Magic has always been about power. On a base level it is power over illness, impoverishment and enemies and on a higher level it is power over the elements and human nature.
The iconography and visuals associative with magic are intensely evocative and, as with religion, holds a major part of its appeal.
This strong and often iconolclast imagery holds a particularly powerful draw for the artist or craftsman in its ability to fire the imagination, and to inspire reactive work.
Until recent times creative interpretations of magic within mainstream fashion has been tentative, occurring on a subtle and subversive level and generally represented within the counter culture.
Of course fashions of the fringe dwellers often are a precursor to mainstream trends; however when it comes to anything that smells of the esoteric it has always been considered dangerous to adopt these trappings unless you were above or beyond the judgement of the masses, as the public acceptance of such beliefs could all to easily shift from fascination to accusation and condemnation.
One must also bear in mind that the higher echelons of fashion that appear in couture designs are so wildly aspirational that they only trickle down as mass produced imitations on the high street. This higher level has always been representative of an insular and rarified world, all the more so now that the fashion houses have turned corporate. Many are now owned by LMVH, a conglomerate of luxury brands set up by former Real Estate developer Bernard Arnault whose aggressive business strategies are solely focused on money and production. Thus the legendary spiritual quirks of designers such as Christian Dior who had a tarot reading before the presentations of each collection or Alexander McQueen and his fascination with witchcraft, have been degenerated and translated into a money making spin.
Talismanic jewellery on the other hand has always been openly worn, although it tends to represents the most iconic and non specific occult and magical symbolism. However jewellery is yet another aspect of fashion which can be seen to have monetarised and commercialised. Pagan and magical symbols such as the Hand of Fatima, The Tree of Life and the Protection from the Evil Eye symbol amongst others have in recent years been copied and crafted for societies elite in gold and diamonds and those designs then replicated and mass produced for high street buyers as part of a cleverly marketed trend.
So why the appropriation of magical symbolism at this particular point in time?
Occult glamour tends to be prestige orientated. The mainstream and less well heeled can affect traditional or folk magic influenced imagery but only the immensely wealthy could afford the fashionable high luxe translation of the occult and high magic. From the bohemian middle classes and the intelligentsia who were beautifully robed members of the last century’s legendary occult group The Golden Dawn, to the later parading of counter cultural heroes such as filmmaker Kenneth Anger, singer Marianne Faithful and cult author Anais Nin, they all represented people who stood apart from the proverbial ‘common man’ and for various reasons could be seen to be elevated above them.
What has been considered to be the elite has changed over time however, and money and fame rather than creative ability has become the new aspirational heights.
I personally believe that the revival of interest in occult and pagan sensibilities has many similarities to a similar phenomenon in the late Victorian era.
England at that time was geographically isolated and very ‘stand alone’ with an ambiguous relationship to other countries unless they proved themselves to be subservient. It was a time of huge and rapid expansion of power- power which was achieved by physical might via colonisation and exploitation of said colonies and intellectual strength that was demonstrated through a rapid rate of technological and scientific advancement.
Whilst the structure of society at that time could be seen to be vastly different from the present, the distribution of wealth and results of these expansions were unequally divided, as it is now.
Due to the geographical explorations of the time there was a plethora of strange and wonderful influences from various proverbial ‘sunnier climes’ that ran alongside the constant inundation of wonders of the burgeoning modern technology.
Though contradictory, human nature has an instinctive reaction of looking towards the mystical and the magical when science and reason start to dominate a society. Whether this is a way of creating a balance or perhaps an inbuilt survival technique that prevents overload, it is a historical constant that we gravitate towards things of the spirit when all around us moves in too rational and fast a manner.
Magic, Paganism and belief in the spirit world could be seen to provide hope and a semblance of power when power seems to be denied in more mundane realms.
As part of this spiritual counterbalance the intellectual and monied middle classes created groups such as The Golden Dawn and The Theosophy Society. These were not formed to talk about the latest technological advances, but to explore its anthesis; magic, myth and changes in consciousness. Often this exploration utilised techniques gleaned from upper class explorers in the Middle and Far East, who would learn foreign languages and appropriate religious and spiritual artifacts to bring back to a country hungry for sensation and the different.
The Victorians placed a huge importance on outward appearance. Superficial imagery dictated reaction, and uniforms both actual and less obvious were de rigour in that period. The trend in physiognomy could be seen to further illustrate that with its popularised judgement on the nature of an individual or race being dictated by the appearance of their face and shape of their head.
Clothing carried with it the same criterion for judgement, the upper classes had a prescribed look, as did the bohemians, the clerks and the poor.
The concept of glamour has had its interpretation vastly reinvented and redefined over time, and is a word whose true meaning revolves around magic and enchantment, a spell or woven illusion. The magical practitioners of the Victorian era were particularly quick to pick up on this, probably as they were themselves more inclined to enjoy the process of dressing up and merrily integrating play acting and dramatic reconstruction into their practice.
Witness the Golden Dawn’s use of embroidered robes, classical costumes and Egyptian headdress’, and the notorious magician Aleister Crowley, was known for using dramatic clothing and jewellery to communicate his magical presence and prowess.
