An English fashion designer’s new collection reimagines elements of clerical garb with bright colors, rhinestones, and lingerie. With the glamorous, over-the-top looks, he hopes to contribute to reconciliation between the LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church.
“Making visual reference to his experience as an altar boy during his teen years, McDowell’s collection reinterprets the theatrics of Mass attire through an LGBTQ+ lens in hopes of reclaiming the queerness in religion. . .
“McDowell first felt excluded by the Catholic Church at the impressionable age of 13, when the instructor for his religious studies class said that it wasn’t okay to act on feelings of love for the same sex. According to the designer, these ‘toxic messages’ only add to the already difficult lives of queer children who ‘have enough to grapple with’ as they figure out their way in the world.
“‘It’s deeply saddening and I hope that young people hearing this language can see this collection and feel celebrated and accepted,’ McDowell says. ‘Being who you are is in fact fantastic and you’re fabulous just the way you are.’”
“Fabulous” is a good word to describe McDowell’s stylistic approach. As Them put it:
“No ounce of grandeur is spared in the designer’s vision as the Pope’s traditional attire finds itself in an entirely new form. Instead of a vanilla color palette and modest silhouettes, cassocks are bright pink, capes are seductively sheer, and the papal mitre is bejeweled, topped with large satin bows. The designer’s religious renditions also feature sexier options, incorporating garter belts, leather gloves, and high stockings into Catholic garb. The looks resemble a more revealing and campier version of pop star Rihanna’s opulent take on the Pope’s attire at the 2018 Met Ball, which set a high bar to clear.”
But McDowell’s looks are more than just fun — he hopes they will be part of a broader cultural shift. While certain designs of his may shock or offend the sensibilities of some people, the artist’s purpose is one of reconciling two often-opposed communities. In his artist’s statement, McDowell said, “To reclaim this religious space through Catholic Fairytales, I imagine a religion which accepts and embraces all of the beautiful queer people who inhabit it.”
“The narrative of a queer space reclaiming the opulence of the religious space was a way to represent a needed shift,” McDowell told Them. “Instead of pushing people out and excluding others, we need to grow together as a whole.”
The process of designing the collection has already helped McDowell to open up to having conversations about queer people’s experiences with religion:
“McDowell was initially hesitant to announce the theme of his collection for fear of the reaction it might receive. But he eventually found the confidence after friends opened up about their own personal experiences growing up queer in religious settings.”
“The rift between the queer community and the Church is expected when the Church has systematically victimized and excluded us for centuries … I hope that this collection can provide a sense of closure to those traumatized by religious teachings or, on a simpler level, a fun celebration of pageantry and opulence.”
McDowell’s work reimagines the inherent camp qualities of some parts of Catholic clerical garb to create something that is new, joyful, and might even make some queer Catholics and former Catholics feel less alone.
—Mac Svolos, New Ways Ministry, May 4, 2021