For his Autumn/Winter 1996 collection, Alexander McQueen chose an unusual location. The show, entitled ‘Dante’ was held at Christchurch in London’s Spitalfields, and heavily featured Christian imagery, including thorn crowns and images of angels. The setting was partially chosen for the interesting paradox that the church’s architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, had been a Satanist. After the show, guests were handed pamphlets railing against the vanities of apparel. Apart from his typical dark sense of humour, this collection exhibited McQueen’s fearlessness in the face of controversy, and a fierce dedication to provoking thought and debate in his audience, rather than merely awe-struck admiration. But was he right to do it? Many might interpret his combination of a sacred setting and theme with overtly sexual clothing which accessorized Christian imagery as disrespectful, or even deliberately attention-seeking. Yet others defend his right to use whatever imagery is available to him in the production of art; design is, after all, primarily art (I don’t know many people who would choose a thorn crown as an item to wear for comfort or practicality).
Justin Wellby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, recently criticised the use of the crucifix as a fashion statement, claiming that its ubiquity as an accessory has left it devoid of meaning. As an industry which tends to exist by rushing from scandal to scandal, the fashion world does not tend to be all that concerned with whether or not it offends people. Yet many designers might argue that they have no intention of devaluing religion, as their choice of sacred imagery is merely a reaction to their culture. We have seen several notable examples in the past few years of religion as a theme in runway shows. Versace’s Autumn/Winter 2012 show featured the crucifix as a recurring pattern; Dolce and Gabbana used the interior of a Sicilian church as inspiration for their Autumn/Winter 2013 collection, creating gorgeous mosaic dresses on which the Virgin Mary was depicted, and one of the most stunning pieces in the recent Valentino couture collection was a floor-length gown, the skirt of which was filled with an image of Adam and Eve. A connecting factor between these designers is that they are all Italian, and it is therefore fairly obvious that this religious imagery is a response to the highly Catholic country in which they all live. It would be disingenuous for Dolce and Gabbana to create a tribute to the culture of Sicily without including the rich religious imagery which is an integral part of that area.
More serious problems arise when brands and designers feel entitled to use sacred symbols from cultures which are not their own as an accessory in their products. Cultural appropriation is a messy and complex issue which is not always to do with religion, but basically if you’re not Native American it is somewhat insulting to wear a Native American headdress as a fashion statement; these are sacred symbols and integral parts of Native American culture, a culture which has been under threat because of the oppression suffered by its people. Many argue that the use of symbols from other cultures is a form of cultural appreciation, and thus justifies Lady Gaga wearing a burka or Selena Gomez sporting a bindi. While it is true that celebrating different cultures can be a beneficial thing to do, the problem here is that when the fashion industry (which is, incidentally, still very much white-dominated) chooses to incorporate these religious things into a product, it is effectively reducing an entire culture to a commodity. One might argue that this is also the case when a designer chooses to use the crucifix in their work, but there is a difference between a white Euro-American person from a Christian background (even if they do not identify as Christian themselves) featuring a Christian emblem and the same person featuring an image which is important to, say, Islam.
The truth is that all of this is very tricky territory, and is made more difficult to navigate by the fact that many designers are deliberately trying to offend, as well as amuse, their audiences. It is a sure-fire way to get attention, as well as an opportunity to make a tongue-in-cheek statement. Take, for example the work of designer Jeremy Scott. His collections have played over time with ideas of religion which, combined with his unwavering sense of humour and kitsch designs, makes for a playful but controversial aesthetic. His Autumn/Winter 2011 collection featured red dresses on which the word ‘God’ was emblazoned in the Coca-Cola font; by Spring 2013 he had moved on to using burkas in a show called ‘ Arab Spring’. While many find this sort of thing somewhat distasteful, Scott himself claims to be challenging the status quo by pointing out how the commercialism of fashion often seems to resemble an organised religion.
Fashion and religion have never exactly been bedfellows, and this relationship will continue to be a fraught one. Many of fashion’s most revered figures have made questionable decisions when it comes to wearing sacred imagery as part of their outfits; for an example of this, look no further than Isabella Blow’s hot pink burka, designed by Jon Tukahashi, which was also worn by Lady Gaga in a Philip Treacey show recently. However, as the fashion industry becomes more aware of its problematic nature – something which is being examined especially by those who want to challenge the inherent racism in the business – we may start to see a greater respect for religion in catwalk collections. This does not necessarily mean that all religious imagery will disappear, but rather that designers will think more carefully about whether they have the right to turn a religion into something which can be bought and sold. There will also, however, always be those who are simply out to shock. In many ways, fashion needs these individuals, but equally it needs others who take a more conscientious approach.