How Catholicism became alt-fashion's saviour

After cottagecore and dark academia, the 'cool-girl-gone-quasi-Catholic' is the latest reaction to the establishment's hijacking of edginess.

by Biz Sherbert
29 March 2021, 5:32pm

Cottagecore, dark academia, New Age Bimboism, Soviet pastiche… over the past year, we’ve witnessed the rise of trends in alternative fashion and culture that have totally reframed what it means to be ‘traditional’. Although stylistically distinct, at the heart of each of them is a call to, well… reject modernity, embrace tradition. Or even institutional religion, as seen in the case of the cool-girl-gone-quasi-Catholic who’s come to dominate our feeds of late. Indeed, the alt framework has always had a habit of reviving anachronistic styles, but today’s execution feels more like an earnest homage to the source material than a subversion of it. So, how did being ‘trad’ become alt?

It’s important to first understand how alternative fashion transformed over the past decade. Ten years ago, alternative fashion was heavily informed by (and sold back to) the subcultural figure of the day, the hipster. Hipsters, typically white and upper-middle-class, were big on “playing Indian” — they wore ambiguous tribal print sweaters Monday-Friday and feathered headdresses for special occasions (Coachella, warehouse parties, Burning Man). But as the 2010s rolled by and brands from Urban Outfitters to Victoria’s Secret received major backlash for their insensitive use of traditional Indigenous motifs, hipsters slowly wised up, hung up their headdresses, and moved on to less controversial pastures.

“Tastemaking habits have become magnetised towards forms of appropriation that have no overt racial ties.” — Samuel Marion

Appropriation from minority cultures is not just a reflection of the entitlement of aughts-era hipsters — it’s built into how subculture, the eternal supplier of alternative fashion, has worked historically. Even the original hipsters of the ‘40s, one of the first modern youth subcultures, were a bunch of white kids who quite literally jacked their swag from the Black jazz scene. However, as backlash against cultural appropriation swelled in the late 2010s, the days of white people wearing bindis and box braids to music festivals were officially cancelled. But being alt, or at least looking it, wasn’t out — in fact, it became more profitable and status-valuable than ever. While avant-garde designers have transformed subculture into couture for decades, this process has accelerated and become more ubiquitous across the fashion industry — especially as the locus of the underground moved online and its symbols became easier to source. Just look at how designers like Hedi Slimane at Celine and Ludovic de Saint Sernin have immediately incorporated e-girl/e-boy fashion of the past few years into their collections.

Effectively, alt white kids have had to adapt and look for new ways to differentiate themselves from the sea of normies and basics. Trendsetters began to avoid ripping off styles from people of colour (lest they end up framed in shame on Diet Prada) and new reservoirs of the ‘unproblematic exotic’ were scouted out and added to the alt lexicon. Their pursuit of Otherness now took place within the strict limits of familiar, quaint horizons. “Tastemaking habits have become magnetised towards forms of appropriation that have no overt racial ties,” says Samuel Marion, an artist interested in online culture, of contemporary alt fashion, “hence the blue-collar Dickies fascination, normcore, cowboy LARPing, Walden cosplay,” and now, the new genre of alt girls who post tradwife memes while listening to Bladee.

One of the most compelling characters to emerge from the alt-trad ether is the postmodern Catholic schoolgirl, popular especially amongst the among the young, super-online fashion crowd and the designers they worship as much as they meme (including Rick Owens, whose latest collection was inspired by a biblical story). Her slip dresses and cross necklaces are within the lineage of “Like a Virgin/Prayer”-era Madonna and her pleated skirts and rosaries look a lot like the uniform of the deviant Catholic schoolgirl, as defined in the ‘90s via cult classics like The Craft. But her approach is milder, and reads more like a salvaging of innocence than an iconoclastic subversion of it. Of course, people have always looked for God in times of crisis, whether in the stars above or now, in the possibilities of orthodoxy-tinged personal branding below. Liberty McAnena, a London-based fashion researcher and archivist, believes the rise of alt-trad fashion reflects Gen Z and Millennials’ search for meaning “given the precarity experienced by many young adults, [which is] arguably also tied to the astrology boom of the last several years, and even to the popularity of philosophy [and] theory meme accounts.”

