A revolution was spreading across Europe during the 16th century. In what would become known as the Protestant Reformation the rebels were not just acting against the power of the Papcy, or trying to grab power and land for themselves. For the ordinary zealot, one of the bigger issues was the power of images, or idolatry. As far as the Protestants were concerned Catholicism, with its statues of Mary and Jesus, was guilty of it. In numerous cases, gangs of Protestants went into Catholic churches and smashed images of Mary, Jesus, and anything else.
Zen Buddhists also earned a reputation for destroying or spitting on statues of the Buddha, not because they are inherently opposed to such icons, but because they don’t want to get attached to them.
In Islam, as we know, there have been prohibitions on depicting prophets, people, and even animals — since only Allah has the power to create life. At other times, Islam has not imposed such prohibitions, and their are examples of small paintings depicting the religion’s prophet, Mohammed. As riots during the “Danish Cartoon” or “Mohammed Cartoon” affair of 2005 showed, the religious image remains a serious issue. But, paradoxically, it’s also one that has become a part of fashion.
“Only Shallow People”“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible,” wrote Oscar Wilde, playwright, dandy, and Freemason. It’s a shocking statement to the modern world — which, I would acknowledge, seems to take “offense” at virtually everything. But it is, nonetheless, essentially a religious statement. Wilde was talking about Beauty as a transcendental value, not as something that replaces God or locks us into material existence, but — almost in a Tantric sense — something that elevates us to the Divine, by showing us an impersonal, even non-human beauty.
“Intellectuals” don’t like to imagine themselves as fashionable. It’s a personal gripe, but, frankly, I just can’t stand looking at intellectuals, interviewed on the television, wearing the most ungodly tie with an ill-fitting suit, a red tie with a blue shirt, etc. Just hideous. Aesthetics is a language, and real thinkers should learn it. Especially those concerned with spirituality and culture.
But, with the rise of economic theories of man (most notably communism and capitalism), and the creation of homo economicus — a man without history, defined only by what he consumes, and the affectations he assumes — aesthetics has been largely stripped of its traditional, and, indeed, archetypal, value. Personally, I can recall, as a child, being horrified that men wore suits to church as well as to the office. I didn’t understand the symbolism of the suit then, but, in my defense, that the “gentleman’s suit” had become the “business suit” tells us to what extent the sacred has evacuated the ordinary. Traditionalist thinker Titus Burckhardt (Ibrahim Izz al-Din) has complained
European dress is fundamentally out of keeping with the pos-tures and gestures of Islamic worship; it hinders bows and prostra-tions, renders the prescribed ablutions more difficult, and takesaway the dignity of the effortless sitting together on the flat ground; whoever wears European clothes is either a “gentleman” or a mere worker or “proletarian”.
Whereas previously men were differentiated only by their culture, the community is all of a sudden split into economically determined classes and, with the cheap products of the factory, a poverty without beauty invades the homes; ugly, sense-less, and comfortless poverty is the most widespread of all modernachievements.”
Burckhardt’s estimation was also wrong. The suit has a very traditional form, and embodies a particular value in its construction, just as does the suit of armor (which embodies the notion of combat in its construction, or the monk’s robe and cowl embodies the monastic life in it). The suit embodies the essential nature of the gentleman — in Confucianism, the chun-tzu. That is, unlike other clothing, it is constructed around the upright standing man, with his arms by his side. “Upright,” as we know, has two meanings: (1) a standing position, and (2) to be “upright” morally. The philosophical and mystical fraternity, Freemasonry, refers to the “upright man,” and embodies this quality in the Masonic emblem of plumb line.
Yet, if transcendental symbolism in the ordinary has largely been replaced by the vulgar language and values of economics (“work hard, play hard,” “equality/inequality,” etc.), so the modern West has, in numerous ways, tried to reintroduce the sacred into the ordinary, perhaps especially into fashion, which remains an elitist art form.
Rediscovering Spirituality and the Occult through Fashion.Hip American brand True Religion started out in 2002 with a logo that depicted a Buddha playing a guitar. The brand was clearly drawing on the Sixties’ Hippy aesthetic of laid back fashion mixed with Eastern religion. For their part, the Hippies were trying to create a new way of living, one that rejected consumer society and sort a more natural and freer way of life. Many — although certainly not all — Hippies practiced Yoga, meditation, Eastern religion (especially Hinduism as taught by various gurus), and, occasionally, Western occultism.
