Can fashion effectively convey Catholicism?

Friday, October 1, 2021


The relationship between Fashion and the Catholic faith is complicated, riddled with contradictions. It is unclear from The Bibles teachings whether fashionable dress symbolises honour and dignity or an attachment to worldly goods. Which begs the question, is fashionable dress capable of conveying faith? The 2018 Heavenly Bodies Met Gala illustrates how the depiction of faith through fashionable dress can be both effective and ineffective, but is the depiction always positive? Instagram collective I NEED GOD and their online clothing brand demonstrate how Catholicism can be communicated effectively to a younger generation in a way that presents faith positively. On the contrary, fashion house Dolce and Gabbana show that whilst fashionable dress can effectively depict faith, the hateful, religiously-charged opinions of its designers can tarnish the garments impact, creating negative associations.


The Costume Institutes Met Gala - Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination - set out to explore the dynamic relationship between fashion and the church. In doing so held one of the most celebrated and yet heavily criticised nights the institute has ever seen, illustrating how the depiction of Catholicism through fashionable dress can be both effective and ineffective. Chadwick Boseman effectively conveyed the Catholic influence on western fashion through his papal inspired, all-white Versace tuxedo and cross cape, adorned with gold beading and crosses. Lurie’s thesis, as outlined in The Language of Clothes, argues that clothing is a form of communication and that by wearing a certain colour or style a person is subconsciously expressing their views and ideas (Lurie, 1981). In Catholicism, the all-white of Boseman’s ensemble suggests purity, whilst the gold crosses are a symbol of Christ himself and the faith of Catholics. In western fashion, Boseman’s tuxedo suggests elegance. This combination may seem incongruous, but the various connotations demonstrate how Catholic symbols have become embedded in western fashion. 

However, this is not to say that all heavily adorned, priestly garments are an effective depiction of Catholicism. Designed by John Galliano and taking over 750 hours to construct, Rihanna’s ‘sexy pope’ mini dress, beaded and bejewelled and complete with mitre (Alexander, 2018) received scathing criticism for reducing such sacred vestments and what they represent to pure eroticism and pageantry (Carnes, 2018). When questioned about the look, Rihanna told Vogue “it feels expensive. It would be a sin not to wear it” (Vogue, 2018). It is clear that Galliano's design seeks to mimic, or rather exaggerate, the grandiose nature that papal attire has long been associated with. Conspicuous consumption such as this better conveys prestige and status than it does Catholicism. This is supported by Veblen, who argued in his book 'The Theory of The Leisure Class' that expenditure on fashionable dress is driven by the maintenance or acquisition of “honourable repute” (Veblen, 1899). 

The expansive history of the church and its relationship with fashion meant that the Heavenly Bodies Met Gala and the looks that stemmed from it can be viewed from many perspectives, whether that be one of western fashion or theology, but overall it proved that fashionable dress can be both an effective and ineffective depiction of faith.


Instagram collective, I NEED GOD, and their 29.5k following demonstrate through their online clothing collections that, by utilising irony and humour, fashionable dress can effectively and positively depict Catholic ideologies and inspire faith in the younger generation. Irony can be broken down into layers. At layer 0 is sincerity, at layer 1 is irony as we know it (e.g. dramatic irony, situational irony), and at layer 2 is post-irony, which can be seen as the return to sincerity (Bourne, 2020). Post-irony is how Gen-Z use humour and how I NEED GOD communicate their message of faith. An example of this is the sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase “God loves me and there’s nothing I can do about it”. To the majority of the younger generation, religion is seen as uncool, therefore the sporting of such designs is done so in the name of irony. Though what makes I NEED GOD’s designs post-ironic is that it is unclear whether their message is sincere or not. Growing up with social media, Gen-Z have not had the privilege of establishing their identity before proclaiming it to the world. The intricate network of irony within I NEED GOD's garments enables them to evolve and adapt while being observed, allowing them to experiment with ideas of identity and faith in a time when public opinion is heavily weighed in a cancel culture. This may be why Amanda Glover, Melanie Cress, Yaki Kostelec, and Kyle Hide started the collective and why it has become so popular amongst this particular generation. 

As religion becomes less prevalent in Western Culture, young people are less likely to think about faith. However, the humour embedded in I NEED GODs clothing forces the wearer to use their knowledge of Catholicism in order to connect with the joke. When you tell a joke, you elicit information from your audience, almost against their will, and they end up supplying the background information that makes the joke work. As a result, they join you. Then, if the joke succeeds, they join you again in their reaction, and the two of you become a community, a community of laughter. Cohen refers to this as the intimacy of joking (Cohen, 1999). Thus, beyond causing the wearer to ponder their knowledge of faith, the joy evoked has the ability to sustain the wearers desire for it (Houck, 2016). I NEED GOD clearly demonstrates that the key to depicting faith through fashionable, particularly to young people, is to combine it with the power of humour.


