Today we have an essay from local Bella Qian–here’s a bit about her, and the piece:
I’m an Auckland gal who loves her city, though the recent gas prices have had me looking at the running costs of horses. I have just finished my second year of a highly employable Bachelor of Arts majoring in Ancient History and Psychology. One day I hope to pursue a post grad degree in Psychology as I have personally experienced the consequences of New Zealand’s flawed mental health system and attitudes, so the dream is to make a difference. I chose to write about fashion and religion in my essay because of my love for fashion (as evidenced through my bank statements) as well as my interest in consumerism and capitalism. This essay was very enjoyable to write and I hope that anyone reading it can find a point or two amidst my excessive shoe descriptions that gets them to stop and think.
Enjoy the read and have a great weekend!
Popes in Prada and Angels in Lingerie
Fashion and religion are both major influences in society as they explicitly and implicitly impact the way we think, feel, and act. When these two important bodies crash and merge in popular culture, a whole new set of meanings and implications emerge. Throughout history, clothing has been used for far more than to cover our bodies, it has held political, social, sexual, and economic implications (Schmidt 1989). Within religion, these implications still hold strong and clothing is given a whole new set of meanings in this context. However, these meanings were challenged through new interpretations of religious dress at the 2018 Met Gala, one of the biggest fashion events in Western society. Religion has also made its way into the fashion world via the unexpected area of lingerie. One of the most successful lingerie brands in the world, Victoria’s Secret, has been using ‘angels’ to model their lingerie for over a decade. Yet the meaning and use of these ‘angels’ seem to be drastically different from the ones mentioned in the Bible. This essay then aims to examine how religion has been used in fashion, using the example of the 2018 Met Gala, and Victoria’s Secret’s angels.
Within all major religions, dress has been used to serve the purpose of establishing and enforcing ideologies and hierarchies (Arthur 1999). Historically, for members and followers of the church, modesty is viewed as an important value that should be displayed through clothing, particularly for women. Thus, the excessive display of flesh is not encouraged and clothing should act to cover the body (ibid.). The colour and type of clothing also mattered; during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, vibrant and luxurious clothing was condemned. Instead, sombre dress was encouraged as it reflected the Christian focus on salvation and redemption (ibid.). The Catholic clergy also reflect the significance of dress through the different colours and items worn by members of different priestly rankings. At the bottom of the hierarchy are priests, who wear black, above them are bishops who wear violet, then cardinals in scarlet, and finally the pope, who is dressed in white. On top of colour, slight differences in their everyday dress from the hats they wear to the laces on their shoes are also used to display their differences in rank. Interestingly, these differences are not simply used to differentiate between clerical positions, but also hold religious symbolism (Bolton et al 2018). The white that is associated with the pope represents purity and sanctity that only he is worthy of (Arthur 1999). From these examples, we can see that clothing has important meanings and functions within the church.
These meanings and functions were completely flipped in the 2018 Met Gala with its theme of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The Met Gala is a charity event that has been running for 73 years and is arguably the most anticipated fashion event every year (Hoffower 2018). This year, the outfits worn by the celebrities at the event unreservedly exceeded expectations as they were amazing examples of how religion can be interpreted in fashion. Being the most exclusive fashion event of the year, with tickets allegedly costing up to US$50,000, it is unsurprising that many celebrities went over the top to make a statement. This year’s gala was filled with all sorts of extravagant jewels, crosses, halos, and even wings. Many celebrities also chose to reference specific religious figures, like the Virgin Mary in her manifestation as the lady of sorrows.
