If you’re not flipping through fashion glossies for insights into the American religious landscape, maybe you should be. “Fashion history is religious history,” argues Lynn S. Neal. In her latest book, Religion in Vogue, she makes a compelling case for the claim.
Religious historians have always studied the complex interplay between image and text. Just as we can glean information about what people in previous eras believed by reading what they wrote, so too can we infer it from the pictures they’ve left on cave walls or cathedrals. It shouldn’t be a great leap, then, to do what Neal does here: she takes some of the most widely circulated image-and-text-laden artifacts produced in the last hundred years—fashion magazines—and treats them as valid sources for understanding the beliefs of the people who made and read them.
A professor of religious studies at Wake Forest University, Neal writes with a distinctly scholarly voice, clearly pitched more to fellow academics than the wider readership of the magazines she examines. But then again, the premise that grounds her analysis—that fashion is worthy of sustained attention—is one the latter group has already bought into. The former are likely to need more convincing.
At the outset of her exploration, Neal sets a few limits. She examines only American editions of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar published between the end of World War II and the mid-2010s. Most of her attention is devoted specifically to Christianity, both because that’s the belief system at the center of American religious history, and because the world of designer fashion has historically been influenced primarily by creatives of Western origin. Still, Neal’s observations yield insights into the American spiritual landscape that go well beyond the walls of churches.
Neal’s main target is the flawed idea that fashion and religion are inherently opposed, an attitude she exposes as a relatively recent development. For those who perceive fashion as primarily concerned with surfaces and religion as primarily concerned with interiors, it may seem reasonable. But Neal reminds us that our current religious and cultural assumptions evolved through a long, slow process of sedimentation and accretion. Only by excavating our own intellectual history can we truly grasp the ways we process and internalize the portrayals of religion that surround us today.
In the 1940s, religious belief was taken for granted as the backdrop of American life and therefore for fashion, too. If magazines like Vogue intended to communicate to readers what “the good life” looked like shortly after the war, it was a life that clearly included religious engagement. Today we’d be surprised to flip open a glossy magazine at the grocery store and find leading Catholic voices; but Thomas Merton and Bishop Fulton Sheen were both published in Vogue in the past. That their spiritual reflections could sit happily alongside photos of models wearing the latest from Paris went unquestioned.
Advertising took things a step further, not just showcasing faith and fashion side by side, but actually combining them. In the ’40s and ’50s, fashion and beauty ads came to rely heavily on notions of the miraculous and the heavenly to sell products, quietly establishing the consumption of goods as a path to transcendence. The biblical character Eve figured prominently in campaigns, and even if her presence subverted the traditional narrative—in ads she became a symbol of women’s power to choose as well as to allure—it also underscored the ways in which fashion framed desire and consumption in Scriptural terms.