From the Met Ball to Twitter, the renewed interest in faith is more than just a fashion momentby Stephanie Boland / May 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
Rihanna wore a mitre, Sarah Jessica Parker an entire nativity balanced on her head and Ariana Grande a dress printed with a fresco from the Sistine Chapel. This year, the theme of the Met Ball—the yearly fundraising Gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, overseen by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour—was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” and the outfits referenced everything from Joan of Arc to angel’s wings.
Although the event has received censure from some, others are excited to see Catholicism explored in such a high-profile setting. “I’m not sure religion ever left the cultural agenda, but in recent times its more problematic sides have (often quite rightly) been put centre-stage in cultural debate,” Stephanie MacGillivray, who works with the Church, told me. “I love the theme of this year’s Met Ball because I think it offers an opportunity for a genuine dialogue not just between the world of fashion and the Catholic imagination, but in society more widely regarding an exploration of the many different aspects of religion, good and bad.”
“I am sure that some will use it as an opportunity to be critical of faith and religion, but I also hope that it will be used as a way of celebrating what religion is all about: peace, hope, and love, as well as exploring its more mystical side.”
The Met Ball theme isn’t just a reflection of a fashion moment, enshrined in television programs like The Young Pope. It also speaks to a wider cultural moment characterised by an interest in mysticism as much as in irony, the resurgence of faith as much as the loss of certainty. In this sense, it links to several apparently disparate ideas that have recently made their way in to the mainstream—including an interest in other, more out-there forms of spirituality.
In 2015, Alex Mar published her book Witches of America, an investigation into the beliefs and practises of various pagan and new-age groups in the United States. (Although praised by reviewers, her book attracted ire from some pagans, who characterised it as dismissive and “florid.”) Mar was not the only writer who noticed a renewed interest in magic and mysticism. In March of 2016, the Week ran an article asking: “Why is tarot crazy popular all of a sudden?” “New York,” the Village Voice said, “is in the middle of a tarot revival.” More recently, ideas like mindfulness, and even the Shinto-inspired intentionality of Marie Kondo’s popular decluttering guide, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, have brought other, diluted forms of spiritualism into the limelight. The app Headspace, with guided meditations rooted in its creator’s Buddhist faith, is a $250 million business.
What drives young people towards these forms of spirituality is less clear. “I definitely think that the resurfacing of interest in the occult—at least among middle class people in the west—is related to economic uncertainty,” one friend suggests. “When one’s own culture can’t provide answers or certainty, people look to more ‘exotic’ or novel forms of culture.”
For MacGillivray, however, the answer is more straightforward. “I believe that humans are spiritual beings, and that we are endlessly capable of finding ways to be spiritual. The rise in popularity of yoga and mindfulness have joined faith and religion as other ways of accessing spirituality.”
Of course, belonging to the Catholic faith is not the same as practising tarot. But just as the young people who post Instagram shots of the Knight of Swords both do and don’t believe in its powers, a new way of engaging with faith is emerging online which is at once sincere and laced with irony. Among Twitter’s “Cath left,” shared study of Catholic social teaching is accompanied by jokes about John the Baptist and Pope Clement XII. “It seemed to come from nowhere,” one (non-religious) friend of mine jokes when I see her for drinks. “There are people I didn’t even realise are Catholic until they started posting communion memes.”
Lana Del Rey at the Met Gala, 2018. // Statue of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows (origin unknown). pic.twitter.com/vQyYaoYPcH
— TabloidArtHistory (@TabloidArtHist) May 8, 2018
Although Catholic Twitter is—excuse the pun—a broad church, with its jokes enjoyed both by liberal practicing Catholics and by unbelievers raised in the faith, its growing visibility is, like the rise of New Age mysticism, influenced by broader trends in popular thought.
