Katherine Wynne is a gender adviser to the Tanzania Women Chamber of Commerce and public-relations lead for Bumble Bees Venture Capital. Alice Janssens is a fashion economist, doctoral researcher in the business history of fashion, and lecturer at Erasmus University, Rotterdam.
The cathedrals may be cemented in place, but Catholicism is certainly on the move in the United States this year. After years of construction, and 340,000 square feet of real estate later, the US$500-million Museum of the Bible opened its colossal doors in Washington. And in New York, the high priestess of fashion herself delivered a papal nod by dedicating fashion’s most coveted annual ritual to Catholicism. The theme of this year’s Met Gala, co-chaired by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Catholic. Not just Christian. Catholic.
Pop culture has never before turned to Catholicism in such a visible way. Beyond the layers of Zendaya’s Joan of Arc chain mail and the golden reliquary atop Sarah Jessica Parker’s crown lay a more complex underbelly of this year’s Met Gala. The May 7 event revealed the extent of fashion’s power, placing it side-by-side with one of the world’s most powerful religions. By inviting Hollywood to glamorize an entire faith, Ms. Wintour and Met Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton manoeuvred fashion into a realpolitik power play with the Catholic Church itself. And for an evening, won.
Few could argue that Hollywood lives a pious lifestyle. Glamorizing an entire faith is quite literally the definition of heresy. Why, then, invite Hollywood to don cassocks, rosaries and Byzantine halos? Met Gala attendees have been critiqued before for questionable theme interpretations – case in point, the 2015 China: Through the Looking Glass event – but this year’s gala brings another dimension into the power play as it pits the power of the museum, and the fashion industry, against that of organized religion.
We could also ask: How different is this fashion ritual from pre-Reformation Catholicism? Through all the splendour and affluence of the Met Gala, celebrities (counterintuitively) highlighted the Catholic in Catholicism again. The high church’s pre-Reformation, and pre-Pope Francis, grandness was simultaneously propagated and subtly critiqued on the red carpet. Designers such as Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana and Gareth Pugh have done this for years, but on a far smaller scale. Through Catholicism, Anna Wintour demonstrated to the world that pop culture, fashion and technology have become the religions of the modern era. Where before we had royal courts, we now have Instagram. Where we had cardinals and bishops, we now have celebrities to share moral, social and visual pointers.
Fashion has ever been a tool for the expression of identity and association – be it with politics, society, religion, culture or power. And, reflexively, it has given us a view into political and economic situations (although the hemline index has suffered its fair amount of valid critique). “Clothing concerns all of the human person, all of the body, all of the relationships of man to body as well as the relationships of the body to society,” wrote French philosopher Roland Barthes. This is particularly visible within Catholicism. Cardinals wear red. The Pope wears white. Bishops wear purple (the traditional colour of the monarchy). Herein we find the hierarchy; a structure of power woven into the fabric itself.
Ms. Wintour and Mr. Bolton reversed this long-standing power hierarchy. Traditionally, religion acts as the primary determinant of societal rules, norms and even in some cases sumptuary mores. Correspondingly, fashion has been used as a mechanism to visually manifest this power. At the Met Gala, however, the roles were reversed. It became the dogma of fashion that decreed culture, reverence, idol worship and the rules of society. On the red carpet, Catholicism was the medium moulded to display the omnipotent power of fashion. For an evening, fashion owned Catholicism. Indeed, it was walked down the block for all the world to see, critique, photograph and be bedazzled by. Michelangelo’s murals have never left the Sistine Chapel, but Ms. Wintour had The Last Judgment wrapped around Ariana Grande in downtown Manhattan. That said, where was the lapis lazuli outfit?
In this visual century, the Pearly Gates are Mikimoto.
The revelation arising from the Met Gala is that fashion has become a dominant religion of the modern age. Pay your remittances by buying the newest “it” bag and all shall be forgiven. Shop organic fabrics and you become “ethical.” Fashion now dictates much of that which used to be the purview of the church. That which is ethical, valued and idolized is now determined by Vogue – not by the Vatican. What has for centuries been the Catholic modus operandi of excess and exuberance is now honoured by the fashion industry. Beyond the gold and glamour, however, the fashion industry is changing. It is now extolling more humble and humane values, including workplace safety, environmental preservation, gender equality, worker recognition and the introduction of sustainable value chains.
Indeed, fashion isn’t standing silently at the pulpit. With its growing power, global movements such as Fashion Revolution are now emphasizing the moral and ethical responsibilities of fashion. Fashion institutes and platforms including the University of the Arts London Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Sustainable Fashion Matterz are educating the next generation of designers, makers and buyers about sustainable value chains. Design schools are even working toward “closing the loop” by recycling textiles or growing their own plants for fibres and fabric to decrease the footprint of their clothes. Luxury brands such as Burberry are leading the charge in the development of sustainable value chains. Fashion is challenging its capitalist and consumerist forefathers who allowed it to parade the church around in the first place. But there is a lot to be done.
In the modern visual society, we still find religion espousing values and a higher moral code. It is just that this religion is, with increasing strength, fashion. The laws of fashion surprisingly do not live at odds with the church, either. Rather, today’s fashion world is a modern reinterpretation (Spring/Summer 2018, if you will) of the faiths that have shaped society for millennia. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is, for the time being, a woman: Anna.