Cross Dressing

Religion as Fashion

The fashion world is raving over a chic new accessory: the cross.

Top designers like Bill Blass are draping crosses around models on Seventh Avenue. Jewelers are offering crosses in every conceivable size and style.

And to go along with the crosses, designers came up with what they’re calling the monastic look. Ralph Lauren introduced long black dresses with demure white collars that made the models look like convent novices. Calvin Klein showed long, dark coats and tunics, reminiscent of the Amish or Orthodox Jews. Other designers offered styles based on monks’ robes, sometimes with a cord at the waist, sometimes hooded, sometimes adorned with rosary beads.

What’s going on here? A spiritual revival among clothing designers?

Not in the least. These religious styles have nothing to do with religion. They’re pure fashion.

Designers say the religious styles convey a sense of “serenity” and “simplicity.” Fashion historian Caroline Rennolds says the simple lines represent “restraint.” “They are almost demure in contrast to the body-baring, in-your-face” fashions of the past decade, she says.

What we’re witnessing is religion reduced to a sort of ethnic curiosity—something chic to imitate in art and fashion, but not to take seriously.

It’s exactly like the southwestern fashion of wearing Indian jewelry or decorating your home with Indian rugs and pottery. No one treats these as objects of religious worship, even though many of the designs were originally used ceremonially in Indian religions. Rugs may show the Rain God casting down thunderbolts, but for most Americans the religious dimension only makes these objects more “interesting,” in an anthropological sense.

This is the same attitude the fashion industry is now adopting toward Christian symbols. The cross and the rosary are used for their ethnic and historical associations, not their religious meaning.

As a case in point, one jeweler boasts that many of the people who buy his crosses are Jewish. For them clearly the attraction of the cross is not religious. And if there’s any lingering association with Christianity, the jeweler told a reporter, “they manage to get over” it.

Get over it? Yes, here fashion has turned into a conscious effort to drain religious symbols of their rich spiritual meaning—to reduce the sacred to an empty fad.

So empty that some people no longer even remember its original meaning. The story is told of a jeweler whose customer asked to see a cross. He replied, “Do you want an ordinary one or one with a little man on it?”

The jeweler apparently had no idea who the “little man” is who is traditionally shown hanging on the cross.

This appalling spiritual ignorance is a reminder that as our nation grows more secular, our own communities are becoming mission fields.

In fact, maybe you can turn the new fad into an advantage. If you see people wearing a cross, why not find out if they know what it means? It just might be the perfect conversation opener.

And they might hear for the first time who the Man is who was hung on the cross for our sins.


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