Fashion and religion: what do they have in common?

What do the two most powerful catalysts of contemporary rites have in common? Much more than imagined. It supports it father Alberto Fabio Ambrosio, author of two surprising books on the subject. From Fellini to Ferragni, from genderless to sustainability, sacred and profane constantly intersect. And who knows that, one day, the Church will not take the field …

Divine grace and fashion have a lot in common. Both would seem, very “unjustly”, to grant themselves to all in equal measure, indiscriminately offering the same imaginary of salvation and / or the same dreams. However, St. Teresa of the Child Jesus helps us to straighten the shot, because he believes that each of us is given the same capacity for redemption (and illusions), but measured according to our personal abilities. Father Alberto Fabio Ambrosio writes, thinks and rethinks it, Dominican friar professor of theology and history of religions at the Luxembourg School of Religion & Society and research director at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, 51 years old, a past as a specialist in the history of Ottoman Sufism and the present as a daredevil forerunner of a new field of investigation: the theology of fashion.


Rihanna at the 2018 Met Gala for the Heavenly Bodies exhibition


Father Ambrosio directs the series Dressing the unspeakable, Fashion and religionthe of the Italian publishing house Mimesis, specializing in philosophy and human and social sciences. And he declares himself a Thomist, that is, a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas and his Christian re-elaboration of Aristotle, and he uses the Aristotelian logical categories to probe the relationship between Fashion and Religion (yes, he says, capital letters are needed for both). The management of the sacred, he explains, was the prerogative of Religion until the advent of modernity, but then it is Fashion that has become a system in which faith operates. That said, perhaps, it’s a little hard to digest. But the dialogue with Father Ambrosio, as far as Zoom away from Luxembourg, is amiable, immediate. It is surprising. Blue shirt and Ax Armani Exchange jeans (of which he is very proud), hair gathered in a pigtail, he has just returned from Milan, from an anthropological study internship at the Vivienne Westwood offices. “We had already thought of a meeting of Mrs. Westwood with Pope Francis, to talk about the climate emergency, but then there was Covid …”.

fashion and religions


Father Ambrosio, you wrote two essays: God tailored thrice: fashion, church and theology (Mimesis, preface by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi), in which he demonstrates that it is with fashion, with the leather tunics sewn for sinners and naked Adam and Eve, that God can enter into history, and then Fashion and religions. Dressing the sacred, making the look sacred (Bruno Mondadori), to tell us that fashion today restores the ability to go beyond its limits to a modern society that has lost its religious sense. Already. Too bad that today religious identities are increasingly claimed in a political sense, and that the West, from which the fashion you speak of was born, is accused of immorality. How do we put it?

We put it with two observations on what is happening in France, a country in which Catholicism is on two levels, the ultra-traditional, very strong, and the progressive, on the verge of extinction. On the one hand there is the question of the burkini in the pool and on the other hand there is the bishop of Toulouse who has prohibited seminarians from wearing the cassock until they reach the clerical state. Which leads me to reply that there is a return in strength of Religion, but at the same time there is more and more distrust in religious institutions. And given their low impact, fashion becomes one of the sectors where the life of the world is taking place. Fashion moves global policies, it is a religious substitute. Fellini had already understood this, with his ecclesiastical fashion show in the film Rome. And after all, doesn’t Chiara Ferragni perhaps have a dogmatic aspect of her in what you say? And in the continuous sense of novelty, in the rebirth of each season, does not Fashion perhaps live its perennial Annunciation, death and resurrection? Finally, I want to add something: the current reflection on gender wants to free itself from the Jewish-Christian universe, it is a pity that genderless has always been there.

Dolce and Gabbana

A bag from the Dolce & Gabbana A / W 2018-19 fashion show.

Jacopo RauleImaxtree

You are welcome?

The Church was the first institution to have made a genderless policy. Let’s think about what the researcher Elizabeth Wilson wrote in Dressing up with dreams, Fashion and modernity, about uniforms: wearing the uniform, the individual must differentiate himself, because where there is a discipline everyone has to find his peculiarity. And let’s think of priests, a category where there is everything, given this need for differentiation: there is the macho, there is the ephebic, there is the meek, the choleric …

From genderless to femininity. You wrote that Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent dresses embodied three ideas of the modern woman.

Yes. From Chanel came the independent woman but still tied to tradition. Her suit is the equivalent of the men’s suit. With Dior there is a dip in the past, the silhouette is that of a contemporary Cinderella, of a classic princess. Saint Laurent clears everything, and makes his woman a completely independent man. Which proves two things: that the look is not an appearance but an imaginary and real universe; and that even when the woman is released, in reality she is still placed in the boxes.

lily collins

Lily Collins at the 2018 Met Gala for the Heavenly Bodies exhibition


Speaking of femininity interpreted by fashion, what about modest fashion of eminently Islamic coinage? You wrote that modesty is the child of sin.

