Fashion & Religion: They Have ‘Met’ Their Match!

Cheia De Graca
Vogue Brasil February 2013
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Ever since WWD reported that ‘fashion and religion’ would be the theme of next year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition (specifically, “the relationship between designers, devotion and divinity”), my mind has been flooded with innumerable images. Sacred or profane? Well, nothing’s sacred these days and in my opinion, this could not come at a better time since religion is such a hot button, potentially divisive, delicate topic. But really, with everything that is going on in the world right now, political correctness seems like such a bore. In any event, it certainly has the makings of one very interesting exhibit. What can’t be denied is that there has been an ongoing connection between fashion and religion through the ages.

Portrait of Alessandro Michele
Photo: Pari Dukovic for GQ Magazine

There are those who equate great fashion moments with having a ‘religious’ experience, many designers are worshipped by their ‘disciples’ (I mean followers), and have reached cult like status. Is it any wonder that they start believing they are the ‘Second Coming’? A few (Alessandro Michele), thanks to their lanky frames and long dark hair and beards, even resemble Jesus. And while I can’t recall any that look like Moses, this iconic biblical name was the one the late Oscar de la Renta chose for his adopted son.

Photo: Harry Benson

There have even been fashion labels with irreverently religious names. Case in point, Matthew Damhave and Tara Subkoff’s ‘Imitation of Christ’. It launched in 2007 with a fashion show held at a Lower East Side funeral parlor and had Chloe Sevigny as its creative director. But even The Savior could not save the now defunct company.(In 2007, Subkoff sold the brand, but re-adopted it under the shortened title Imitation in 2012). As a young fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, I still remember entering Halston’s legendary, overwhelmingly stark, fabulous atelier high up at the famed Olympic Tower; all mirrors and windows. Halston was not only an imposing, larger than life figure; he seemed other worldly, if not godly. This was even more exaggerated to me given the fact that when I looked out of his office window, the clouds, the sky, and the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral stared right back at me.

Thom Browne Fall/Winter 2014 ready-to-wear

The Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge Andrew Bolton has admitted that he is very influenced by his partner, fashion designer Thom Browne (and visa versa), and the two admittedly feed off one another creatively. Mr. Browne, a middle child of seven from a strict Roman Catholic household, has been continually influenced by his religious upbringing (among other things) and in February 2014, he staged his fall ready-to-wear show in a Chelsea art gallery which was transformed into a gigantic church.

Alexander Wang Fall/Winter ready-to-wear 2016

Among others who have used religious houses of worship to stage runway shows are Alexander Wang (the very grand St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue was his venue of choice for Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear) and Miguel Adrover whose Spring/Summer 2000 fashion show was held in a former synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Zoran black silk dress

The 1990’s were marked by austere minimalism and many designs (which were predominantly black) took their cues from monastic robes. This was exemplified by Zoran’s indescribably plain one size fits all togs which were made of expensive fabrics and resembled a luxurious uniform. Fashion editors grabbed onto this look and at fashion shows, it was a veritable sea of minimal black. This prompted Michael Coady, the former CEO of Fairchild Publications and former Editor-in-Chief of WWD, to coin the term, “fashion nuns”.

Rick Owens Fall/Winter 2009 ready-to-wear

‘Nun’ the less (wink wink), nun’s habits seem to serve as ongoing fashion inspiration. Rick Owens said that Egyptian beauty was the jumping off point for his Spring/Summer 2009 ready-to-wear collection, but while his models may have been dressed like Pharaoh’s daughters, they looked like chic nuns to me.

POP Magazine  “Hot Nuns”

The fall 2008 issue of POP magazine was emblazoned with the cover lines, “Hot Nuns” and taking a page from Vogue Italia, they ran six dramatic overs split between three black models and three white models: Naomi Campbell, Agyness Deyn, Jourdan Dunn, Natalia Vodianova, Amber Valletta, and Oluchi Onweagba. Agnyess was a standout as a “punk spunk” sexed-up nun in Prada see through lace.

