Fashion and Vestments

When I was reading this recent interview of Sequoia Sierra of the The Liturgical Co., I was struck by the dedication of this entrepreneur and thinking that we need the creative talents of such laypeople in the Church, including those who have artistic talent.

Sierra speaks beautifully about her craft and seems to have found a true vocation: developing a love that she’s had from a young age, bringing skills learned in the business world, and applying them to church needs. I thought that the extended discussion of exorcism stoles in the interview a bit odd, but it catches interest, and surely an outlet such as hers gets all kinds of clients.

Then I took a look at The Liturgical Co.’s website. I noticed that all of the examples she includes in her portfolio have a certain aesthetic. The first example is a set of episcopal gloves from a pontifical high mass.

I began to reflect on a line about EWTN from a friend of mine: “a network without pectoral crosses just wouldn’t sell.”

In other words, the espousal of such in-your-face vestments and devotionals flows with cultural currents, rather than against them. They provide a distinctive niche-market wow factor that sells. With all of the talk of mystery, patrimony, traditional aesthetics, etc. etc. surrounding these liturgical textiles, I wonder how much of the draw is more deeply about a narrow, niche identity that stands out as distinct and “our own.” An identity that sets me apart, that expresses my personality and convictions. More about brand loyalty than the mystical body of Christ.

The identity-projection model fits with Sierra’s secular design endeavors in which, according to her website, the “objective is to make sure that her client’s style conveys who they are and what they hope to achieve.” And when people care about expressing inner conviction, their clothes

have a veiled meaning and a significance that gives them a feeling of validation knowing that the garment that we are making for them will express a truth about themselves.

Of course, liturgical vestments are intended (as least as primary effect) to do nothing of the sort. They are meant to direct us away from ourselves. Rather than expressing a personality, they are meant to raise our minds and hearts to God. Obviously, there is a human dimension to all of this. Someone has to choose what is going to sit on the celebrant’s shoulders.

Vestments began as clothes, as Fritz reminds us in commentary on another interesting—and I think not so very different—liturgical-fashion confluence. Naturally all clothes shape us, even as we select them. The words of an old acting professor stick in my head “You don’t have to wear costumes in rehearsal, but remember that you act differently when you dress differently.” As Roman clothing developed into ecclesial vestments, it strikes me that baptizing those clothes followed the logic of what Nicaea II had to say about images: to wear them or to see them is not to express personality or preference, but to be drawn into “the reality of what is there represented.”

When we lean too far toward the unavoidable reality of liturgical material expressivism—that vestments, drapes, etc. represent someone’s preferences—we can lose the larger theological reality that 1) they shape us and 2) they direct us outside of ourselves.

While there is clearly a desire among proponents of Sierra’s liturgical design aesthetic to move beyond liturgical music that focuses on us and not on God, to raise our hearts and minds beyond the mundane to the mysterious and glorious, I can’t help but wonder if the connection between Sierra’s secular work and her ecclesial work runs just a little too deep.

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2 comments

  1. to wear them or to see them is not to express personality or preference, but to be drawn into “the reality of what is there represented.”

    This is certainly true to my experience. Anyone who knows me in person knows that I am a total schulb, clothing-wise. Frankly, I just don’t care that much (it drives my wife crazy that I will wear the same shirt two days in a row if it’s still clean).

    But vestments are different. I’m willing to spend money on vestments. I want the vestments to be characterized by the beauty of “noble simplicity” and am not at all averse to having several sets in the same color. When vested, I always wear black pants and shoes because… well, they’re part of the deal. Because the vestments aren’t for me; they’re for the assembly. Also, vesting puts me into a different “headspace” (as they say); I feel something of a loss of personal identity, but in a salutary way.

  2. I think the question on everyone’s mind is an obvious one. And it is thus: Does this vendor have any–or have any plans for–episcopal buskins in its portfolio?

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