The effective depiction of Catholicism in fashion is not always one with positive connotations. For fashion house Dolce and Gabbana, ecclesiastical motifs are integral to their brands DNA. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s shared Italian Catholic upbringing has never influenced their creations more than in ‘Tailored Mosaic’- their 2013 collection inspired by the Byzantine Cathedral of Monreale. Models walked the runway in golden dresses decorated with religious figures and adorned with jewellery reflecting the opulence of the once powerful Christian Empire. 

Many would argue that fashionable dress illustrates an attachment to worldly goods and that a detachment from such goods signals a person’s devotion to Christ. Such examples of renunciation include Saint Francis – the son of a wealthy merchant who devoted himself to a life of poverty (Gallo, 2018). Paradoxically however, members of the Catholic faith continue to use grand, expensive churches and art as material proof of their devotion therefore could fashionable dress such as the ‘Tailored Mosaic’ collection not also be used in such a way? On top of the religious figures displayed on the garments, the sheer luxury and finery in itself effectively depicts Catholicism. 

However, in 2015 when the designers shared their controversial, religiously charged opinions on gay adoption and IVF, the ‘Tailored Mosaic’ collection was tarnished with new associations of hatred and intolerance. In a Panorama cover story titled “Long Live the [Traditional] Family” Dolce stated “life has a natural trajectory, there are some things that should not be altered” whilst referring to babies conceived through IVF as “chemical children” (Panorama, 2018). Catholicism is a religion that has historically viewed homosexuality as a sin, and even in 2021 the church refuses to bless same-sex unions (BBC, 2021). Dolce and Gabbana’s preaching of these hateful catholic ideologies triggered a boycott on the brand. Elton John took to social media to criticise the “archaic” fashion house, stating they were “out of step with the times, just like your fashions”. It is because of these homophobic comments that, whilst the brand effectively conveys Catholicism, the connotations are that of hate and intolerance rather than faith. 


The relationship between Catholicism and Fashion is complicated, open to interpretation and always evolving. Rihanna’s Met Gala look acted as a caricature of the Catholic Pope. Its grotesque conspicuous consumption meant that it was ineffective in its depiction of Catholicism. Though fashionable dress is certainly capable of effectively depicting faith. Chadwick Boseman’s Met Gala look celebrated the influence that Catholicism continues to have on Western culture and in doing so effectively depicted faith. In a similar way Dolce and Gabbana’s ‘Tailored Mosaic’ collection acts as a material symbol of the designers devotion, effectively depicting their own faith. I NEED GOD demonstrates how fashionable dress can be used to convey faith to younger generation, adopting humour and irony as tools of communication. The effective depiction of Catholicism can however be positive or negative. I NEED GOD’s religious connotations are of love and acceptance whilst the ‘Tailored Mosaic’ collection is tarnished by the intolerance of its designers.   

The Little Black Dress: A Concept

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Twentieth-century semiotician Roland Barthes believed that fashion is a form of non-verbal communication that is totally subjective. Barthes Vestimentary Code suggests that meaning is communicated through the interpretation of signs. The sign is a combination of the signifier (the tangible garment) and the signified (the mental representation). When clothing is translated into this rhetorical code, fashion becomes more than just clothing, but rather a reflection of society. When it comes to semiotics, the little black dress is a garment with an extensive system of signs spanning centuries of changing perceptions (Barthes, R. 1967).

The Little Black Dress is a fashion staple and one which is closely associated with Coco Chanel. Here, you see her in the 1926 little black dress. At the time, Vogue compared this dress to the Ford Model-T - the first car to be industrially manufactured. To reduce costs, the car was painted only in black, and so blacks association with the industrial revolution and modernism was born. In fashion, the 20s are often referred to as the Androgynous era because of the way that couture shifted towards cleaner lines and away from the emphasis on women's breast and butts. The signifiers of Chanel's little black dress are a long, straight cut with a flat chest and straight waist. The signified, therefore, is of an androgynous, boylike figure. The signifier black was used by Chanel as an unambiguous indication of sexual impropriety, modernity and authority, mimicking that of men, clearly demonstrating that women were prepared to enter the workforce. In this way, she shifted the signified of black from a purely male, authoritarian, and mournful colour to a mature, distinguishing, gender-neutral and authoritative colour (Marcangeli, S. 2015). In this way, the LBD became not only a symbol of feminism but a weapon for liberated womanhood. In recent history, I believe that this was no better epitomised than when Princess Diana wore her iconic black "revenge dress" following Prince Charles' adultery scandal.

Chanel claims to have invented the LBD, that's not true, she simply helped popularise it because it was greatly associated with the modern woman of the 20s and who better epitomised that than Ms Chanel?

