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Sacred Threads and the Intersection of Fashion and Religious Symbolism

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

Internet culture has fostered an emergence of fashion trends infused with religious imagery, motifs, and iconography. While such trends are not entirely unprecedented in the creative realm, their contemporary expression diverges significantly from past iterations.

Fashion has long drawn inspiration from diverse sources, including religious iconography. 

Throughout history, garments have often been decorated with symbols and concepts representing various religious traditions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and more.

This way of dressing can be traced back to ancient civilizations like Egypt, where clothing played a vital role in religious rituals, with priests and priestesses donning elaborate attire embellished with symbols and hieroglyphs reflecting spiritual beliefs.

One seminal moment in fashion history that catalysed this trend occurred in 1947 with Christian Dior’s iconic New Look collection, which drew inspiration from religious art and architecture, featuring silhouettes reminiscent of medieval aesthetics.

The essence of this phenomenon lies in its longstanding presence across diverse cultures and religious denominations. However, recent iterations have brought both advancements and setbacks in how these motifs are incorporated.

The issue at hand is the dilution of the profound significance these symbols once held. Historically, wearing religious motifs carried profound meaning, reflecting devotion, cultural heritage, and spiritual significance. 

Today, there’s a troubling trend where such symbols are appropriated for mere aesthetic purposes. The debate surrounding cultural appropriation and the use of religious motifs in fashion is complex, raising questions about power dynamics, privilege, and respect for cultural traditions. 

While cultural assimilation and intercultural exchange are valuable, it’s crucial to approach such practices with sensitivity and understanding.

There is a certain double standard that we don’t really talk about that I have seen going on on the internet for some time now; rosaries and the new wave of bad jokes surrounding Christianity in the fashion industry.

A rosary is a string of beads used in counting prayers, especially in the Catholic faith. The name comes from the fact that once upon a time, said beads used to be made from roses. Skipping the details, in summary, the rosary is used as a tool for meditation and devotion - typically in  Catholic communities.

It’s reminiscent of the trend we saw a decade ago, where musicians used to wear bindis and saris in their music videos. A bindi, a decorative dot worn on the forehead, especially by women in South Asia, holds deep cultural, religious, and aesthetic meanings. In Hinduism, it symbolizes the third eye, signifying wisdom and inner insight.

Can you grasp the problematic nature? Of course you can, because society  had this discussion already.

Similarly, the issue extends to various manifestations of cultural and religious symbols, such as the rosary or the depiction of the evil eye – a symbol believed to ward off both misfortune and bestow blessings – painted on nails. 

Additionally, it encompasses instances of individuals donning veils solely for aesthetic purposes, without regard for their cultural or spiritual significance. This also includes wearing crosses, emblematic of Christianity, or Magen David, symbolizing Judaism, among a plethora of other examples.

Each of these symbols carries profound cultural, religious, and historical significance. The rosary, as we already established, represents a sacred practice deeply ingrained in Catholic tradition.

Similarly, the evil eye, prevalent in various cultures worldwide, symbolizes protection against malevolent forces and the invocation of good fortune. Its portrayal on nails or other surfaces without an understanding of its cultural context diminishes its significance and reduces it to a mere fashion statement. In fact, culture of the evil eye symbol is used to ward off evil - and often in offering protection can turn unlucky. It is believed that if you wear your charm to bed or in the shower, it may lose power.  This is why it is worn in jewellery which can break, hence why understanding its purpose is important. 

Veiling holds significant importance in many cultures and religious traditions. For instance, in Islam, the hijab symbolises modesty and adherence to religious values. 

For Christians and Pagans this sacred ritual can also be seen as a way to modesty but also talks about protecting one’s “good nature” and preserving it. Wearing it solely for aesthetic purposes disregards its spiritual significance and undermines the experiences of those who wear it as a religious obligation or personal choice.

Likewise, wearing crosses or Magen David carries profound religious connotations. The cross symbolises the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Christianity, while the Magen David represents the Jewish faith and its connection to Israel.

In essence, the appropriation of these symbols for fashion purposes reflects a disregard for their cultural, religious, and historical contexts. 

It trivialises sacred practices and beliefs, perpetuating a cycle of cultural insensitivity and erasure. Therefore, it’s imperative to approach the use of such symbols with respect, understanding, and a willingness to learn about their significance to the communities they represent.

The fashion industry plays a significant role in shaping cultural norms and perceptions through its promotion of certain trends and styles.

Truthfully, fashion brands and designers contribute to the commodification of religious symbols, as well as the marketing strategies employed to capitalise on cultural and spiritual imagery. 

Mainstream fashion trends often influence societal perceptions of beauty, identity, and cultural values. Examining the influence of these trends on the appropriation of religious symbols and the reinforcement of dominant cultural narratives could shed light on how fashion contributes to the marginalisation or empowerment of certain communities.

Although all that there are ways in which this can be done tastefully. Such as a Southern Italian couture house – Dolce & Gabanna –, or Muslim-owned brands that adhere to modesty – like Inayah.

Acknowledging my Catholic upbringing, I believe that expressing one’s faith or spiritual beliefs through their attire can be a profoundly meaningful gesture. It speaks volumes about an individual’s personality, sense of identity, and perspective on the world.

For instance, I’ve been wearing my small gold cross necklace for the past sixteen years and occasionally I drape scarves over my head; these are ways in which I manifest a part of me through fashion. I wear gold and red more times than not because that is part of my culture. I can do it fashionably but, at the same time, not for the sake of fashion.

Religion and spirituality can be sensitive topics. They can also be a way in which, just as fashion does, we present ourselves to the world. 

Edited by Emily Duff

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