At a distance, they looked like lilacs, swaying under the desert sun. Up close, they were creative congregants cloaked in mottled lavender and dusty-mauve streetwear—musicians, dancers, choir members—orbiting a man who believes himself a deity: the rapper Kanye West.
On Easter Sunday, his Sunday Service performance at Coachella (the project’s first public appearance after invite-only shows attended by Katy Perry and Courtney Love) garnered as much attention for its celebrity-filled crowd and sensational setup as its available “church merch”: $50 socks, $70 T-shirts, and $165-to-$225 sweatshirts that his team hawked beneath a tent. The items came emblazoned with sayings like “Sunday Service at the Mountain,” “Holy Spirit,” “Jesus Walks,” and “Trust God.”
Trust West to deploy a clever marketing scheme and capitalize on a recent cultural phenomenon: our obsession with church style. From pastors wearing pricey sneakers (including Air Yeezy 2s with a $5,000 price tag) as reported by The New York Times, to Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin) self-describing her outfit inspiration as church wife on Twitter, our fascination with nonsecular style has reached heavenly heights.
Odd considering younger generations tend to be less religious globally, as reported by the Pew Research Center last year. In 2015, the nonprofit found that between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of America’s population fell by 7.8 percent, while unaffiliated demographics rose by 6.7 percent. Another survey from that year reported that 35 percent of American adult millennials are religiously unaffiliated.
Yet after the Costume Institute exhibited “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” last year, it became the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s all-time most-visited show, with a staggering 1,659,647 attendees. For the star-studded accompanying Met Ball, celebrities festooned themselves in spiritually harmonious iconography: Greta Gerwig wore a minimalist nun’s habit by the Row, a gravid Cardi B evoked Mother Mary in a jewel-drenched Moschino dress, and Zendaya appeared glitteringly armored, a Joan of Arc in Versace chainmail.
Beyond mirroring Catholicism’s tradition of opulence, fashion’s most recent religious turn tends towards conservatism. Modest dressing, which has roots in religious adherence, has migrated back into fashion. Uniqlo collaborated with British-Japanese designer Hana Tajima, who designed the brand’s first hijabs in 2015. Batsheva, the conservative-yet-subversive dress line, draws inspiration from Victorian, Amish, and Hasidic cultures for its puffy-sleeve, below-the-knee pieces. In 2017, journalist Naomi Fry investigated the trend for T Magazine, writing that “the kind of woman who is newly sheathing herself in long, baggy silhouettes is often the type of liberal nonbeliever who’d be the first to eschew any traditional strictures on her choices, sartorial or otherwise.” West’s Sunday Service line is so unadorned it invokes cultish vibes à la Wild Wild Country. The only vestige of opulence, one might argue, is in the price tag.
“In the beginning, there was a real piousness to the clothing that helped us bridge the division between ourselves and the church,” says Jade Papa, curator of the Textile and Costume Collection at Jefferson University-East Falls. In the 13th century, silhouettes started mimicking the shapes of the awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals. Fashions featured elongated waistlines inspired by towering spires, which brought mankind closer to God. To Papa, West’s Sunday Service Hare Krishna-inspired hues could also visually indicate community. “I can look across the crowd and see above the social-media haze that these are my people,” she says.
Historically, religious garb has served many functions: it denotes authority, hierarchy, gender, virtue, modesty and belonging. “While some might regard fashion as a frivolous pursuit far removed from the sanctity of religion,” writes Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s Wendy Yu curator in charge, in the Heavenly Bodies catalog, “most of the vestments worn by the secular clergy and religious orders of the Catholic Church have their origins in secular dress.” He suggests that the relationship between fashion and religion is intimate. (The recent $300 million euro donation by French fashion scions François Pinault, the majority shareholder of luxury group Kering, and Bernard Arnault, chairman and C.E.O. of L.V.M.H., to rebuild Notre-Dame seems to suggest as much.)
In literary traditions, outer garments reveal something about our inner souls. In The Master and Margarita, the devil “dressed in an expensive gray suit and wore foreign-made shoes of the same color. A gray beret was cocked rakishly over his ear, and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head.” In Middlemarch, the pious Dorothea Brooke declares, “A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket.” Which brings us to one of mankind’s eternal dilemmas: how to dress if there’s no virtue in virtue signaling.
“In this particular moment of conscientious consumerism, a T-shirt may stand in for one’s values,” explains Josef Sorett, associate professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University.“There’s a long history of folks turning from traditional religious institutions to art in its various forms as a site of moral and spiritual authority.” He adds, “There’s almost a social consensus of the artistic power and importance of religious traditions in popular culture right now.” In light of the sexual abuse scandals that have ensnared the Catholic Church, Sorett suggests that art allows us to “think in more precise or specific ways about the legacy of institutions that have both healed and harmed us.”
In many ways, religion served as the ultimate urtext for aspirational living. By ascribing to its dictates, both in decorum and dress, one might attain glory in the afterlife. Though we may often renounce scripture and sermons today, we still subscribe to some kind of belief system, transferring our reverence for the ever-after in favor of the eminence of the right-now: today we pay homage to our idols on Instagram; we take spiritual pilgrimages to Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health. In high collars or low, our pursuit of eternal health, wealth, and splendor remains everlasting.
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