Since the 1990s, however, Hinduism and Yoga have gone more or less mainstream, with young urban women carrying yoga mats under their arms being, now, a regular site in virtually any American city. Yoga fashion has emerged, and, in one misjudged fashion collection, Australian fashion designer had swimsuits printed with images of the Hindu goddess Lakshme. Hindus as far away as India reacted angrily, with members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party publicly burning the Australian flag.
Occult spirituality has continued to exist — and grow — albeit through various underground movements, some of which have been, or are, involved with music. The post-punk band Psychic TV was more or less the musical arm of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, an experimental and artistic occult movement inspired by Aleister Crowley and another British occultist Austin Osman Spare. Religion, spirituality, and the occult are all fusing with, and being expressed through, fashion.
Goth, and Goth music, has to some degree become associated with the Wiccan religion. There’s Christian Rock (whatever one might think of it). Punk and Islam have merged in the form of Taqwacore (from the Arabic word Taqwa, meaning consciousness of God, and “core” from hardcore); and in his Hardcore Zen, author Brad Warner fuses Punk with Zen. Muslims are also taking on fashion, not just with new hijab and Muslim fashion designers, but also through such magazines as the Turkish Ala magazine, pitched as the Muslim Vogue or Muslim Elle. Then there’s the “occult.”
“All Black Everything”If you listen to some Evangelical preachers and rap geeks, the Illuminati runs the rap music business, and has entrapped everyone from Rihanna to Lady Gaga in its age old snare. Author Arthur Versluis refers to this as “Illuminatiphobia.” The real Illuminati was short-lived, and existed in Barvaria, Germany, only for a few years during the latter half of the 18th century, before the authorities closed it down. Its aim was to spread atheism and rationalism and, ultimately, to bring down religion, destroy belief in God and the supernatural. Its members attempted to infiltrate Masonic Lodges, but, unsurprisingly, Masonic Grand Lodges as well as the Golden Rosicrucians (an occult society that required its members to be Freemasons first) openly attacked the Illuminati, and instructed members not to join its ranks.
Still, Evangelicals allege that Illuminati symbolism can be found throughout rap videos, and that Illuminati gang banger-style hand gestures are frequently thrown out at awards ceremonies — where else? To some degree, though, rap has shifted from its obsession with “getting rich” to embracing bad boy spirituality.
In his most celebrated work, the controversial Against the Grain, French Author Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) describes a banquet by a disaffected dandy-turned-satanist. All of the food is black. The room is black. The only drinks served are black. As are the female servants who wait on him. It’s decadent, and no doubt a bit offensive. But, in their archetypal nature, the aesthetics are also, to some extent, rap.
“All Black everything. Black cards, black cars, all black everything,” says rapper Jay-Z in Run This Town, like a modern Huysmans. In the “making of” video, describing the song and the official video, Jay-Z is wearing a hoodie with the phrase “Do what thou wilt” taken from Aleister Corwley’s religious and esoteric text, The Book of the Law. The hoodie was produced by Jay-Z’s own fashion label, Rocawear, which has also used Masonic and esoteric imagery for tee-shirts and hoodies..But Jay-Z’s not the only one to have adopted the aesthetics of a darker shade of spirituality. In 2007, upscale lingerie design company Agent Provocateur launched its Season of the Witch campaign featuring Peaches Geldof and Daisy Lowe. In one photograph, depicting a witches’ sabbath, we see a large pentagram drawn on the floor in white. Like Huysmans and like Jay-Z’s Run This Town, the aesthetics are definitely “all black everything,” with black lingerie, dark lighting, and an intense, almost satanic decadence. As ad campaigns go, it is one of the more extreme.
Occultism appears elsewhere in fashion. The extremely cool fashion photographer Antonella Arismendi has staged and shot photo shoots for some of the best fashion magazines. Some of the shoots have titles guaranteed to give your local Evangelical preacher palpitations: “Illuminati,” “Age of Aquarius,” and “Gnosis.” In the latter — a black and white shoot — a young man, is half naked, yet painted with esoteric symbols, such as a Cabalistic Tree of Life, an Eye in the Triangle, Hebrew letters, and so on. In another shoot — Merkabah — we see a young woman, sitting in a circle and Hexagram, and, again, like Vitruvian man, pressing herself against a wall, with a circle and triangle around her.
It’s easy to be snobbish about fashion. But it is perhaps the major medium today for working out the meeting place of spirituality and the material world. Perhaps not surprisingly. For in adopting the symbols of spirituality, fashion becomes the meeting point of body and etherial body.