When model Claudia Schiffer walked the ramp with some Islamic calligraphy on her dress, there were protests. The curlicues are rather appealing to the eye and perhaps were employed to enhance the clothes, and nothing more. Such calligraphy is often displayed in homes of less-than-savoury characters. The depiction of Islamic figures is different in that the religion does not have a tradition of such portrayal. So, if a belief system is clear about its intention of not having visible religious icons, then we are shooting in the dark.
What happens to those faiths where iconography is an accepted norm? Can they be used wilfully or whimsically?
Why would a fashion designer be inspired by the Virgin Mary? There were protests when Chile’s Ricardo Oyarzun planned just such a show using halos and religious icons; the clothes the models wore revealed ample breasts.
I found this specific reference curious. Had the breasts been tiny, would it be okay? Is the virginity of the Mother under artistic assault since breasts have sexual connotations and a virgin mother cannot possibly nurse?
The artist explained, “There is no pornography here, there’s no sex, there are no virgins menstruating or feeling each other up.”
We can have naked angels and even a barely-clothed Christ. I think the issue here is commercial exploitation. The Virgin Mary cannot possibly be a fashion icon and, I may be wrong, but nowhere has there been any depiction where she is less than sublime.
The Episcopal Conference issued a statement saying, “We look on with special pain and deplore those acts which seek to tarnish manifestations of sincere love toward the Virgin Mary, which end up striking at the dignity of womankind by presenting her as an object of consumption.”
Believers would be extremely fickle if they changed their stance based on a fashion show. If the dignity of womankind is at stake, then we need to examine how the idea of a virgin birth could objectify women. This applies across the board to female god figures in all religions that are deified and desexualised. This makes them recipients of male urges, without much say in how their bodies respond or wish to initiate.
In this particular instance, I’d say the designer may not have indulged in pornography but titillation. Why did he use the figure of the Virgin Mother? Did he wish to convey exclusivity – ‘you can’t get it off the rack’? Was he catering to a section that is tired of the same old pouting images and in-your-face sensuality and wants something different, a bit like pepping up gospel music to ‘reach a wider audience’?
Is he selling clothes or breasts? There is something unnatural here and artificially enhanced. Therefore, he is merely using one image of the mannequin against another image of the sublime, but an image nevertheless.
Iconography is also artistic impression. Had the designer said he was inspired by Mary Magdalene, he might have saved himself some trouble. But, then, trouble is probably what he wanted.
A charitable view would be that he was turning a stereotype on its head. He is marketing the desirability of the pure but potentially fertile woman. Without resorting to an obvious motherhood symbol, he has used a powerful image of the mother of all.
It is a smart move by the designer to make the woman feel she is in charge while leaving her with the ‘baby’ – his clothes.
If procreation is the purpose of sex, then it ought to apply to the male as well.
Jacques Lacan’s usage of “one hand clapping” to define impotency implies a lack of any meeting, either between the person and another or the person and his other selves. He suggests that the elevation of true love in a way determines that it is we who act as barriers to our sexuality.
In Hindu mythology the money king Hanuman’s celibacy could be seen in this context of supra-love for his master, Lord Rama. The simian tail and the serpent of Eden denoting phallic symbolism may be taken to the next level. To conquer Lanka, Hanuman has to fly over the ocean; the sensual metaphor of water may not be ignored. The targeted enemy is Ravana, often in his ten-head avatar. The emphasis on Hanuman’s valour is that it does not come easy. The conflict between his sexual celibacy and warrior potency underscores the triumph of the latter.
With symbolism and intent there is always room to manoeuvre several counterviews. One of them could well be the words of a song, “What if god was one of us…”
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(c) Farzana Versey