Where were you when the Internet decided that Addison Rae was going to Hell? The TikTok girlie faced the fire and brimstone of her Instagram followers earlier this month when she unveiled a pic of herself in Praying’s white string bikini, which bears the words “Father” and “Son” on each breast (out of view were the matching “Holy Spirit” bikini briefs). The post was flooded with comments accusing the 21-year-old of everything from blasphemy to disrespecting religion and was promptly deleted.
For anyone with any awareness of pop culture, the backlash to the swimsuit was surprising – unwarranted, even – given that sacrilege chic has been summer’s biggest mood. Over the past few months, things have been getting pretty biblical thanks to an onslaught of angels, demons, and evangelism taking over – and you don’t need to look far to find examples. In music, there’s everything from Ethel Cain’s southern gothic pop epic, Preacher’s Daughter, to Rina Sawayama’s tongue-in-cheek “This Hell,” or LSDXOXO’s brooding “Demons.” In cinema, we’ve even got salacious lesbian nuns in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta.
And Rae isn’t the only TikToker to catch some heat for referencing Christianity. Back in June, 29-year-old New Orleans native Sarah Drago went semi-viral on TikTok for her “conventcore” videos. Under the username @virgynmartyr, she posts style videos inspired by Catholic aesthetic traditions to the tune of almost 80.2 million views – and has attracted her fair share of critics. But Drago hasn’t felt the need to delete any of her old videos and thinks that they’re more than fair game. “Christian iconography has inspired fashion for ages. Those of us in America are flooded with it — how could we not be affected?” she writes over email. “They may be angry that we're using religion as a reference, but they've tried to indoctrinate us for most of our lives.” Well put.
The fashion industry looks like it’s been working to a similar ideology this season; it's as if we’re all fresh from bible camp. Case in point, the celeb-ification of the ultimate sign of Christian religiosity: the cross necklace. Fans of the accessory include the one and only RiRi, who put the symbol front and center in some of her most iconic maternity looks, whether it was a multi-colored vintage cross peeping out from a pink Chanel puffer jacket or a silver statement pendant paired with a dramatic sheer black dress. She’s not the only celebrity embracing the trend, with multiple members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan sporting vintage Dolce & Gabbana cross pendants during Kourtney’s Italian spon-con wedding in May.
In short, it seems like everyone in fashion is suddenly holier-than-thou. But it’s worth noting that I’m far from the first person to point out fashion’s newfound obsession with the church. All the way back in 2021, writer and critic Biz Sherbet penned an article for i-D titled “How Catholicism became alt-fashion's saviour,” arguing that symbols of Catholicism had been adopted by youth subculture as comforting “trad-signals” in an increasingly chaotic world.
“Young people are looking for meaning in our precarious, destabilized world, and Christian ‘aesthetics,’ like cross necklaces and references to scripture, represent a deeply rooted system of meaning-making,” Sherbert, currently Culture Editor at creative agency The Digital Fair, tells me, expanding on her original line of argument.
According to her, this religious throwback is something we have seen before. Young people have spent the prior decade involved in a similar pursuit of meaning through spirituality – only their reference points weren't organized religion. “Astrology had a somewhat similar trajectory in the 2010s. It became incredibly popular as young people looked for ways of understanding the world in a time where longstanding cultural traditions had become less relevant.”
Sherbert’s perspective is interesting, for sure, but with church membership in countries like the US continuing to fall rapidly, can we really claim that even the mere symbols of Christianity carry the weight they once did? And are they really a source of comfort? While Christianity in itself is a broad and varied belief system as well as a source of positive spiritual fulfillment for many, the way it explicitly and implicitly remains intertwined with the state in several western countries allows it to be used as a tool of oppression against marginalized peoples.
You need only to look to the news: Christian ideology has been used as a justification for attacks on bodily autonomy for women and queer people, such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade abortion protections in the US, and restrictions on gender and sexual freedoms, like the anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation taking over in countries like Hungary and Poland.
While Addison Rae has been suspiciously quiet about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it’s not preposterous to suggest that the many others wearing their “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” bikini are doing so as a tiny act of rebellion against the interpretations of Christianity. This is something which Lynn S. Neal, professor of religious studies and author of Religion in Vogue argues: “The [Praying bikini] creates a juxtaposition which can shock or jar people,” she says. “Using the symbols of Christianity and inverting them, challenging them, or putting them on a thong or a bikini is a way to challenge people you disagree with.”
Neal’s work and research remind us that referencing Christianity in fashion isn’t exactly exclusive to the 2020s. Most pertinent to this article, the academic has written on Heart OMG, a now defunct evangelical slogan T-shirt company favored by the likes of Kim Kardashian (who wore a tank top from the brand emblazoned with the words, “God Knows My Secrets” in an episode of Kourtney and Kim Take Miami). By now, we all know that Kim K is a God-fearing woman, but as a reality star known for her provocative public image and sex appeal, her fashion choice here subverted presumed expectations of what a “good Christian” looks like, especially by 2013’s standards. Donning a top like this, Kim didn’t just celebrate her religion; she gave a knowing wink to an audience who didn’t give much weight to her capacity for spiritual depth, all while showing that sexuality and Christianity didn’t have to be at odds.
It may sound like I’m going pretty deep on this tank top from almost 10 years ago, but it really does seem to sum up the complexity of the Christianity boom we’re currently witnessing in popular fashion. Kim K’s tongue-in-cheek yet somehow quasi-sincere use of Christianity here is different from the outright iconoclasm favored by Madonna in the 1980s or the butter-wouldn’t-melt Disney Channel purity culture adopted by the Jonas Brothers throughout the 2000s. The brand of pop culture Christianity wielded by Kim – with its ambiguous, multifaceted meaning – seems to have been oddly prescient of the modern day Praying girlie: someone who may well find meaning through ancient religious symbols but loves the attention brought by provocation and also wants to make a low-key political statement.
As Sherbert so succinctly sums up: “Some might wear a crop top that reads ‘God’s Favorite’ just because it’s cheeky and self-indulgent. Others might wear a cross necklace because it helps them feel more connected to their upbringing or a divine purpose, or simply because they sincerely find the cross beautiful.”