However, we do not see any modestly clothed and grieving Marys as depicted in religious art; instead, we see bejewelled Marys in thousand-dollar designer outfits. Explicitly, these outfit choices may be a way to further indicate the superior or divine status of these celebrities. The event itself is already exclusive – not only do guests need to be able to afford the $50,000 ticket, the event is invite-only, with a lengthy waitlist. The celebrities attending the gala have the modern world’s seal of approval, they are our contemporary aristocracy. Thus, by associating themselves with powerful and respected religious figures at this exclusive event, their status is further elevated. This can then have a cultural function of reinforcing an ‘us and them’ hierarchy. These celebrities, like the religious figures we worship, are out of reach and our only contact with them should be through our worshipping and idolizing of them. Furthermore, there may be a cultural function of holding up western ideals. The event’s exclusive guest list shows us the ideals of success and wealth, the achievements of the attendants creates a standard for onlookers and further separates them. The theme of the Met gala creates an idealization of certain of religion, and the choice of Catholicism raises questions like: is Catholicism better? Elevated? Or more red-carpet ready than other religions in the world? Additionally, when Catholicism was chosen as a theme for the most exclusive fashion event in Western society, its superiority and authority are reinforced. This can function to further the dominant role of Western ideas, standards, and beliefs in modern society.
Thus, not only do these dazzling Marys represent a beautiful crossing over of religion and high fashion, they also function to reinforce the status of both the attendants and modern Western ideologies.
Some of the outfits at the gala were particularly memorable as they managed to implicitly challenge the norms and ideologies of the church while being high fashion. One of these was singer and actress Solange Knowles’ outfit where she wore a gold halo that she paired with a flowing black durag. The halo was common amongst other celebrities and its meaning was straightforward, associating its wearer with holiness. Thus, it was her durag that stood out. The durag is dated back to the nineteenth century and was originally worn by slaves to keep their hair back. Yet its use completely changed with the black power movement during the late 1960’s which preached for equality and racial pride for those of African descent. During this movement, the durag became a popular accessory amongst African American youth and it is still used today (White and Hertz 2013). Importantly, on her durag, Solange had written in jewels, “My God Wears a Durag” (Edwards 2018). This juxtaposition of opulence with a symbol of slavery and later street culture captivates onlookers while sending a very important message. With her outfit, Solange reminds us that heaven is not white like it is commonly depicted and interpreted. Her outfit also disrupts and challenges the white dominance in religious art and imagery while celebrating the existence and importance of women of colour in religion (Edwards 2018). Unlike the bejewelled Marys who reinforce modern hierarchies, Solange’s outfit has a function of including and giving a voice to those who are marginalised by Western discourses. Just like a biblical prophet, Solange disturbs our sense of normalcy and challenges the cultural status quo (Borg 2000).
Another memorable outfit was the one worn by Rihanna who came dressed as a pope. What made it unforgettable was that her outfit was not made of silk and cotton like an actual pope’s robe, instead, every inch of her white dress and robe was encrusted in jewels and pearls. Here, she juxtaposes the purity of the colour white with the opulence of diamonds and gems. This juxtaposition may function as a criticism of religion’s longstanding gender biases. Knowing that women are still not allowed to become popes, Rihanna’s extravagant and feminine pope attire then shows us that women can be popes, and they are going to do it their way. To further her pope garb, she wore a matching and unsurprisingly bejewelled papal tiara, which is traditionally worn by popes when they are coronated or during special ceremonies.
What really completed her outfit, though, were her US$4,000 crystal encrusted black Christian Louboutin shoes. More than just a popular piece of fashion, the shoes became meaningful when paired with her pope attire. Christian Louboutin shoes have an iconic red sole and are notoriously difficult and painful to wear despite their price. The red bottoms stand out against her predominantly white outfit and the biblical association of the colour red with sin (Isiah 1:18) juxtaposes against the association of white with purity (Revelation 3:4-5;18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9;13-14). Hence, it is as if Rihanna is replicating the painful struggle women have endured in their fight for equality. In the eyes of men, we may have sinned but that won’t stop us from continuing to make progress, one bedazzled high heeled step at a time. The implicit meanings of her outfit as a whole are endless. Not only did it reimagine Catholicism as a religion that celebrates women and fashion, but it also calls out the church’s deep-rooted bias against women. As a woman of colour, her pope attire directly addresses the ban on women ever becoming ordained priests and challenges the church’s white patriarchal status quo in the process (Wynne and Janssens 2018). Thus, these powerful outfits worn by Solange and Rihanna show that for one night, fashion challenged religion.
