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.   

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