop.
“Dolce & Gabbana created a moment for religious consumers to show off their religion without offending people,” Rinallo says. With the release of D&G’s rosaries, he explains, both religious and nonreligious people felt free to wear a sacred item for aesthetic pleasure. And at the same time, D&G’s rosaries became a symbol of identity for Catholics who once hid their religion. With the popularity of fashion rosaries, believers were comfortable wearing them in public.
The history of wearing rosary beads for fashion has often gone against convention. An item once thought of as transgressive by the Protestant Church is now a symbol that signifies transgressions in fashion. It has never been “sanctioned” by the church, but many who wear the sacraments of the cross never needed their faith, way of practicing, or existence to be sanctioned anyway.