The Beauty and Absurdity of Religious Iconography

July 18, 2014 • Fashion

Catholicism is an absurdity, but it’s a beautiful absurdity. Whenever I think of the religion of the Holy Roman Church, I think of drama, or more accurately, glamour. Bejeweled sapphire and rhinestone tears, gilded crowns, gushing wounds painted in vibrant red—it’s excessive, it’s emotional, it’s luxurious. And it’s really no surprise that Catholic iconography has had such a grand and abiding influence on fashion. You can be as big as Jesus Christ, as flawless as the Virgin Mary—borrow their images and become something like them.

I was never baptized or confirmed—I’m not technically a Catholic. My parents disagreed about religion, just like they did about pretty much everything else, as my mother was raised Catholic and my father Southern Baptist. They ended up compromising with Methodist, which means that my mother would have preferred no church at all and gave in to the least offensive of the options my father presented.  It was strange that he wanted me to have an experience with Christianity at all, as he was an avowed atheist. To my childhood self, it seemed he hated all the most beguiling and exciting parts of religion. He didn’t believe in miracles, snorted at Holy Communion, and was almost aggressively uninterested in any stories of martyrdom or revelation.

When I say my father disliked religion, I mean he really just disliked anything that wasn’t his particular cultural brand of bloodless Protestant Christianity. He’d wax poetic about the joys of sitting quietly in an airless room for three hours, but anything he considered to be more outré was the focus of the utmost contempt.

I haven’t seen my father for two years, but I have a feeling he wouldn’t be a fan of my current style. My accessory of choice is a rosary, or rather rosaries. I wear at least two at a time (along with a couple of saint medals) a la Fairuza Balk in The Craft. On an aesthetic level, I appreciate the layering effect. On another, deeper level I admit that I like the sense of protection they give. It wouldn’t be quite the same if I just wore an unassuming cross necklace or kept the rosary in my bag or pocket. The ostentatiousness feels aggressive, like mean laughter or oversized shoulder pads—sort of like a do it yourself version of the Alexander McQueen’s idea of fashion as armor.

Fairuza Balk in The Craft.

I refer to McQueen here, instead of say, Jean Paul Gaultier, because his work seems to be more honestly if not explicitly religiously charged. McQueen is brutal, unsettling, and always haunted by some sort of trauma, bodily or otherwise where Gaultier is broadly artificial, sanitized, and expertly curated. If McQueen is interested in the crucifixion, Gaultier is interested in the cross. To be entirely honest, I’m not certain which one I’m after.

The problem is that the line between the cross and the crucifixion isn’t always well defined, in the same way that the difference between a set of armor and a weapon can be difficult to suss out. In the same collection that Alexander McQueen made a set of armor, he also remade the burka in a sexualized manner that seemed more to mock and humiliate than give any sort of agency. When I engage in the practice of mixing religion with fashion, I have to keep a critical eye on what exactly I am taking and what I am making it into. A Virgin Mary belt buckle is one thing, a pair of underwear emblazoned with Our Lady of Guadalupe is quite another. I can laugh at myself, I can laugh at my own pain, at the absurdities of my family and their history, but I can’t do that to someone else. Religion is culturally and ethnically specific—my Irish Saint Bridget is not interchangeable with the Mexican Santa Muerte. Remaking an image, a figure, can be a kind of a violation, a way of indicating whose beliefs are real, worthy of being taken seriously, and whose are not. This is important—I want to get over my own traumas, learn to live with them, not transfer them over to some exotified other.

  • The iconography if religion is fascinating. My parents made me get confirmed when I was younger and the best part of the experience was getting the saint’s medal. Even though I’ve never believed in god, I believe in the power of the saints and the power I get from wearing my medal. I also have medals that some monks sent me, and I love wearing those as well.

Read more:
The Enigma of Making Monsters: A Chat with the Illustrator Hattie Stewart
True Life: I Actually Love Ulyana Sergeenko
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