One specific aspect of religion that has surprisingly found its way into fashion is the concept of angels. In the Bible, angels are described as powerful creations of God, who act as his messengers and are faithful to him (Daniel 4:13; Colossians 1:16; Revelation 5:11-12). There is no unanimous description of their physical attributes in the Bible and examples of their appearance include the form of a male human and a form that causes fear in people (Genesis 18. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 28:4). Contrary to popular belief and depiction, these angels are also very rarely described as having wings and when they do, they tend to have six of them (Isaiah 6:1-8). The lack of a consistent angelic form in the Bible thus allowed a lot of room for creativity for early Christian artists (Marshall and Walsham 2006). Yet, from the fourth century onwards, most artists gravitated towards depicting angels with two wings, and having a saintly androgynous nature. However, all of these depictions of angels in art and the Bible wildly contrasts the ‘angels’ we have seen walk down lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret runway for the past decade. Here, the angels are in fact successful female models with a huge social following (Opelka 2017). The only thing these Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may physically have in common with the ones in the Bible and religious art is the wings they frequently wear when modelling the brand’s lingerie. Yet even when ‘winged’, their extravagant and often multi-coloured floor-length wings are far from the ones seen in religious imagery. Wings aside, these ‘angels’ are marketed as living ideals of western beauty standards who also happen to be in lingerie. This ideal of a perfect woman being both sexy and heavenly then produces an unattainable ideal for women. Interestingly, the elevated status this ideal gives the Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ may be a point of similarity with the biblical angels. Yet instead of being powerful creations of God, Victoria’s Secret’s ‘angels’ are powerful creations of the sexist and exploitive Western consumer market.
Controlling almost 40% of sales in intimate apparel, Victoria’s Secret is the largest and most successful lingerie brand in America and The Victoria’s Secret Angels have been vital in their success (Anderson 2014). Interestingly, despite their use of ‘angels’, Victoria’s Secret does not affiliate itself with religion. This is known as capitalist spirituality, where religious themes are exploited for the benefit of the corporation (Liegghio 2014). Thus, their use of these ‘angels’ is actually a clever consumerism tactic. By dressing their models up like angels while in lingerie, the brand gives them a divine quality while retaining their sex appeal (ibid.). Their giant soft white wings, contrasted with their sultry appearance creates a seemingly otherworldly and ethereal attraction. Sometimes, sharp black wings are used instead which creates a more ‘sinful’ attraction (Smith 2002). By juxtaposing religious and sexual imagery, the appeal of the ‘angels’ is intensified (ibid). The brand also creates an allure and elite status around these ‘angels’ by creating a hierarchy of models with them at the top. Currently, there are only 15 models worldwide who have the ‘angel’ title which is only given after careful selection of the model’s physical attributes and social popularity (Liegghio 2014). This exclusivity adds to their appeal as it causes them to appear desirable. By making these ‘angels’ objects of desire, the lingerie they model sells successfully because it allows buyers to be closer or similar to these otherwise untouchable beings (ibid.). In doing so, the brand has expertly created an illusion of a divine yet alluring ‘angel’ in order to sell their product. In the end, Victoria’s Secret’s use of angels is a prime example of religion being used and exploited in popular culture.
In conclusion, the fashion world has used religion creatively to send its messages. The 2018 Met Gala displayed the omnipotent powers of fashion using religion as its medium. That night, fabric and jewels challenged religion’s injustices and biases better than words could. The Gala showed that now, fashion is in charge, what is right and wrong is told by Vogue, not by the Vatican (Wynne and Janssens 2018). On the other hand, Victoria’s Secret showed us that religion can be capitalized and consumed, all without consequence. Perhaps that is Victoria’s secret after all. As a result, it is undeniable that the fashion world has redefined religion because now, our popes wear Prada, and our angels are in lingerie.
All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV
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