Blessed or damned? After Thom Browne AW14, we trace fashion's warped fascination with religion
There are few topics as sacred as religion. Within the realms of film, music and fashion there have been several occasions of uproar at artistic depictions of religion’s dark side. One case in point is the 1989 film Visions of Ecstasy – a film which was banned for28 years for fear that its release would violate blasphemy laws. It’s not the first time – The Passion of the Christ, The Exorcist and The Devils have all been banned in the past for themes of possession and, once again, blasphemy. The censorship of films means that government can control artistic portrayals of religion – but what about fashion?
Whilst houses such as Dolce & Gabbana are renowned for their use of beautiful iconography, there is a general fear of exploring the less-savoury aspects of religion. This fear didn’t affect New York designer Thom Browne, whose AW14 collection explored the spectacle of religion with a few more sinister undertones. Models stalked the runway with their hair combed into angelic white halos topped with veils swept back – symbolism which, in Catholicism, indicates a lack of virginity. Black skulls were used as hair accessories and fingers were dipped black, almost creating the impression of charred skin – perhaps a reference to Joan of Arc, burned at the stake for heresy. In essence, Browne’s collection was anything but angelic.
The true beauty of Browne’s collection was that the more sinister undertones were just that – undertones. The prevailing aesthetic was one of beauty, drama and extravagance which manifested in exaggerated silhouettes of gold lamé, black velvet and white leather. As is usually the case with Browne’s work, the surface needs to be scratched to truly appreciate the clothes – whether it be their construction or their concept, there is always more to be seen. Perhaps this was a conscious attempt to steer clear of controversy and the implications of blasphemy, instead leaving his audience wondering whether these women were blessed or damned.
"even four years after his death, the iconic Alexander McQueen remains the most notable blasphemer"
This reluctance to taint the puritanical issue of religion is one which is prevalent in the fashion industry – a perplexing thought, especially when we acknowledge that it is one of the only artistic platforms which can’t be censored. In an industry which regularly tackles issues such as feminism, gender politics and even mental health, it is surprising that the darker sides of religion are largely unexplored. The purest illustration of this point is the fact that, even four years after his death, the iconic Alexander McQueen remains the most notable blasphemer. With his AW07 collection he explored the history of religious witchcraft; with his AW98 collection he sartorially depicted the death of Joan of Arc and even his posthumous collection was entitled ‘Angels and Demons’. He sexualised, perverted and retold religious history to stimulate debate – something which almost all other designers are afraid to do.
Essentially, Thom Browne represents a glimmer of hope that fashion will face its fear and start presenting more original portrayals of religion. There is a wealth of inspiration to be found in religious iconography and the institution of religion itself is one which could benefit from being debated. Blasphemy is one of the only fears left, yet it is one which deters designers from showing Biblical scriptures through an artistic lens. Browne’s fearlessness (his last collection dealt with mental health) and willing to explore new territory makes him one of the more interesting designers in the industry. Religion is still a disarmingly one-sided story due to words such as blasphemy, leaving scope for designers to weigh in on the debate. The worst-case scenario is censorship – but as Visions of Ecstasy has previously shown, things become even more intriguing when censorship strikes.