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Should Religion Be Relevant in Fashion?

November 26, 201712 min read

The chaos surrounding mistrust of politics and establishment has devastated our most dependent form of expression: dressing.

Unseen since the 1960s, an era filled with political hope and faith in politicians such as the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, this new era of social paranoia — epitomized in the Trump-era — has seen an interest in modest dressing and covering up. Dressing can be a form of rebellion — and a form of religion.

It is no coincidence the theme of the MET Gala is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Not only is this fitting to the current social climate we are in, but it reflects the fashion and its zeitgeist culture.

Using fashion to make collective — not just individual — statements fuels the belief that faith does drive the fashion system. Similar to politics, or any sort of academia, fashion reflects the times, and this translates in sales.

You only have to look at key fashion figures such as Alessandro Michele and Demna Gvasalia, who have a Messiah-like impression. The Guardian has even likened him to Jesus with his beard and charm, while Demna Gvasalia is looked upon to lead the trendy fashion followers to a new era of fashion. These 21st Century designers — with their social media followers watching their every move — have helped to create a new movement in fashion: the cult consumer.

Instagram has become the holy grail of all things consuming and marketing, as social media followings have become resume-worthy. The people of Instagram have completely shifted toward influencers of fashion for guidance and are religiously “worshipping” blogs for everything.

According to a WWD report in September, “70% of brands work with influencers – these influencers who have between 5,000 – 25,000 Instagram followers are a great way for brands to keep a small budget while extending their marketing reach.”

Alessandro Michele has created a new testament at Gucci. According to WWD in April, Michele has increased Gucci’s sales by “48.3% to 1.35 billion euros,” which is Gucci’s “strongest revenue increase in 20 years.” Michele’s cult consumers have become so powerful and so devout in the worship of their religious fashion aesthetic that it has enticed the idea that fashion indeed operates as a fundamental religion.

This cult consumer is seen across the industry and has been since the early days at Balenciaga. The Spanish-born designer Balenciaga himself was infatuated with Christianity and used the symbolism and silhouettes of Christian dressing as inspiration to dress wealthy women at cocktail parties in the 1950s.

Julie Zerbo, creator of The Fashion Law, believes figureheads like Michelle or Gvasalia allow consumers to be “able to be part of a community which is inherently what church is.”

She continued: “It feels good. I think that given the rise of social media which allows us to feel connected to people that we don’t know. And we feel that we are privy to information from these people that we don’t necessarily know at all. And this helps to create the modern day creative director. I think that creates some sort of false sense of idol-ship. You know, if people worship God or worship Jesus they can worship, you know, whatever figurehead it is that they want. For some, I guess, that’s Anna Wintour.”

According to Reina Lewis, researcher and lecturer at the London College of Fashion, when people don’t turn to politics for faith, they find it somewhere else. This usually turns into activism, which has a huge impact on fashion. Politics has overpowered society’s religious views and is shaping them. And now that is shaping fashion. Lewis focuses her studies on faith and fashion and spoke to The Guardian in September to discuss how the political climate has influenced modest dressing.

This leads to the question of whether or not religion is relevant within today’s fashion. Lewis believes that “you could make the argument that [the fashion industry] works like certain types of institutional religion. Certainly, if you look at the approach of the hagiographic of some designers, they are treated as prophets or saints, and you could also say that similar to institutional religions, they are liable to be corrupt and create institutional biases and conventions that stop other truths from being heard.”

Ironically, following the formal release, the rumors of the involvement between fashion & religion for this year’s theme has sparked controversies online and across the media. For example, Independent said, “The MET Gala’s ‘Fashion and Religion’ theme is going to turn into a colonialist mess of cultural appropriation.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Bolton, Curator in Change of The Costume Institute said, “Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another, although this relationship has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion.” For an event — as avant-garde and overseen as the MET Gala — to surround itself in such a provocative theme like religion could be rather symbolic to the current state of not just the political world but the fashion world.

When it comes to religion, the fashion world has never held back from embedding ideologies and symbolism into collections in the past. Most famously, Dolce & Gabbana have used the symbol of the cross time and time again. Lewis said:

“Anyone would think the cross is just available as a neutral symbol — it does mean different things for different Christians, and I think if you were a Christian in Iraq or in ISIS controlled territories, you would feel very visible wearing a cross. No one for a moment would think you are being a cool hipster. In Europe or America, it is so prevalent that it can be seen as a style.”

The gate to create a more diverse fashion world has definitely been opened following the previous fashion month. For example, the hijab has powerfully made it to the runway during SS18, and models like Halima Aden are being used as muses for the CR Fashion Book. We have seen the light of models of all different religions and ethnicities grace the catwalk and campaigns. Brands are becoming more diverse than ever before and trying to be extra cautious, which is the perfect reflection to the context that we currently live in.

This is revolutionary to fashion, which is no saint when it comes to being diverse historically, and proves that fashion and religion can indeed walk hand in hand for the better. However, Julie Zerbo explains that there is still a long way to go:

“Do I think it’s great that we are seeing a lot of diversity on the runway? Yes. Do I think that it is going to take a lot more time than just one really great New York Fashion Week? Absolutely. And I think we would be naive to assume that we’re just going to go blazing forward with this. What you do when no one is watching is integrity. And everyone is into integrity. And what you do when everyone is watching is PR.”

Religion could perhaps be so relevant in fashion that it has blinded us from its own significance. The MET Gala theme based around religion maybe means that the fashion world has now decided where it stands religiously. Popular, anonymous, fashion critic and blogger, IMONATION believes that:

“There’s a line between appreciating and appropriating. Designers don’t usually get the right balance at all, and to have it as a theme is walking on dangerous territory.”

Fashion’s new take on cults, religion and embracing diverse iconography has in one way become a sacramental trend — and in another, a powerful political movement between expression and identity. Globally, fashion has the power to use any kind of religion to make a statement and to cause reactions. Despite what is happening politically, these types of movements within fashion are sparking a reaction to diversity and turning it into a trend.

The importance of making a statement in today’s fashion all falls in the lap of the current Westernized political agenda. Designers and influencers on Instagram were desperate to make political statements during Brexit and the 2016 American Presidential election, and the results of that shifted into a new wave of finding inspiration that isn’t political but spiritual. Tim Blanks said during the podcast covering the highlights of SS18 on Business of Fashion earlier this month that “when people have lost faith in things… they look for things to hold on to.” Blanks was referencing the current take that fashion has had on modern politics and how it has driven people to seek a more optimistic faith in fashion.

The political climate that is storming in the background of the fashion world could once again be the most definitive answer to the sudden spark in fashion and faith. Politics may be much more relevant in fashion than religion is, but it just influences — religion is what inspires.

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