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What’s Up With Fashion’s Weird Religious Experience?

Last week, popular TikTok celeb Addison Rae found herself on the business end of a social media uproar when she posted a now-deleted selfie on Instagram wearing wearing the infamous “Holy Trinity Bikini” — a bikini top from hip fashion brand Praying that has “Father” on one side, “Son” on the other and you can probably guess what’s on the bottom.

It’s the sort of thing that seems designed to make people mad and it was successful, generating a backlash so loud that the star eventually deleted the post. But while the Holy Trinity Bikini might the edgiest example, Praying has mined Christian symbolism for lots of its pieces — making deliberately provocative statements like “God’s Favorite” and a verse from Corinthians onto shorts, handbags and crop tops. And the brand is a hit, counting among its fans the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, Halsey and Christina Aguilera.

And Praying isn’t the only brand looking to the Lord for fashion inspo. I NEED GOD started out as a cheeky pandemic-era meme account page that walked a fine line between kitsch and sincerity, racking up a huge follower count with the sort of Christianese your grandma decorated her home with but in 2022 lands with a gently satirical touch. I NEED GOD was started by four queer friends whose energy hit an online nerve and now run a popular merch store with phrases like a woman’s swimsuit that says “I Need God Every Minute of My Life,”  a “God Is Obsessed With You” crop top and a pair of booty shorts with “My favorite artist is God because He created this.” splayed across the butt.

Yes, from Kanye West’s Sunday Service merch to the Met Gala’s 2018 theme, fashion is having a religious experience. One of the top luxury brands in the game right now is Jerry Lorenzo’s Fear of God. As with many elements of Gen Z couture, it’s an open question as to how seriously any of this is meant to be taken. Lorenzo is very open about how his style is wrapped up in his genuine faith, but it’s a little less clear with younger, troll-ier brands. GQ found an Instagram comment on an I NEED GOD post that sums the ethos up nicely: “Pretty sure this page is 6 layers deep but unironically true.”

Gen Z has mastered the art of making a joke out of anything and everything. Some argue that we’ve entered a nihilistic era in our culture, following years of political unrest, a rocky economy and, of course, a pandemic. And all that negative energy stirring inside has to have an outlet somewhere, right? What better way to reflect your inner turmoil than with your outermost layer?

One of I NEED GOD’s founders, Kyle Hide, told GQ Magazine that there’s at least a measure of belief in what they’re putting out there. “The world is so crazy, nothing makes sense anymore,” he said. “All meaning is breaking down. No one knows how to act with each other. And we’re so alienated and the computers are dividing us through the algorithm and like, you just got to surrender to God at this point, because ‘there’s nothing that’s gonna save us’ kind of vibe.”

Younger people have nihilistic rep. It’s understandable. Growing up in a burning world of wealth inequality and multiple raging pandemics will do that to a generation. This energy often gets funneled through a grid of bleak sarcasm and gallows humor online, where jokes about everything from Covid-19 to who “really” did 9/11 are par for the course. But just because it’s got the structure of a joke doesn’t mean it’s not real. Maybe Hide is onto something here. Maybe this particular bit of creative expression does — or at least can — have a a real element of surrender to it.

It’s a bit of an irony. For decades, churches have been desperately trying to make Jesus cool while holding Him at arm’s length. Church fashions might subtly invoke Christianity via goofy wordplay or movies that try to get you in the door by pretending not to be Christian before springing an altar call at the last minute. But now, multiple brands that aren’t affiliated with any church are finding huge success in just wearing Christian truisms on their literal sleeve (or, uh, elsewhere) and inviting shoppers to live their truth.

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Which isn’t to say the Holy Trinity Bikini is the most effective tool of evangelism on the market — although if it’s between that and Chick Tracks, let’s just call it a draw. Clearly, these places are having fun pushing buttons, mixing wholesome momcore energy in with skimpy fashions for the sheer chaos of it. It’s not exactly what you’d call respectful although, on the scale of things worth getting upset about these days, it ranks fairly low.

Many religions have had to suffer the indignity of watching elements of their faith get appropriated into kitschy consumerism traps, from funky Buddha toys to chakra aesthetics, the American culture has never considered anything very sacred when there’s a reasonable buck to be made out of it. Jesus merchandise has been available for decades, behind various degrees of seriousness, sacredness and solemnity, from gold cross necklaces to religio-political posturing. It’s a little late to get mad about it now.

And in this particular case, there is some level of sincerity at play. The rocks cry out to God, after all, and maybe, in some ways, a fashion brand is helpless to do any less. As one of I NEED GOD’s T-shirts reads: “Just a friendly reminder that you are loved by the Creator of the sun, moon, stars, galaxies. Talk with Him. He’s not as far as you may think.” A simplistic Sunday School message, sure, but it’s as true as it gets. And for Rae and anyone else buying Praying gear for the biblical messages, we’ve got great news: There’s a lot more where that came from.

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