Let’s get spiritual! Five times religion inspired the runway

Following rumours that next year’s Met exhibition will focus on religion in fashion, here are five famous (and controversial) moments that brought the two together

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Christian Dior AW00 Couture

If you haven’t had a chance to visit Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: The Art of the In-Between at the Met’s Costume Institute in New York, you have just under a month left to see it. As the closing date approaches, rumours fly as to what next year’s theme could be – and according to WWD, it will focus on religion in fashion.

The spiritual can be a sensitive topic though, as Chanel found out in 1994. After designing an evening gown printed with a verse of the Quran, Karl Lagerfeld received death threats and had to hire a bodyguard for Claudia Schiffer (who modelled the dress). Following the controversy, the only three versions of the garment in existence were burned as an apology.

That hasn’t stopped designers incorporating religion into their work over the years, from staging shows in churches to repurposing religious iconography or even taking inspiration from nuns. While we wait for the Met to confirm (or deny) next year’s theme, here are some collections that could potentially feature in the exhibition.

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER AW93 

Before words like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘problematic’ were a thing, designers arguably had more freedom to take inspiration from things that would now be seen as controversial. Jean Paul Gaultier has often looked to religion for his collections – SS07 Couture was an ode to Catholicism – but the most famous occasion was probably the AW93 ‘Chic Rabbis’ collection. Inspired by a group of rabbis leaving the New York Public Library, the models wore outfits that were reminiscent of Hasidic Jews – long coats, big hats and curls down the sides of their heads. Later that year, in cult 90s documentary Unzipped, supermodel Christy Turlington revealed there was booing during the finale, but journalist Ingrid Sischy disagreed. Her recollection was just hearing the words, “Oh my god, Gaultier’s gone too far,” being uttered. 

HUSSEIN CHALAYAN SS98

Turkish-Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan’s SS98 collection – entitled ‘Between’ – is probably his most controversial. Reflecting his work’s fascination with cultural divides between East and West, the show ended with six models wearing nothing but niqabs of varying lengths, incrementally revealing the models’ naked bodies beneath. The New York Times called the performance “a provocative exploration of Islamic women's place in society”, and while some saw it as a perverse defiling of a religious garment, Chalayan insisted it wasn’t supposed to offend. “It was about defining your cultural territory,” he told the Guardian in 2000. “How a group of people define their territory with their clothes.” 

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN SS00 

There was never a dull moment at an Alexander McQueen show. For SS00 – which was entitled ‘Eye’ – he made his debut in New York in an abandoned warehouse. Partially inspired by religious conflicts between Christianity and Islam, the models walked in a shallow pool of water, supposedly representational of the oil of wealthy Middle-Eastern countries. With ensembles that merged motifs of crescent moons and very McQueen tailoring, there were burkas with sequined windows and a chainmail top that covered the model’s face and upper body. For the finale, rows of spikes emerged out of the water and models on ropes looked as if they were levitating over the space dressed in striped chadors. One floated cross legged with her hands on her knees, a position that referenced Buddhism and Hinduism. 

CHRISTIAN DIOR AW00 HAUTE COUTURE

Although he had a Roman Catholic upbringing, religion was not one of Galliano’s main obsessions during his time at Christian Dior. However, following his controversial “hobo” collection for AW00, he still had the idea of transgression on his mind. For the AW00 Couture show, called ‘Freud or Fetish’ this manifested as a group of characters plucked straight from the depths of the subconscious. There was a French maid, nun, and a bride and groom – the latter whose hands were tied together with a string of pearls. Not forgetting the menacing priest who opened the show, swinging a thurible dispensing incense. 

GIVENCHY AW10 MENSWEAR

Growing up in a devout Catholic Italian family, Riccardo Tisci often referenced religious iconography during his tenure at Givenchy. For the SS13 show, he presented his collection on a gang of sexy nun-like models – albeit very chic nuns. Not to mention the Madonna-print sweatshirts that are one of the most iconic – and commercially coveted – pieces he created for the house. One of his best fashion and religion mashups was at the AW10 menswear show. In an ode to Jesus Christ, model after model paraded the runway with a crown of gold and silver thorns around their necks. In case that was too subtle, a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Jesus is Lord” on top of a picture of the son of God helped get the message across.

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