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Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Pope’s Couturier

“Why do women have to cover their head in church?”, LaMotte Felkins asked her mother.

“Because they’re Catholic”, her mother replied.

“And why do men have to cover their heads in temple?”

“Because they’re Jews, honey.  Because they’re Jews.”  LaMotte’s mother was tired of fielding questions from her daughter, but she had to admit that they always had a point. LaMotte was not easily satisfied and had the instincts of a badger and kept digging until she got the answer she was looking for.

“I know that”, she whined, “but that still doesn’t answer my question. What do hats have to do with anything?”.

Recently LaMotte had grilled her mother about women’s shoes – what’s the purpose of high heels? Why don’t men wear them? Where do flats and slippers fit in? – and Mrs. Felkins, as attentive to ‘teaching moments’ as any parent, but worn down by her daughter’s bullheaded drive, decided to answer as fully and correctly as she could but thought her daughter was old enough to have the burden of proof placed on her.  If Mrs. Felkins embellished slightly or imagined what could be the answer instead of what was, then it was up to her daughter to sort out fact from fiction.  A good teaching moment, she thought.

“God created Mary to be the mother of God, and with such a great responsibility, Mary had to be pure, chaste, virtuous, and modest….”  Heddy Felkins paused in her lesson, smiled at the famous Mexican religious send off: “Virgen María: Tú que concebiste sin pecar, déjanos pecar sin concebir”, and went on.

“Especially modest”, she said, “because God did not want to confuse her with other women he had created in the Old Testament like Jezebel who showed off her beauty to entice men; and if God had chosen her to be the mother of his son, Jesus, everyone would have wondered.

“So he made Mary cover up her head to look like a nun – like Sister Mary Joseph at St. Ignatius. There were no nuns in those days because the Catholic Church was just getting started, but it wasn’t long before all women wanted to dress like the Mother of God, so the idea of covering their heads caught on quickly.”

“OK”, said LaMotte; but so why can’t men wear hats in church?”

This was a harder question to answer. “God is a man and Jesus Christ was a man, so they both created men in their own image.  Have you ever seen Jesus or God wearing a hat? No.  There’s your answer.”
LaMotte was not completely satisfied – she never was – and starting banging on about how men had to wear hats in Jewish temples and women didn’t. “Was God a Jew?”, she asked.

Hedda didn’t want to open that can of worms, but thought she had a quick parry. “Well, God is not a Jew, but his son Jesus was a Jew until he converted; and to be sure that Catholics knew that theirs was the true religion, he made Jews wear hats.”

The logic in all this was a bit dodgy, she knew; but the roast was cooking in the oven, her husband was about to come through the door, and it was time to cloture the debate. “That’s just the way it is, Honey”, she concluded and went in the kitchen to baste the lamb.

This is all relevant not because LaMotte was particularly religious or interested in eschatology or moral reason.  Since childhood she had been interested in fashion and how it evolved over the years.  For some reason she was most fascinated with clerical fashion.  She thought the Pope in his finest regalia was the coolest thing on earth, and was surprised that this high fashion had remained so long cloistered in the Vatican.

If she were a man, she thought, she would dress like the Pope.  “Look at all that gold embroidery”, she exclaimed to her mother, “and his little red slippers.”  It turns out that Benedict had an eye for style and design, and loved the traditional red shoes of the great Popes of history which, unfortunately, had fallen out of fashion. He restored the use of the red papal shoes, which were provided by his personal cobbler, Adriano Stefanelli from Novara.  To add a flourish and personal touch to the shoes, in 2008 Benedict restored the use of the white damask silk Paschal mozzetta  which was previously worn with white silk slippers.

No one except Benedict and the gay priests in his holy entourage paid any attention to the red shoes or the white silk mozzetta, and LaMotte Felkins was one of the very few outside the Vatican to give the Pope kudos for fashion; and the older she got and the more sophisticated she became, the more she appreciated the very cool fashion sense of the Catholic Church.

The entire Vatican was tops in LaMotte’s book.  She loved the profuse elegance of the robes of the cardinals of the Inquisition, and imagined Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, the Grand Inquisitor watching Spaniards being dismembered on the rack in his flowing red robes.

She appreciated the more modest and temperate dress of modern day cardinals and archbishops whose elegant simplicity exuded power and authority without vengeance or Biblical injunction.