It’s easy to see how a girl who got her star sign tattooed on her wrist in 2019 might pivot to trad-signaling in 2021 -- underneath spiritually-saturated aesthetics is often a sideways yearning for a divine order that makes sense of a world that is casually cruel and unpredictable. And while playing with Catholic imagery may be controversial, it’s less overtly problematic than doing so with non-western religious symbols. Such signals may also function as tokens of mystic virtue in a world where more emphasis is being placed on how we represent our values online. “Perhaps religious iconography denotes a certain ‘goodness’,” says Liberty, “which might be appealing to young people who feel held to increasingly high standards on public-facing platforms.”

The larger trad-ification of alternative aesthetics can also be understood as a reaction to the liberal establishment’s quirked-up rebrand, largely catalyzed during the Trump era. Once upon a time, looking weird could act as visual resistance to hegemony, but now that we’ve got a “First Daughter of Bushwick” and Democratic Senate candidates who skateboard on television, having a bunch of stick-and-pokes and bright green hair isn’t exactly the subversive gesture it once was. “The moment that ‘wokeness’ as an ideology went from marginal ‘Tumblr politics’ to teleprompter text for mainstream liberalism,” suggests Samuel, “the visual identities synonymous with those doctrines suffered the disembowelment of subcultural associations.”

“[The] dialectic of irony and sincerity makes the culmination of alt-trad hard to predict.”

Emerging label Praying — best known for their string bikini printed with the words ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ — gives us an idea of what alt-trad looks like when formulated into a brand. Despite a simple design, the bikini’s explicit reference to the Holy Trinity makes it more provocative than even the skimpiest influencer-engineered swimwear. But Praying isn’t all about cheeky sacrilege; they also make a range of semi-sincere streetwear printed with a notable verse from the book of Corinthians. It’s this dialectic of irony and sincerity that makes the culmination of alt-trad hard to predict. Its origins, however, are easier to locate: the success of ironic brands like Vetements and Off-White in the mid 2010s created an appetite for a kind of Dadaist street fashion — playfully evasive in meaning to everyone but the violently in-the-know. There’s a phantom of Virgil Abloh’s trademark use of text in Praying’s serif-font print, but the absence of his signature quotation marks adds a layer of earnestness that invites further contemplation. So, should we reasonably expect the evangelisation of Praying stans any time soon? Maybe they'll learn a few catechisms, but they probably won’t be lining up to join the convent. Jason Steidl, a Catholic theologian and lecturer at St. Joseph’s College New York tells me that he doesn't see “many young people embracing [Catholicism], except maybe as an aesthetic, or ironically, or perhaps because it gives them a sense of familiarity or comfort.”

“Pluralism and a society that encourages everyone to choose their own spiritual path may be helpful here,” Jason explains, “If anything goes, then Catholicism, too, may be acceptable as a path or part of a path.” Postmodern spirituality is like a trip to an old fashioned candy store, the kind where you get a bag and fill it up with a mix of whatever sweets you want — the flavours don’t have to make sense to anyone else as long as they taste good to you. The same is true of alt-trad fashion — things that were once sacred and things that were once subcultural transform into free-floating signifiers that mingle among each other.

A dose of Christian iconography (or any other trad-signal) on an otherwise unhallowed outfit might be an exercise in good faith, a call for comfort, or a phantasmatic series of subculture-turned-pop culture references. “Certain rosary-wearers might not be thinking much about Christianity at all, instead referring to Lana del Rey or Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions,” Liberty reminds us, and others may choose to accessorise with holiness for the sense of composure it offers. That’s certainly valuable, but so is an awareness of the fact that reaching for the metaphysical by way of the material isn’t going to change the conditions that landed us in such a spiritually-desolate state in the first place. Shrouding ourselves in garments that pose as relics is unlikely to set us on a path towards a sanctified future; at best, it offers a balm for life in a world that all too often feels like hell.

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