Fashion & Faith: Here’s How Religion Influences How We Dress

“Although not always evident, faith is inexorably related to fashion,” writes Urmi Chanda.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
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6 January 2021— when hundreds of Trump supporters marched upon the US Capitol in Washington DC, tearing down the greatest symbol of modern democracy — will decidedly go down in history as the day of great American shame. And yet, it is possible that in the funny, unpredictable ways that the Internet functions, the most potent public memory of that day might be that of Jake Angeli, or rather his fashion choices of that day.

Angeli , also known as ‘QAnon Shaman’, ‘ Shaman’ and ‘Yellowstone Wolf, was the heavily tattooed, bare-bodied white man, who wore face paint, a fur-trimmed headdress, fake horns, carried a ‘spear’ and seemed to have led the insurrection from the front.

The QAnon supporter’s shamanic cosplay outfit may have been ridiculed by many, but it was by no means incidental.

Carefully curated to invoke feelings of hyper masculinity, tribalism, and even white supremacy, Angeli knew it would draw shutterbugs and give his ‘tribe’ much visibility.

Angeli may have been the most photographed, but there were many other insurrectionists, who sported symbols of whiteness, of Christianity, of nationalism as they walked the streets to make statements.

A fashion statement that espouses faith (nationalism in this case) is a powerful one, for it inspires confidence and then, following.

A Palette That Matches The Landscape & ‘Mindscape’ Of One’s People

This importance of fashion in faith is well articulated in the recent web series, ‘Aashram’, where seasoned filmmaker Prakash Jha takes on the often-dubious world of godmen. In one scene, actor Adhyayan Suman, who plays a Punjabi popstar Tinka Singh, brings his personal stylist over to meet Bobby ‘Baba Nirala’ Deol. A rich, stylish wardrobe is one of the many ways in which Tinka wants to honour his guru, verily organising a mini fashion show where models show off striking outfits. Baba Nirala summarily rejects the stylist’s choice of colours, saying he’d rather wear a palette that matches the landscape and mindscape of ‘his people’.

One can assume that this palette refers to earth browns and coarse whites – things that the ordinary, toiling Indian wears.

Indeed, costume designer Vishakha Chaudhary has dressed the protagonist in colours of the white family like cream, eggshell, light grey, ivory, silver, beige and taupe to maintain this connection throughout the series.

How Colour ‘Associations’ Change

But whites have deeper, more strident associations than ‘commonness’, such as purity and asceticism. Think politicians, pujaris and padres; widows, nuns and even brides. Where any symbolic new beginnings are made or any cleansing rituals are conducted, the choice of ceremonial colours is almost always white. Officiating priests at poojas, weddings and baptisms wear white, and so do newly-ordained renunciates in most spiritual orders. In a clear transference of value, the wearer is perceived as clean and unsullied like the colour itself.

So strong are such colour associations that even the darkest, vilest behaviour by white-clad people is unable to invert our expectations of the colour.

However, colour codes are not unchanging. The case of saffron and green acquiring overzealous nationalist shades in the recent years demonstrates this. Saffron traditionally signified tapa (ascetic fire) and vairagya (sacrifice and renunciation) in Hinduism, and accorded the wearer a special status in society. However, the appropriation of the colour for Hindutva politics has lent it a radical zeal which has come to be associated with ‘fringe elements’ and political thugs.

A saffron-clad person in contemporary India now evokes more fear than veneration.

For a person of ‘neutral’ political or religious affiliations, wearing saffron has become a questionable fashion choice. Likewise, the colour green – once freely associated with fertility and growth (think bangles and sarees of Maharashtrian brides) – seems to be increasingly acquiring exclusively Islamic associations. It is not too hard to imagine a spokesperson of some fringe Hindu political group waking up one day and deciding that wearing green is an act of committing ‘colour jihad’!

Symbolism: Accessories & Hairdos

In addition to colours, there are many other aspects of “dressing” such as hairstyle/ headgear, footwear, accessories and temporary/permanent ritual marks on the body that entail religious prescriptions and/or proscriptions.

Hair has been traditionally associated with fertility and beauty and therefore, almost all religions have a preoccupation with it.

Headgear and forehead markers too are used as expressions and extensions of one’s faith. With the formulation of new secular laws, many of these religious injunctions are not followed any more, but within any conservative section of a faith community or the precincts of places of worship, adherents continue to follow these diktats.

There are similar guidelines around facial hair too. Beards were traditionally considered a symbol of virility, and are most noticeable among many Muslim, Sikh and orthodox Jewish men because of certain religious injunctions. There are no such compunctions for Hindus, but long flowing beards have long been associated with brave kings and holy men.

How Religion Is Interpreted

The fakir-in-chief’s recent style of facial hair is not incidental. It is meant to evoke images of wise, ascetic rishis, who typically stayed far from the “polluting” influence of women.

This unease with women’s bodies and sexualities is not limited to Hinduism but is universally reflected in the restrictions and prohibitions imposed on women in almost all religious traditions.

The Holy Quran, for instance, lays down no gender-specific rules and modest dressing is recommended for everyone, but this cultural imposition is perceived to be largely applicable to the women of the community. This is no different from the expectation of Hindu women wearing ghoonghats in rural parts of North India.

Patriarchy, Choice & Agency

Where bodies and sexualities of women are treated like the business and property of men, such sartorial rules are cultural rather than religious, patriarchal rather than faith-based. But in countries like India, the two are hard to separate.

Even as the secular and liberal-minded among us like to decry this imposition and policing, a growing number of young Muslim women are defending their traditional fashions. Hijabi fashionistas on Instagram are common now, and some have even started walking the ramp in them.

In a world of growing Islamophobia, one could interpret this as a reflection of the need to reclaim and assert one’s religious identity. Or one may see it simply as women choosing to do what feels good and right instead of bending and conforming to the Western idea of what is free and fashionable. Faith may, after all, be kept in one’s heart or worn on one’s sleeve.

(Urmi Chanda is an Interfaith Scholar, IFIID and independent culture writer, and Project Manager, Indian Documentary Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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