Characterised by figures like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry and the late Christopher Hitchens, the “New Atheism” advocated secularism not only as a true reflection of reality, but also as a liberation, opposed to the patriarchal, homophobic and in some cases hypocritical aspects of the major world religions in which many of the New Atheists were raised. With an emphasis on reason and argument, the movement found a wide audience with events like the 2009 debate on “Is the Church Good?”, which saw Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens pitted against and Nigerian prelate John Onaiyekan and Tory parliamentarian Ann Widdecombe.
Yet online, scathing comments about “imaginary friends” and patronising insistence on “reason” garnered as much criticism as praise. The election of the more liberal Pope Francis in 2013 meant that many of the New Atheists’ critiques of the Catholic Church were blunted (if not entirely delegitimised). As journalist Dawn Foster puts it, “Francis has helped make mainstream a lot of quite traditionally left ideas” that have long existed in the Church. “His being the first Jesuit Pope is a big deal too, bringing that more liberal order into the limelight.” It is certainly hard to imagine the world of fashion, which styles itself as broadly liberal, picking this theme ten years ago.
For Foster—a socialist who often reports on the impact of austerity —the increased use of food banks and growing crisis in housing have helped politicise Catholics, and encouraged them to be more vocal online. Yet there is no doubt that the increased visibility of Twitter’s Catholics is also partially a reaction to what she calls the “blokeish, aggressive, sarky, anti-intellectualism marked as ‘reason’” of New Atheism. The friend who links the renewed interest in the occult to economic circumstance notes something similar: “a lot of women are very vocal about liking astrology because it’s been scoffed at for being illogical and feminine.”
While humour is a big part of Catholic Twitter—“I think the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was a really fun example of this,” Foster says—there is also genuine discussion about leftist Catholic thought, with “endless PDFs of rare and helpful books being sent around,” and “lots of emotional support and advice.”
Me tonight pic.twitter.com/1T6fItHCGK
— ellie (@ellietheking) October 31, 2017
“Friends of all religious backgrounds now celebrate their cultures more, both in terms of participating in religious customs and holidays, but also shared cultural traditions and signifiers,” Foster explains, adding that this is “in part down to the conservative and right-wing obsession with denigrating multiculturalism.” Recent moments where Catholicism itself has been misunderstood or criticised—such as the recent fallout from when an SNP MP was photographed with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead in parliament—has only added to this.
“It’s funny because it adheres to the unspoken rules of weird Twitter—the absurdity, the tone, certain memes and tweet patterns—but also a shared cultural language.”
Yet not everyone is wholly comfortable with the way Twitter has become a site of Catholic jokes. “It is slightly weird that Catholic Twitter has become a thing,” says journalist Karl McDonald. “I am partial to a Pope meme or anything that treats John Knox like he’s someone who needs to be taken down on social media, but there’s a point at which you look at your feed and think, ‘with everything that’s gone on and is going on, this is a bit uncritical.’”
“In Ireland, or among my Irish circles anyway, any jokes about the church contained within them both the idea that we are Catholics as a form of identity no matter what we do and the idea that the actually existing Catholic Church, what with the Magdalen laundries, and the abortion laws, and John Charles McQuaid, and what they did to Parnell and so forth, is not actually good.”
“I thought I was safe because of the cloak of irony over anything on the internet,” McDonald says, although he adds: “if other people have come to other accommodations about religious banter, that’s fine I guess.”
The link between this irreverent culture and the Met Ball is more than a thematic one. From a fashion perspective, the Ball’s theme can be understood as a reaction to a decade in which Scandi minimalism has long dominated everywhere from Pinterest home design boards to Cos-clad fashion editors. Drawing on the outfits of high-profile black women artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, mainstream clothing brands have increasingly turned away from this aesthetic and begun embracing the principle that more is more.
