Divine Designs: Religious Iconography in Fashion by Neha Avadhani
Ask me to think of religious imagery in fashion and my mind immediately goes to Baz Luhrmann’s 1995 Romeo and Juliet. It possesses a disruptive elegance and a mysterious allure, like everything is coated in a thin layer of shine, but you are not sure if it is really gold. The omnipresent religiosity comes with a sense of profound appreciation, from Juliet’s angel outfit to Tybalt’s Christ vest, yet a sharp criticism is visible just underneath, as each symbol is eventually contrasted by violence. This theme has continued in fashion, with artists using religious iconography to make statements in both praise and disapproval.
We have seen this echoed on the runways. Dolce and Gabbana, specifically, have used religious imagery often, with it being present in some way almost every year of the past decade. The designers nod to their Catholic backgrounds with ecclisiastal motifs: sacred hearts, crosses, cherubs, rosary-inspired details, and even designs that pay homage to mosaics from the Cattedrale di Monreale.
Spanish designer Alejandro Gómez Palomo creates pieces that exude decadent Baroque elegance taken from Catholic imagery and art: satin capes and silk bustiers that reference religious garments and simultaneously flout the gender binary. For him, the religious influences are nostalgic, reminiscent of the Semana Santa festival in Spain. Palomo goes further than most designers, working with the Spanish artisans who embroider religious garments. He has taken criticism for this, with some calling it a misinterpretation to repurpose religious iconography and craft for aesthetics, but to him there is grace in saving the classic techniques, many in danger of disappearing, for new and modern designs.
Other artists harness religious symbols simply for what they represent rather than their divine ties. Dilara Findikoglu is known for her edgy punk take on religious symbols. She says it is to challenge conventional thought, and also for the visuals. The aesthetic is largely one of a gothic glamour, referencing the history and origins of a motif. One of her well-known dresses is an allusion to a devotional Botticelli painting, which she says is meant to evoke a representation of birth. Not everyone is appreciative of this subversive style though, and her work has been described as satanic and conspiratorial.
While European Catholicism is by far one of the most referenced, other spiritual traditions are visible in fashion too. LA artist Reyes Rodriguez created the Calavera Fashion Show and Walking Altar in 2008 to celebrate traditional Dia de los
Muertos iconography and the Latino artists behind it. The Zuhair Murad Spring 2020 runway had allusions to ancient Egyptian religious imagery, with embroidery of Bastet the cat-goddess, beaded gowns that nod to Ra the sun god, and rebirth motifs via lotus print fabrics. We have also seen this on the high-street with the Jewish and Islamic Hamsa print on leggings, the sacred Hindu Om symbol on t-shirts, and depictions of the Virgin Mary on sweatshirts.
There has been a wide range of receptions, with some saying it is acceptable to find beauty across belief systems, while others say religious iconography should only be referenced in a religious context, outside of fashion and aesthetics. More still suggest as long as there is an understanding of the symbol being used, it can be considered appreciation rather than appropriation. Some people have noted the ridicularity of wearing a religious motif, saying especially of fast-fashion that clothing crafted from child labor, racism, and environmental exploitation is the antithesis of religion, and it is ironic that these cruel systems are used to print its symbols. On the contrary, some have said that claiming misappropriation is not valid for motifs that people themselves have subverted, referring to the social and fashionable use of the Hindu bindi by Desi people themselves. All of these clashing opinions have merits, but I think it is important not to fall into the trap of accepting these references in what we consider to be couture and bashing the same on the high-street. Brocade cossacks and diaphanous white dresses with strands of spun-sugar gold thread cannot solely be acceptable on the runway. The glamour and the names on the tags should not be the deciding factors of acceptability. Either way, for good or for ill, artists continue to use allusions to characterize their designs and divinity as a trend does not seem to be disappearing.