The fashion industry's interpretation of the church through the ages
Ahead of Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE, we looks at papal attire and the fashion industry’s often controversial interpretation of Catholic symbols
As pontiffs go, Pope Francis is fairly low-key, seemingly preferring a quiet approach to ecclesiastical attire, and content to leave the more ostentatious papal robes behind in the Vatican.
maAlthough Pope Francis may prefer the plain white cassock and zucchetto (skullcap), there is little doubt that the Catholic Church has had the idea of gold and glory at its heart for centuries, creating cathedrals and clothing to strike awe among onlookers, complete with lavish gold altar pieces, ceilings painted by Michelangelo and priceless papal robes painstakingly adorned with golden threads.
The faith also puts much effort into dressing the Pope to stand out, to be viewed as a living link to a higher power as the head of a powerful clergy. He carries the pastoral staff, essentially a jewel-studded rod, and wears a triple-layered gem-covered tiara to lift him, literally, above the crowd. His robes are stiff with gold, and each Pope dons a Ring of the Fisherman topped with a gold coin, which links the papacy back to St Peter the Apostle. Upon a Pope’s death (or abdication), the ring is symbolically destroyed.
Iconography in fashion
Not surprisingly, with its inherent love of theatricality and drama, fashion has long been drawn to the gilded splendour of the Church, and its powerful iconography. The crosses, the mourning mother and the unabashed opulence have proved a valuable archive for designers over the years, especially when mixed with heady notions of redemption or, indeed, purgatory.
French designer Christian Lacroix, for example, leaned heavily on religious iconography for his collections, with crosses and haloed headdresses a recurring theme in his creations. Ecclesiastical gold embroidery was lavished on jackets, dresses and tops, including a jacket emblazoned with a huge cross that featured on Anna Wintour’s first Vogue cover in 1988.
Lacroix’s haute couture was particularly flamboyant, with one bride (the term used for the model who marks the finale of a couture show) dressed in the gilded red of a Velasquez painting. Meanwhile, the last gown Lacroix made in 2009 was a silver-worked homage to the Russian orthodoxy.
Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga took a simpler line for many of his silhouettes, in particular a 1968 wedding dress that adopted the sweeping curves of a nun’s wimple, which was elongated into something altogether more space-age.
As devout Catholics, design duo Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have folded their faith through their collections, with endless riffs on family and motherly love. Images of the Madonna and Child, bathed in light and haloed with gold, have appeared on men’s and womenswear, as have Sacred Hearts, cherubs and crosses. For autumn / winter 2013, the pair transposed entire Byzantine Mosaics from the Cathedral of Monreale onto dresses, one of which was worn by Katy Perry to the 2013 Met Gala, five years before its Catholic theme last year.
Elsewhere, for autumn / winter 2013, Alexander McQueen delivered a collection based on the Holy Communion. With only 10 looks on show (designer Sarah Burton was about to give birth to her first child, so cut the collection short), the house squeezed in references to angels, popes, nuns and cardinals in either virginal white or devilish black.
The significance of a shoe
Not all elements of Catholicism are easy to translate into fashion, however. Take red papal slippers for example. When we think of red shoes, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz comes to mind, but red used to be the preserve of kings and popes.
As dyes, red and purple were ruinously expensive and difficult to work with, so used only by a powerful few, telegraphing wealth and position. While inside the Vatican, the Pope wore slippers in red silk or velvet, heavily embroidered in gold, while for Mass, he would change into sandals that could be red, depending on the liturgical occasion.
For outdoor events, the Pope would have still worn red, now as leather shoes, embroidered with a gold cross. Pope John XXIII added golden horseshoes in 1958 (later removed by Pope Paul VI), and when Pope John Paul I passed away in 1978, after just 33 days in the Vatican, his successor Pope John Paul II continued to wear his shoes. The present Pope Francis – also known as the austerity pope – still wears red slippers inside the Vatican, but prefers to wear his own black shoes while out and about. They are the same shoes he arrived in, in 2013, and are made by his shoemaker Carlos Samaria.
The red or purple robes of the papacy were a symbol of the Passion of the Christ, as well as authority. Clad head-to-toe in vermilion or Tyrian purple (derived from sea snails, and once more valuable than gold), and fully embroidered with precious metals, the Pope must have been a dazzling sight. This came to an abrupt halt in the mid-16th century with the Dominican Pope Pius V. He adopted white robes to denote purity that was, no doubt, an attempt to draw a line under the Reformation scandal of 1517, which split the Catholic Church with tales of greed and gluttony, and some priests getting rich off the backs of the poor.