This is not just a case of fashion moving in thoughtlessly reactive cycles; as researcher and writer Anthony Oliveira commented after Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammy performance—for which she wore a gold headpiece inspired by the African goddess Oshun and an ornate beaded dress featuring two cherubs decked in ivy, undoubtedly influencing the outfits at this year’s Ball—the appearance of the baroque often coincides with times in which “reason is no longer reliable.” “In moments when social order is no longer justified or justifiable, there you will find the Baroque,” Oliveira tweeted.
the Baroque arises as a style in moments when reason is no longer reliable. The 17th and 21st century are therefore now in curious dialogue. pic.twitter.com/v3RxSobAJD
— Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa) February 13, 2017
There is, of course, an aspect of reaction here also. Fashion blogs promoting the idea of a “capsule wardrobe” or “versatile pieces” relate minimalism to quality; not just having less stuff, but doing so in order to have better stuff. Phrases like “cost per wear” are common, laid out in sans-serif fonts on airy pastel-coloured websites, and “investment pieces” are as much a moral choice as a financial one. At a time of destructively cheap, accessible fashion, items like the School of Life’s £125 “Philosopher’s Jumper”—its black merino wool allegedly signalling “a commitment to simplicity and thoughtfulness”—speak to a superior set of values. (That the initial outlay of this lifestyle is often so high as to be out of reach for many is rarely acknowledged.)
As the world of fashion turns against this sentiment, Catholic iconography becomes the perfect vehicle to announce an alternative. If in the popular imagination Protestantism is linked to hard work, abstinence and modesty, then Catholicism is seen as more interested in indulgence and revelry—at least as far as its aesthetics are concerned. (In 2008, the gold owned by the Holy See was estimated to be worth $22.4m.) In a time where young people are falsely accused of frivolously spending because they cannot save, gilt becomes perversely more appealing. It’s not only that Rihanna looks fantastic in a bejewelled mitre, but that the outsize aesthetics of Catholicism are the perfect means by which to resist the demand to think long-term, to be blander, more sensible, less flashy.
In this context, the sort of social activism that Foster describes is not necessarily seen as at odds with a stylistics whose formation relied on the extreme wealth of the church—whether one believes in the religious meaning of its symbols or not. (Catholicism, Foster notes, has always held that “excess and art bring us closer to the divine”; hence placing it “in public buildings, and in the dress of those people delivering sacraments to the people.”)
Entertaining myself by imagining the alternative universe where tonight’s Met Gala is Protestantism-themed
‘and here’s Rihanna in a stunning Jan-Hus-inspired gown, with a bejewelled tribute to his distinctive hat’ pic.twitter.com/lPmZBSWKzY
— Kirsty (@avoiding_bears) May 7, 2018
Nor will young Catholics necessarily be displeased that Lena Waithe arrived at the Met Ball wearing a pride flag draped over her shoulders like a ferraiolo (a type of cape worn by Roman Catholic clergy on formal, non-liturgical occasions). 2016 was the first year that the British Social Attitudes survey found a majority of Catholics view same-sex relationships as “not wrong at all,” with a 24 per cent increase on 2012. MacGillivray explains, “I have countless memories of people saying to me at university, ‘You’re a Catholic? So you aren’t going to have sex before marriage and you think being gay is wrong.’”
“I spent a lot of time trying to explain to people that society’s view of Catholicism was, itself, a little outdated, and that, yes, there are sadly some people in this world who do believe the latter of those things, but I’m not sure this is a view confined to Catholicism.”
“It certainly isn’t my view, nor that of any of the other young Catholics I know.”
— Dylan (@scholaurship) May 7, 2018
The Baroque, Oliveira says, is interested in remix. In this sense, the Met Ball theme has the capacity to provoke a wider conversation around the series of seemingly contradictory beliefs that make up many young people’s interest in faith and spirituality. Just as there are two sides of Catholic Twitter—the serious and the irreverent—so the Met Ball’s online audience is able to both understand the darker side of the fashion industry and revel in the emergence of a less contained, more interesting fashion moment; one which has no fear of being thought vulgar or irrational. It is this sentiment which ultimately brings together such diverse ideas and images as young women’s interest in New Age spirituality, John Knox jokes and Rihanna’s mitre. And yes: there are already memes.
— aoife (@huummus) May 8, 2018