The essence of a symbol is to be inexhaustible. It carries one or more meanings that can only be revealed depending on its level of understanding. This is how you might see, or in the case of fashion, wear symbols without even knowing it, as Miranda Priestly reminded Andy Sachs of Oscar de la Renta’s cerulean blue in The devil wears Prada. Since the 1990s, the Catholic religious symbol has been used systematically in designer collections, from the simple Madonna on the front of a dress to more implicit reminders on bags and earrings.
“Certain articles […] are meant to be viewed, appreciated as a painting would be ”
Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are the masters of Christian representation in haute couture. Over the past 20 years, the religious symbolism of the brand has multiplied, being found on many catwalks as in 2013, 2015 or 2019. The countless churches, the art and the general atmosphere have made up the aesthetic of the brand. From red carpet outfits to ready-to-wear, Catholicism is everywhere. Some items, such as a dress from the Fall 2018 Ready-to-Wear collection, are virtually unusable. Entirely made of sequins, a Virgin Mary prays on the breastplate of the dress, surrounded by a golden halo and stars. Two angels hold a crown above his head. This piece, for example, is pure art. As much as I am a fan of overdressing, some items are just too much to go to your local Sainsbury’s – they are meant to be viewed, enjoyed like a painting would be.
However, other parts of the brand are a bit easier. Crosses, before becoming a symbol of haute couture, were associated with a Y2K Gothic style. D&G has reused this popular image in its latest collections, such as in spring 2019, where the brand launched sweatshirts and jersey dresses depicting a praying Virgin Mary in a ‘street-art’ style. While bearing the inscription “tradizione”, these latest religious collections are blowing a wind of modernity, adapting the sacred to streetwear in a spirit of provocation. In another state of mind, Gucci, with its non-binary geek-chic style, used the symbol of “transverberation”, which can also be found in the collections of D&G and other designers. “Transverberation” is defined as a mystical experience in which the heart of the devotee is pierced spiritually, and is represented by a heart pierced by one or more swords. Gucci mostly used the symbol in Lana del Rey’s outfit for the 2018 Met Gala, but it was also seen on one of the models from Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2007 Couture collection, and in the “devotion” line. from D&G which includes bags, shoes and belts.
“Maybe God is now forging fashion too”
It should be noted that not all brands are so vibrant and extravagant. Versace, for example, has been using a sobering cross since the fall of 1997 – Gianni’s last show before his tragic murder. In this collection, nine outfits feature Byzantine-inspired crosses, including the wedding dress worn by Naomi Campbell. Since then, Versace has reused the symbol on several occasions, such as in 2012 and 2018. Gold crosses encrusted with precious stones on the dresses are not a recent invention, however. The rigor of the seventeenth century found its place in royal fashion, where crosses were sewn on the breastplates of basket dresses, exhibited in a portrait of Marie de Medici, the mother of Louis XIII, painted in 1610 by Frans Pourbus the Younger .
However, most of the fashionable religious symbols are found in the accessories. Dolce & Gabbana’s fall 2013 ready-to-wear collection was considered the largest exhibition of religious accessories in the history of haute couture with its bags in the shape of an incense burner, cross earrings, its crowns, its baroque shoes … Since then, religious jewelry has become an integral part of the brand’s identity. For next fall, D&G has released rosary-inspired earrings and necklaces for customers to gradually appropriate the religious symbol, before diving into head-to-toe religious outfits. The models also become living symbols. Jean-Paul Gaultier understood this well, when in 2007 he stuck faces like Madonnas, white tones and tears of blood on them, recalling the miracles of weeping statutes like halos to complete the flowing dresses of muslin and lace.
Why do designers use the religious symbol in their work? Do the couturiers try to expose their belonging to a certain community? Are they provocative, driven by their criticism of the Church? Or maybe God, with his creative force, as the first designer after having inspired philosophers, architects, sculptors, writers, painters and musicians, is also forging fashion …
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