All of these elaborate items of clothing that were indicative of the magickal adept were also of course, indicative of financial standing, so there was a show of power on many levels.
This reactive and in some respects subversive thinking associative with occult outerwear continued throughout the 20th century in varying degrees. Its strength of both conviction and appeal seemed to vary according to the sociological difficulties of the time; a rejection of the rational as the progress that the material and scientific advancement brings was often only of benefit to a few.
Surrealists loved radicalised clothing if the design was right, and Else Schiaparelli was on hand to bring some occult themes to the mix as the world grew darker with incoming war. By the 1960’s singers such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin wore clothes embroidered in occult symbolism as if to say this is the reality I choose to put my faith in, not the one with governments who grant so little value to human life and eschew the value systems of fair, decent and honest behaviour.
The 80’s saw another surge forward in occult orientated clothing and Vivienne Westwood dedicated her 1983 collection to Witchcraft.This interest however that lasted a relatively short time as there was a sharp kickback against anything occult in leaning, even if it was just clothing, with the Orkney’s satanic abuse case in 1991. The tide then very firmly turned against occult symbolism as every newspaper made sure that imagery associative to magic, witchcraft and paganism was very much NOT going to bring in revenue.
There is an interesting theory used in marketing called The Diffusion of Innovators S Curve. For something to move from being a trend to a norm it requires the power of influencers to carry a concept or idea from an individual, offbeat and fringe expression to something of a more mainstream appeal.
Now many of the names I’ve used above such as Janis Joplin and Aleister Crowley, had major power to influence but they didn’t have the perfect storm of factors that has been fundamental in the creation of today’s fashion occult revival. Of course there was the constant of a background of uncomfortable government related activity, imbalanced distribution of wealth, and charismatic alternative figure-heads, but they had neither social media nor our present corporate culture which would have put the legendary and very ruthless East India Trading Company to shame.
Shifting into the present time and narrowing our focus to the specific of the present resurgence of magickal and pagan symbolism within the fashion industry, I will start with a few definitions.
Paganism is a non Christian, non monotheist, earth orientated belief system and magic is an action to create and effect change, often utilising esoteric symbolism and knowledge. Neither of these are ostensibly under the auspices of an established religion, which is of an advantage in utilisation of their symbolism for commercial purposes. However recently The Satanic Temple made a stand about the appropriation of imagery that is considered necessary and specific to their practice.
I believe action such as The Satanic Temple has taken with the series Sabrina by suing Netflix and Warner Brothers for breach of copyright with their use of the Temple’s figurehead Baphomet/Goat of Mendes statue, will possibly have a knock on effect on the use of varied symbolism within the creative arts. However by and large the sensationalism of complaints by groups of practitioners only serves to highlight a product and this create further sales.
The rumblings of an esoteric revival as demonstrated within the world of fashion, as mentioned, have been present for some time. As it previously occurred however before social networking became ubiquitous and assumed such a place of power, the ideology never achieved as strong a position in the eye of the public as it presently has.
Nowadays paganism and magic are being used as an expression of rebellion against the irrational rational; a material world gone wrong.
There are witch work-outs, political witches, transgender witches, groups to curse Donald Trump and the ubiquitous teenage witch has returned full force except she has evolved since Buffy and is more angry and less racially or gender defined.
The late Alexander McQueen was fascinated by magic and witchcraft and its symbolism and traced his family tree back to the witches of Salem. His interests were translated into his fashion designs and his successor Sarah Burton, in an interview with Vogue 2018 describes McQueen’s influences as being darkly pagan. Exploring his fabulous oeuvre which is obviously animist inspired, it is also very tribal with strong influences from belief systems such as African Yoruba.
Gareth Pugh Spring ‘15 collection referenced paganism to the nth degree although whether he actually did this because of his own beliefs is doubtful. As Pugh himself said ‘I wanted it of the earth rather than landed from a spaceship’ so being privy to inspirational images courtesy of a friend who was owner and founder of the Museum of British Folklore he achieved the effect he required though translation of the cultural artifacts and imagery rather than his own affiliations or spiritual persuasions.
All this demonstrates that there has been something building within the fashion industry for a very long while and 2018-19 collections show this more than ever before.
Gucci’s high end advertising campaign gives an example of this from another angle, using magical reference not just in its clothing, but as a medium to sell said clothing, with a very glossy campaign referencing Tarot and palmistry readings.
We must bear in mind though, that Gucci is yet another multi-national, fashion megalith whose bread and butter is translations of the activities of the counter culture and it would have been highly remiss of them to ignore one so representative of the glamour that magick applied to luxe can create.
Sales for tarot cards in 2016 were the highest in 50 years and increasing all the time according to Araujo, Director of *US Games Systems, the main seller of this esoteric divination system, and statistics such as this are something that the trend forecasters hired by all Fashion companies are well aware of.
In November’s *Vogue 2018’s article on Sarah Burton from Alexander McQueen and *Porter Winter 2018 interview with Creative Director of Chloe, Natasha Ramsey -Levi, both women liberally scatter the word ‘magic’. They intersperse this with phrases such as ‘strong femininity, which if one was cynical, could be seen as using appealing soundbites aimed at their target market of independent, high income women.