It's often been said also that Chanel is the one who took the black dress from being a gesture of mourning to being considered fashion. That too was na├»ve. Black clothing in general has undeniably been associated with mourning for a long time. Here, we see a mid-19th-century painting of a governess who is sitting alone, wearing black, presumably in mourning. Notice how the other girls are in light, bright colours connoting carefree girlhood whilst she is in black. 

Black also had many extensive associations in the West with abstinence; members of the clergy, for example, will be wearing black as a signified of their submission to God and authority (Pastereau, M). Black became known as the colour of respectability.

In 1957, Vogue said, black is 'worldly, elegant, plainly alluring, indispensable'. This notion went back a long way. In the Middle Ages, black was not only seen as a colour for elite mourning but also as a very expensive, prestigious, elegant colour. Many aristocrats would wear black to indicate a sense of prestige - a dandiacal elegance which made them stand out amongst the peacock-coloured ensembles characteristic of the Middle Ages.

Black also very much had this sense of being an elegant colour in the 19th century. We think of the 19th century as all people in mourning black and that Chanel was the first to make elegant, fashionable black. Nothing could be further from the truth, black was already a colour which was seen as being extremely elegant. As

La Mode Paris put it in 1885, "Of course black, which can look very economical, can also be on the contrary, very expensive. And yet, the most distinguished dress, the most becoming dress that can be worn by any woman on any occasion is certainly a black dress".

But Black also, and for a long way back, was also associated with sex and power. So, in addition to the idea of death and mourning, it had the suggestion of the Devil (aka, The Prince of Darkness) and hell as the world was presumed to have started from nothing, just darkness (Pastereau, M). In one of Edith Wharton's novels, there is a woman who 'goes to bed' with a man and someone says of her, "What can you expect of someone who was allowed to wear black at her coming-out party?" Black had this connotation of sexiness and eroticism. We see it in the portrait of Madame X, a painting that caused outrage at the time of its reveal, and you see it as well in novels like Anna Karenina where the black velvet that she wears is contrasted with the ivory of her skin. Black's association with power, again goes right back to the Middle Ages to judges and executioners; it's been linked with crime and deviance. In Reservoir Dogs, there's a scene where Mr Pink asks why they can't pick out their own colours, and Joe remarks, “I tried that once, it don't work. You get four guys fighting over who's going to be Mr Black.” Black is associated with the charisma of deviance as well as with the idea of sexualised women. In politics, you have the black of fascism and the black of anarchy.

Furthermore, as Valerie Mendez, the fashion historian, points out, black was fashionable long before the 1920s. In particular, she writes that the little black dress was born in the early 1900s, especially after the death of Edward the 7th in 1909. Then, during World War I, black became ubiquitous for mourning but also as a fashion colour. Black was a symbol of the nations shared grief caused by the war, but it was also a more practical colour as women were joining the war effort through taking over industrial job roles.

Chanel emphasised the quote, 'Scheherazade is easy, the little black dress is difficult'. This was in retaliation to the brilliant colours which were popular in the early 19 teens - reds, greens, and oranges. She said they made her feel nauseous and she went over to the other extreme by only using white, cream, black, and dark navy blue.

Black also has long antecedents as a bohemian, artistic colour. You can find it associated with beatniks, or with black leather jackets. But then you had also the chic cocktail dresses, the high fashion, elegant blacks. Balenciaga, for example, was described as creating dresses in Spanish black which is described as like a deep night without stars. Or Audrey Hepburn - of course - famously wore a plethora of little black dresses.

Christian Dior said of black, you can wear black at any age under virtually any circumstances. He also pointed out, as have many other designers, the black dress is appealing for designers because once you take away the colour you can focus on the silhouette, the texture, and other aspects of the dress, just as you would with line drawing for an artist instead of colour.

In the 1980s, the Japanese fashion revolution made black the dominant avant-garde colour in fashion. Yohji Yamamoto said the Samurai spirit is black. The Samurai must be able to throw his body into nothingness, the colour and image of which is black. Rei Kawakubo put it more simply when she said there are seven shades of black. And, of course, again, as it always sounded cryptic, a black velvet dress is completely different from a black satin dress or a black linen dress, etc.

One of the reasons why black is such a powerful colour is because there are so many layers of meaning. It's like a palimpsest, everything from elegance, evil, desirability, sexiness, power. And for all these layers of meaning, it means that a designer can create a wide variety of clothes, all of which end up having some of the modernity and allure of the little black dress. The little black dress can be whatever the wearer wants, or needs, it to be. In a sense, the little black dress is not a style per se but rather a concept. They’re entirely versatile. There are many ways to design it. It's modern, it changes but it's always the same and it's always a kind of chic armour.