“Notice the continuing red motif”, she wrote in her Brown PhD dissertation, “its quiet assertiveness, and reserved authority.  Note the clerical collar, absent in the paintings of The Grand Inquisitor, as a muted sign of Church authority and a Papal willingness to conjoin his bishops with parish priests. Black takes center stage, although set off by the discipline of the red cummerbund, and the elegant red Edwardian sleeve buttons exude the aristocracy of the Church.”

LaMotte became a noted authority in clerical fashion, and was ecumenical in her tastes.  She found Orthodoxy fascinating because it had held on to ancient rituals, traditions, and dress long since abandoned by its Roman counterpart.  The ‘mystery’ of the Mass, for example, the staple of Catholicism, had been neutered by the introduction of English, the intimacy of the priest facing the congregation and not the tabernacle, and the hand-holding of the congregation. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, had retained ancient rituals, encouraged the veneration of a virtual panoply of saints, and kept the iconostasis, clanking censers, and high chanting front and center.

The Greek Patriarch, she thought, could use some work.  His high ecclesiastical dress was somber, subdued, and exuded none of the majesty and supremacy of his Roman counterparts.

Lose the bling, she thought, and perhaps add color with some regimental stripes like those on the traditional robes of tutors at Kings College, Cambridge or at the investiture of Kingman Brewster as President of Yale.

There is really no ‘church’ in Hinduism, but there is fashion and style nonetheless.  Rather than focus on traditional robes or vestments, Indian holy men have evolved a particular and unique fashion sense focusing on accessorizing.

Image result for images hindu sadhus

 “Notice the sacrificial markings – the makeup – on these sadhus begging for alms at the ghats of the holy city of Varanasi.  The garlands of marigolds complement the color scheme of the forehead paint and the sacramental robes. There is a certain eclecticism to dress of Indian holy men, for they are at once part of the river of humanity, and part in astral projection to the outer realms of Being; but no sadhu is neglectful of his accessories – prayer beads, begging bowls, ceremonial garlands, all feature in the ensemble that shouts “Holy”.

LaMotte was impatient with Jews – too intellectual and philosophical; too much ‘People of the Book’ and not enough of ‘out there’, visible, and media-worthy style.  The rabbi in this picture, for example, could feel better about himself and not be so pessimistic if he spruced up his appearance.

Image result for images jewish rabbi

Buddhists who insist on saffron robes no matter what the century or weather, could definitely use a make-over.

Image result for images buddhists in saffron robes

She considered Roman togas simple and elegant, but was surprised that Romans did not change clothes to fit the occasion.  Here is a depiction of ritual sacrifice, and as can be seen, the outfits are as fitting for high religious ceremony as for sipping wine in the courtyard of a Carthaginian villa. 

Not surprisingly LaMotte Felkins left academia and went into fashion.  She found that ironic clerical fashion was all the rage in the gay Seventh Avenue crowd; and she signed up.

They absolutely loved classic women in hot abbey nun chic.

LaMotte could have become a feminist. Lord knows there was plenty of misogyny and glass ceiling in the Catholic Church. She could have become an ecumenical researcher, investigating the various and diverse religious truths expressed in contemporary religion; or she could have continued her postmodern exegesis of ‘Religion through Fashion’.  Instead she opted for scissors and mannequins and became one of New York’s fashion icons.  She made ‘Clerical Chic’ a household word which resonated in both San Francisco where ‘Bay to Breakers’ and Gay Pride Day parades featured her papal send offs and in New York where ‘pure style’ reigned, whether gay, straight, or in between.

“What have I wrought?”, asked Heddy Felkins, LaMotte’s mother, still a practicing Catholic, but at the same time quite proud of her daughter who was making headlines in the New York Times and Le Canard Enchaîné.

She was asked every year to design a super-campy outfit for the Pope and swish down Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick's Day; but a) gays were not allowed to march on St. Paddy’s Day; and b) she would be a woman impersonating a gay Pope when the more appropriate choice would be one of Brooklyn’s celebrated drag queens.

Image result for images drag queens

LaMotte became an international fashion czar and was the genius behind the hip clerical fashions of Milan, Paris, and New York. She had been privately told that Pope Francis, a modern Pope who wants to be ‘of the people’ had greatly admired her fashions and wondered if she would accept a Vatican commission to redo Catholic clerical garb. Not himself or his cardinals, mind you, just his minions.  His gold, white silk, and Venetian embroidery were just fine.

LaMotte Felkins retired recently and lives in a rambler in Silver Spring, Maryland of all places. “I’m tired of gay”, she said, and want a place where my grandchildren can play in the sandbox.”  We were all surprised; but then again, LaMotte Felkins was a genius.

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