Jean Paul Gaultier Spring 2007 haute couture

Many designers have even sought to make their collections a truly religious experience, some more campy and out there than others. Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring/Summer 2007 haute couture collection, shown during Paris Couture Week, borrowed heavily from art and religion. The gowns, headgear, shoes (and even the hair and makeup) were an obvious homage to the Virgin Mary and religious art. The entire collection had a byzantine feel and halos around the models recalled early depictions of Christian art (“Madonna and Child”) in stained glass windows and paintings. Some of the fabrics mimicked stained glass.

Dolce & Gabbana Alta-Moda Fall/Winter 2016 collection

It’s almost impossible to think of Dolce & Gabbana without thinking about Naples, Sicily and the Catholic religion. It was hardly a stretch that for their Fall/Winter 2013 ready-to-wear collection, the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana found inspiration in a centuries-old Sicilian church. They referenced the Cathedral of Monreale’s beautiful Byzantine and Venetian mosaics, showed a grouping in cardinal red, and accessorized with rosaries. For their fall 2016 Alta Moda collection, there were also sumptuous, overt references to Christian iconography.

Jeremy Scott Fall/Winter 2017 ready-to-wear

Jeremy Scott used the image of Jesus Christ to serve as a warning about the dangers of idol/celebrity worship for his Fall/Winter 2017 show.

Valentino Fall 2017 haute couture

A far more subtle (and elegant example) could be found in the Valentino 2017 haute couture show, held this past July. The Valentino atelier just happens to be located in Rome, not far from the Vatican, and the creative director Pierpaolo Picciolo has admitted that the church serves as inspiration. This was evident in the group of austere and beautifully crafted hooded robes and capes, that mimicked those of priests. He even accessorized with hammered metal bags with enamel mosaic details shaped like animal heads, evoking the seven deadly sins.

Cheia De Graca Vogue Brasil February 2013

Fashion and religion have also collided in notable fashion magazine layouts. One truly memorable example (and proof that fashion has a religious like influence on its loyal followers) was the controversial couture portfolio ‘Cheia De Graca’ which appeared in Vogue Brasil’s February 2013 issue. It was styled by Vogue Japan editor-at-large Anna Dello Russo and photographed by Giampaolo Sgura. The model, Izabel Goulart, channeled a woman of God wearing a series of accessorized to the hilt, ornate, highly embellished ensembles by Valentino, Balenciaga, Prada, etc., all with a religious undertone, ranging from traditional priest’s attire to various nuns’ uniforms.

Vogue Cover November 1988
Photo Peter Lindbergh

Anna Wintour’s first cover for Vogue, November 1988, was photographed by Peter Lindbergh and styled by Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele. It featured Israeli model Michaela wearing an haute couture Christian Lacroix jacket emblazoned with a prominent beaded cross, paired with stonewashed Guess jeans. As the story goes, the jacket was part of a suit but the skirt didn’t fit Michaela, so she resorted to pairing it with her own stonewashed jeans which perfectly downplayed the luxury of the jacket. Meanwhile, the irony that the model wearing the cross was Israeli, was not lost on me. FYI, I am Jewish and I have been known to wear Maltese crosses. I see them as beautiful objects rather than religious totems.

Jean Paul Gaultier ‘Chic Rabbi’s’ 1993  collection

But it’s obviously not just about Christian iconography; all religions have had their ‘moment’. Orthodox Jews have served as inspiration for editorial spreads (such as the one that appeared in L’Officiel Paris, 2012) and there have been many examples where the Hasidim have suddenly found themselves to be ‘on trend’, complete with synagogue worthy hats and payos. At the top of this list is Jean Paul Gaultier’s ‘Chic Rabbis’ collection in the fall of 1993, Paris, which was unsurprisingly controversial and met with a firestorm of criticism. But when asked what his motivation was, the designer went on record saying that in no uncertain terms was it meant to be a joke or a slight and that it was an homage to the beauty of their uniforms. As he put it “I was shocked by the beauty of them going out of the library. To see all those Hasidic people coming out with their costumes like that, I think how strong it was, how strong you can be and not to have to try to escape. It is beautiful to be what you are.”