Away from these aforementioned major labels which perhaps have the more corporate approach, it’s interesting to look at the iconoclast and relatively more grass roots company Vinandomi whose Spring/Summer Collection ‘19 is titled ‘Thought The New Religion’. This collection makes frequent reference in its patterning and makeup to pentagrams (both upright and reversed) alongside a fashion campaign that is emphatic in its emphasis on sustainability, eco innovations and social impact and describe themselves as multi media artists rather than fashion designers.
I contacted them after I saw stills from their collection at London Fashion Week and questioned them on their use of this symbolism to which they replied,
‘We’re living in depressive times- I think people are struggling to find a direction and a way out of this scary global explosion’ and ‘We are using the pentagram to symbolise and suggest a new religion, an eco religion. We think that thought is the ‘new religion’ A religion where people worship the planet by thinking and caring. Eco and sustainable practices form part of this new religion. In order for the planet to continue to sustain life everyone needs to think think think about their actions every day. Thought is the new religion.’
As a pagan myself I’ve found the present hyper-focus on the occult disconcerting and wondered how much of the marketing of said trend has any substance to it, and how much is superficiality.
I contacted Simon Costin, an internationally known and respected art director and designer who been involved in the fashion industry for many years, working with many of its luminaries including Tim Walker, Hermes, Lanvin, Maison Martin Margiela and Alexander McQueen.
Costin founded the British Museum of Folklore and now owns the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle. The Museum of Witchcraft was originally founded in 1951 by Cecil Williamson, who at one stage was assisted in his running of the collection by one of the considered founders of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardener.
Simon was very gracious but also very clear on what he saw as commercialism of fashion as opposed to a ritual pagan or magical artistic expression. In the light of this present resurgence I suggested that surely his two museums which are obvious reference points on the subject, were being utilised more by the fashion community. In Vogue Magazine’s interview with Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton it is said that ‘before now she’s taken her team to Cornwall and Shetland to search out tradition folklore and ancient crafts…and this time they’re off to the West Country to research prehistoric standing stones ley lines and lore’
Costin said that aside from the occasional fashion student from a local college there had been no appointments or upsurge of interest from the mainstream fashion community; in fact no fashion designers or their assistants have ever visited the museum!
This was a bit of a shock to me given that these two museums are a major resource on the subject, and I started to feel that that perhaps the fashion industry was just riding the coattails (or creating the coattails that are being ridden) of a present trend.
Simon said , ‘An interest in the occult seems to resurface when the times we live in are dark and uncertain and people look to the esoteric for answers,’ and the present interest in the subject as ‘anything other than designers reinterpreting pagan symbols and using them in the structure of their garments or using them as applied decoration because they have a small degree of edgy currency at the moment. Fashion has always been a mirror to contemporary cultural interests and its no surprise to see ‘pagan’ motifs being appropriated.’
I know many people such as myself who are pagan and/or witches and are also involved within the fashion industry. Most of us have been around long enough to have seen various cycles of trends of belief, so we can be pragmatic about this huge reemergence of paganism in life, art and fashion (well their motifs and surface approach anyway).This pragmatism can be difficult to adopt though, if one’s spirituality operates within a system that adheres to silence as part of its premise.
Some manage to put any personal spiritual concerns aside and ride the wave to make some money on what could perhaps be a temporary fad, some enjoy being part of the in crowd for a change, and others just keep quiet and wait till the phase has run its course.
I’d tend to agree that using pagan and magical symbolism in commercial areas such as fashion is a surface level affectation but I also view this as being symptomatic of something deeper; an indication of the switching roles of what constitutes the outsider and what constitutes the norm. Perhaps this symbolism is representative of empowerment for the little people and lends itself well to being used as banner, much as the anonymous mask did for protesters, albeit with more dogma attached.
The fact that financial megaliths such as the fashion industry have got in on the act is a sign that they see that this symbolism smacks of cool, anarchy and individuality, and this may well have the knock on effect of rendering perception of these beliefs to be malleable, visual superficialities.
So the pagan and magical revival as interpreted through fashion is not a first time appearance or expression, although it has never before occurred with as strong a hold on the public’s consciousness as at present.
In Victorian England with its celebration of the white, upper-middle male class trumpeting intellectual and scientific progress whilst the bricks their empire were built on were already crumbling, belief in magic and paganism represented hope and rebellion. This time around, whilst there are many many similarities between the eras, there is one huge difference, and that is the ability of social networking and the now corporate fashion world to reduce anything of meaning, to a passing commercial trend.
Thanks to Simon Costin, Vinandomi, Marc Aitken
Image Credits (in order)
Vintage Postcard. Image Courtesy of Simon Costin
Gareth Pugh ‘15. Image courtesy of Simon Costin
Vintage Post card of Padstow ‘Oss. Image courtesy of Simon Costin
Vinandomi Image by Marc Aitken
Vinandomi Image by Marc Aitken
Vinandomi Image by Marc Aitken
Dion Fortune inspired photo shoot by Marc Aitken. Image by Charlotte Rodgers