Well, I say that it “uses” the western fashion industry to make a request for women’s freedom. But even more obligations arise from this question, precisely those of modesty, modesty …

You investigate the religious experience of the designers. Balenciaga which is inspired by the sacred painting of the Siglo de Oro, as seen in the exhibition at the Metropolitan in New York, in 2018, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination. Or Coco Chanel who never gets rid of the years spent in boarding school by the nuns (Virginie Viard dedicated a collection to that period, with Gigi Hadid as the mother superior) and sublimates them in the black and white of her fashion. Or the bride with whom Saint Laurent always closes his fashion shows, evident filiation of the evangelical wedding dress. And by the way: you have noticed the slightly Baroque and Catholic tendency of Yves Laurent’s inspiration and contrasted it with the Protestant liturgical imagery of Hermés. But how much France! And Italian fashion?

Good question, I’ll need it for the next book I’m writing! I am reminded of what a Turkish diplomat in Paris told me: the best Frenchmen are all Italians! Seriously, I’m reflecting on how Alessandro Michele reactivates the mask of Arlecchino, behind which there is Sufism. And then I think of the beautiful book that Gianfranco Ferré (another Italian in France!) Wrote in 1996, A young stylist. But whether it is Italian or French, Fashion shares with religions the search for a moral and spiritual conversion that allows for the arrival of an experience of the sacred. Experience that takes place in a transformation of reality, even of one’s own individual reality.

gigi hadid

Gigi Hadid in the Haute Couture fashion show for Chanel S / S 2020.

Daniele OberrauchImaxtree

Let’s now touch on one of the most exciting points of his thought. The ethical dimension required today by Fashion refers to religious salvation or, better, to the theology of salvation focused on Christianity. The Gospel of Matthew which incites to dress the naked after all shows that the Church did not wait millennia to think about the circularity of clothing. Do you really think that the Catholic Church, and the various Christian churches, could guide the sustainability of fashion? Do you really think that fashion could be useful for new shepherds?

Of course. Too bad that the Catholic Church continues to get lost in a glass of water. And who gives his pearls to swine. There is no adequate reflection, the Anglo-Saxon activists think only of chemistry, but we religious, for example, have the experience of the sobriety of monastic institutions, therefore a practice to be repeated. But the Church is still afraid to take the field. Instead she should get her hands dirty with frivolity, she should go where she has never gone, in those suburbs that are in reality the historic centers of the metropolis, are the quadrilaterals of luxury. When Orsola de Castro of the Fashion Revolution movement leads us to think that it is “better to have fewer needs than to have more things” she reconnects to Sant’Agostino. As for the new pastors, I am sure that clericalism is to be fought and that the priest should not be left alone in the sacristy or alone to say mass. The priest must smell the scent of the others: he must not pretend to be the same as them, it is he who must put himself in areas where apparently it has nothing to do with it. And the life of the world today is certainly not in the context of the Church.

adam and eve by jan gossaert

Adam and Eve by Jan Gossaert, known as Mabuse


You are a cleric who had a seamstress mother. A biography which evidently helped her to develop this new philosophy …

I would say really. Science does not ignore the subject who makes science, as St. Thomas said. Meanwhile, as a Dominican, every day I am confronted with the more than average dress. In short, the habit inhabits me: I have a beautiful black and white religious dress, its creation is attributed to none other than Michelangelo, I have my priestly vest to say Mass, the clergyman, my bourgeois, “civil” dress, as what I’m wearing today. As for my mother, she raised three widowed children on her, thanks to her needle that she always held in her hand. She had a sickly perfectionism, because she was able to unpick everything at the final test and then start over. It was the Eighties, in Milan, in Bande Nere, and she worked on behalf of the most important Italian and French brands, I remember that as a child I always played with the labels that were then applied to her clothes.

But did you, Father Ambrosio, have wanted to become a stylist?

I never thought about it. My dimension has always been intellectual. Maybe now I am lacking a little creativity! When I see a fashion show, my hands itch… I think of the last one I saw, that of the post-pandemic Valentino: a work of art by Pierpaolo Piccioli, with all that pink and black. By the way: it was the great plagues that brought the democratization of wearing black to the West.

Projects for the future?

I’m finishing a book on the relationship between fashion and spirit, for the Flash Art publishing house. It must be ready for this fall. I will work all summer!

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