Buddhist monks chant at Prabal Gurung’s Spring/Summer 2016 ready-to-wear

Other examples include Russian designer St. Bessarion’s Orthodox Jew inspired collection during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia in Moscow, 2011; Ricardo Seco’s 2013 Orthodox Hip “Alive” collection; Gunhyo Kim’s “Hot Hasidim” 2008 collection; Alexandre Herchcovitch’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection (FYI, the Brazilian born designer is an Orthodox Jew). Following on the heels of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25, 2015, Nepalese designer Prabal Gurung, who was at the time working on his spring 2016 collection, was compelled to show the world a glimpse of what Nepal meant to him. So he opened his Sunday evening runway show during NYFW with a group of chanting Buddhist monks clad in traditional marigold and rust robes and the clothes that followed mimicked the color palette of their robes (he remarked that he always takes refuge in a juniper filled monastery when he visits his homeland). Some were hand painted with prints from Nepal-born, Indian based artist Laxman Shrestha.

Anniesa Hasibuan Spring/Summer 2017 ready-to-wear

Anniesa Hasibuan and Hakan Akkaya (both Muslim designers) incorporated traditional Muslim headwear in their collections which were shown during NYFW this past February. Anniesa Hasibuan, the first designer to show all Hijabi models on the runway, used a lineup of models who were immigrants, green card holders, and 1st/2nd generation Americans. The show was an opportunity to show that Islam is beautiful, she said. “Not all immigrants are bad and we’ve proved that they are beautiful and a great contribution to the United States”. Hakan Akkaya incorporated his take on a burka; one male and one female to push gender norms and further his theme of freedom in reference to religion, sexuality, and race.

Lady Gaga infamously wore a pink burqa to promote her album
Photo: Getty Images

When Lady Gaga chose to wear a neon pink burqa and face veil during a performance of her tune ‘Burqa’ back in 2013, many were outraged and it was met with much criticism over what many thought to be a double standard.  The thought was that she was glamorizing an article of clothing symbolic of the oppressed Muslim women, and here she is flaunting her freedom and sexuality. (Among the phrases in the song, “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?”) But she’s a recording artist who loves to shock and push buttons for heaven’s sake. No doubt, rather than making a political statement, it was how she wanted to express herself and the burqa was something she found topical, compelling and beautiful.

threeASFOUR Installation at The Jewish Museum

There’s no question that religion has been at the root of some of the world’s most heinous atrocities and it is a hot button, controversial subject, particularly nowadays. But through knowledge and familiarity comes understanding and while it has the power to divide us, it can also unite us. The best example of the latter is illustrated by the avant garde, innovative design team, threeASFOUR known for their museum worthy couture like designs.

threeASFOUR dress inspired by tiling patterns found in Christianity, Judaism, Muslim religions

Gabriel Asfour (Lebanese), Adi Gil (Israeli), and Angela Donhauser (Tajikistan) are from diverse backgrounds and celebrate different religions. Their spring 2014 collection, called Mer Ka Ba, was held in a beautiful hall within the glorious Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue and was part of a featured multimedia installation which fused avant garde couture, architecture, and video projections.
Mer Ka Ba is a school of early Jewish Mysticism that is defined as a “vehicle that allows a person to ascend or descend into the higher or lower worlds”. The trio was especially inspired by the tiling patterns found in religious structures (mosques, churches, and synagogues) around the world. Focusing on modern technologies such as 3D printing and laser cutting, the collection, done in a palette of black and white, it was distinctive on many levels, not the least of which was their attempt to promote “cross-cultural unity” among religions, particularly Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. “We want to inspire others to do the same,” explained Gil the day before the show.
Their creative collaboration, which began in 1998, is proof of what can be achieved when people think out of the box, stay true to themselves, and work together to break down social and religious barriers.

Can’t we ALL just get along?

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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