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Fashion is not just what you wear, but how you wear it: it’s about performance. Fashion shows are part of the way in which a brand constructs its identity for a global audience, and this year, Gucci has selected the most historic of stages for the eyes of the world: the fashion show will take place in Westminster Abbey.

Gucci has come a long way since the nineteenth century, when Guccio Gucci set out to establish what was to become a global brand. Officially established in 1921, Gucci is ranked by Forbes as the 42nd most important brand in the world, valued at $12.2 billion dollars. From small Florentine craft shops, Gucci became a world-leading manufacturer of status symbols – a trendsetter for global fashions.

Of course, not everyone has been impressed by the decision to hold a fashion show in a place of worship, and it has certainly ruffled some ecclesiastical feathers, with priests protesting that this turns the church into a market place for capitalism. Such protests over the meaning and sanctity of religious space are part of a long theological tradition; the Bible reported that ‘Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves’ (Matthew 21:12).

The dispute between those who have invented spiritual spaces as forums for the performance of wealth and power, and those who have fought to maintain their sanctity as something beyond the greed and corruptions of markets is as old as the Church itself. It goes beyond confessional divides within Christianity. Max Weber famously credited the ‘Protestant ethic’ with facilitating the emergence of the ‘spirit of capitalism’. However, anyone who has strolled around the Catholic churches of Florence (most of which were established long before the Protestant Reformation) will have been struck by the role of merchants and bankers in shaping these historic religious spaces. And it is not only that the money to build churches came from wealthy citizens, who invested in the church perhaps partly to alleviate their guilt and to ensure their safe passage to the spiritual kingdom, churches themselves were also stages for the performance of wealth and power.

Wealthy merchant and banker families such as the Brancacci, and infamously the Medici, commissioned lavishly decorated chapels. These were not just spaces where the families could pray separately from the general public, they were also spaces where a family’s wealth and power could be displayed and admired, and famous artists could show off their style and techniques.

Disputes over these connections between churches and business began in the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century a merchant set out from his native city of Assisi to establish what was to become another global brand: the Franciscan movement of voluntary poverty. Francis was critical of the Church’s accumulation of wealth and the celebration of wealth in churches. The hagiographies of Francis describe how he converted to voluntary poverty by entering a church and stripping naked before the altar. The Franciscans established a critical discourse of the link between spirituality, business, and power.

In the Christian world, there has never been a clear separation between morality and business. Pope Innocent III’s acceptance of the Franciscan rule brought upon the altar a merchant who was both pious but also active in the social and political field. 1 And the Franciscans’ approach to the market shows just how much Christian thought influenced the vocabulary of western economics. 2

The Church and religion have always been inextricably linked to money and social standing. So, when the Gucci models showcase their style and promote their products to the world by strutting their stuff in Westminster Abbey later this year, remember that dialogue between religion and market is older than the church itself.

Julia McClure completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield and is now a Lecturer at the University of Warwick. You can find her on Twitter @DrJuliaMcClure.

Image: Westminster Abbey at night, viewed from Dean’s Yard [Wikicommons].

Notes:

  1. Giacomo Todeschini has argues this in Franciscan Wealth, From Voluntary Poverty to Market Society, trans. Donatella Melucci, eds Michael F. Cusato O.F.M, Jean François Godet-Calogeras, Daria Mitchell, O.S.F. (New York, 2009), p. 24.
  2. Ibid., p. 7. Other scholars, such as Brent Hamm, have also explored the role of religion in the history of capitalism, pointing to the implications of the commercial market of salvation in the Middle Ages. For more, see Brent Hamm, ‘“Buying Heaven”: the prospects of commercialized salvation in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries’, in Juren Von Hagen and Micheal Welker eds, Money as God? The Monetarization of the Market and its Impact on Religion, Politics, Law, and Ethics (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 233-256.
Tags : Westminster Abbey; Gucci; London Fashion Week; religious history; medieval history; history of Christianity; Franciscans
Julia McClure

The author Julia McClure