However, a few elements of colour have survived, most noticeably the short mozzetta cape that covers the pontiff’s shoulders and upper arms, which can still be either white or red.
The 2018 Met Gala
Against this backstory of lavishness, overshadowed by the spectacle of hell and damnation that has proved so irresistible to fashion designers, one can imagine a collective rubbing of hands in glee when the Metropolitan Museum announced the theme of its 2018 Met Gala – Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.
Not surprisingly, couturier Guo Pei took the theme to heart, using it for her haute couture 2017 collection, which culminated in a bride wrapped in a silver cocooning veil, a la Frida Kahlo, and topped with a cross.
Sarah Jessica Parker, meanwhile, arrived in a gold alta moda Dolce & Gabbana gown, topped with a gilded shrine depicting a nativity scene, while Rihanna outdid everyone for sheer shout-out-loud splendour in Maison Margiela – she ditched the subtle references and just went dressed as the Pope. Translated into an embroidered minidress, with a matching mitre (hat), mantum (robe) and mozzetta (cape), her look was also entirely encrusted in pearls.
Just as the Church realised the power of dressing long ago (popes used to wear extra-long capes that would flow down steps and give the illusion of height), so music stars are skilled at using tricks to create the image they want to project. At the Met Gala, for example, Madonna wore a sombre black gown by Jean Paul Gaultier, which had a cross carved out of the torso. However, the Material Girl singer has made a good living courting controversy since bursting on to the scene in the 1980s, clad in cheap lace and crucifixes, setting a tone that would carry her through for the next 30 years.
In 1989, with the video for her song Like A Prayer, Madonna challenged perceptions of both the Catholic Church and the Ku Klux Klan. Set in a church, she wore a tight black dress, before kissing a statue of a saint (that came to life as a black man) and then danced in front of burning crosses. Predictably, the video drew a lot of criticism, especially in Mississippi (which has had the most black men murdered by lynch mobs), where religious groups demanded a boycott of Pepsi, for using Madonna in its advertisements. Pepsi bowed to the pressure and dropped the American singer-songwriter.
Undaunted, the singer took to the stage for her Confessions Tour in 2006 on a cross wearing a crown of thorns, resulting in the Catholic Church openly talking about her excommunication. She responded by inviting then Pope Benedict XVI to attend the show. He declined.
Another Catholic seemingly struggling with personal morality, Lady Gaga wore a pallium for her 2010 video for the pop song Alejandro, recrafting the papal robe from latex. The following year, for the Monsters Ball tour, Gaga wore latex again, this time as a short nun’s habit, which was almost see-through, prompting the Catholic League in America to condemn her for “abusing Catholic symbols”.
Beyonce touched on religion for her performance at the 2017 Grammys, arriving as a gilded (and pregnant) Black Madonna, complete with a golden halo. She later accepted her award for Best Urban Contemporary Album wearing a confessional veil.
Back in 2012, meanwhile, Nicki Minaj arrived at the Grammys wearing Versace’s version of cardinals red robes (with a huge Medusa head motif), on the arm of a pope lookalike, while the set for her performance later that evening had cathedral-like stained-glass windows, with dancers dressed like monks and choir boys.
During his tenure at Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci drew on his Catholic faith many times, especially for autumn / winter 2010, when he sent male models down the runway wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Jesus is Lord”.
Over at Christian Dior, the flawed genius of John Galliano delivered a Freud or Fetish collection for autumn / winter 2000, which opened with a male model dressed as a priest, swinging an incense-filled thurible.
For spring / summer 2007, Gaultier returned to Christian imagery once again, with Madonnas (of the religious variety) cherubs and angels vying for attention on the runway.
While the visual language of Catholicism provides rich and seemingly endless inspiration, it is reasonable to assume that Pope Francis will not arrive shimmering in gold vestments. We expect he will wear his plain white cassock, knee-length rochet and a simple cape. His shoes will likely be black and his skullcap unadorned. Clearly unmoved by the unimaginable wealth surrounding him at the Vatican, it seems the pontiff is asking us to do the same.
Updated: February 2, 2019 05:03 PM