Considering its decorative quality, fashion and its analysis may often get short shrift. But, as a self-designated “fashionista” who relishes the latest copy of Vogue the way students of philosophy devour Nietzsche, I’m interested in just this intersection of decoration and meaning. I enjoy expressing my sense of style through clothing, shoes, and accessories, much to the detriment of my limited graduate student income. Therefore, I was intrigued when a classmate told me about Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall 2013 fashion line. As a scholar researching the intersections between religion and culture, my interest was piqued less by the high-end fashion and more so by the designers’ re-appropriation of religious icons.  Immediately, I was clicking my way through Vogue’s pictorial review of their runway show.
Clearly the designers, as one fashion writer quips, intended to bring a type of “heavenly” vision to the runway by drawing inspiration from a 12th-century church’s religious mosaics. The show opens with a glamorous model strutting down the runway adorned with a gold crown and a bejeweled dress that features an elaborately detailed image of a saint. In fact, gold crowns (still used in Christian religious art to depict sainthood), replications of saints’ images, and gold crosses are the thematic threads carried throughout the show. I couldn’t help but smile at the irony of the models, attired in religious imagery, walking down the runway to European-inspired disco beats rather than to the reverential chants of the monastic Christian church.
According to art historian David Freedberg, every culture has had a love-hate relationship with religious images: even though such images afford cultures with stability in an ever-changing world, they cannot ultimately be controlled by theological or liturgical means. In their alluring power, religious images make demands on the viewer and the religious devotee can, therefore, transfer his or her devotion onto the object rather than the god.  Despite the unwieldy nature of religious images, the beautiful works of art found in cathedrals throughout Europe attest to the fact that the medieval Christian church, in particular, was highly invested in representing the biblical narrative and saints’ stories visually.
Dolce & Gabbana’s recent fashion show highlights how consumerism has, as sociologist Steve Bruce argues inGod is Dead: Secularization in the West, become an object of worship in and of itself. But the show also demonstrates how religious images still carry a power to elevate the beautiful to the awe-inspiring. As Freedberg suggests, religious images can be replicated and re-appropriated in ways that allow them to function in secular, rather than sacred, ways. With old churches, once held as sacred spaces, being converted into office spaces, homes, or even clubs, the mix of the sacred with the secular is producing a superficiality that is ironic but also problematic in certain ways.
Article from Ethos by Ashley King - PhD student in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her focus is on nineteenth-century British literature and the religious imaginary.