Saturday, July 6, 2013

Religious Iconography in Goth Fashion

Goths have a number of visual tropes commonly associated with us: bats, coffins, skulls, ravens, and others. While many of these have (essentially) secular origins, it's not uncommon to see Goths sporting religious iconography as well. Ankhs (an Egyptian symbol of eternal life), crosses (crucifixes or otherwise), and Pentacles (a symbol commonly associated with neo-Paganism and modern Wiccan religions) are all commonly seen being worn by Goths. However, some people question the validity of using another religion or culture's symbol without being a practitioner or member of that religion.

Today's post comes at the request of reader Kallie, and this is what she sent me:
Hi Mary, I was wondering what your thoughts are on Goths wearing religious iconography as fashion. Sure, it's normal to see Goths wearing Ankhs and other Pagan symbols, but what do you think about non-Christian Goths wearing crosses? There are some absolutely gorgeous Gothic-style cross necklaces that I drool over, but I don't feel comfortable wearing a cross, as I am not a Christian. What are your thoughts on this?
My thoughts on the matter can be summed up in the fact that I, an Atheist, wear crosses. I wear them because I find them very beautiful and it's a way to wear my love of western art and history around with me all the time (until I can wear a Gothic cathedral or replenish my wardrobe to take Gothic Architecture inspiration into account), not to mention the fact that they tend to ward off my more conservative religious family members and their questions about my religious passions. 

Here are some of the reasons I've heard for people wearing crosses when they're not religious:
  • Ironic statements against religious extremism
    • Irony is so punk rock don't you tell me it's not
  • They're pretty (yes, that's enough of a reason)
  • The whole vampire association
  • An interest in antiques and old-fashioned things

It's worth saying that this is not a problem unique to Goths, and that many alternative fashions use crosses. If you have any interest in Gothic Lolita, you'll know that designers like Mana are almost addicted to slapping crosses on anything, and he's not the only one. Hipsters, Nu Goths, Soft Grunges, and many other "urban tribes" wear crosses. 

However, I have to wonder (in the midst of so many groups wearing crosses like it's no big deal) why someone would feel uncomfortable wearing crosses. Is it because one worries about offending Christians, or because they feel that they're betraying their own religious beliefs by wearing the iconography of another religion, or because of what the cross represents? All of these reasons, and the inevitable others that haven't occurred to me, will have different ways to solve these problems.

Firstly, I imagine that some people will be concerned about what actual Christians think about the use of their symbol by non-Christians. Now, I'm coming from a country that is overwhelmingly Christian, and Christianity is a central tenant of our laws and media (even in cases when it shouldn't be) and from this perspective I say that Christians aren't oppressed by non-Christians wearing crosses. It doesn't hurt them in any way. And even among Christians that I know, it isn't a big deal because one person wearing a cross doesn't ruin the many advantages they have. So, this shouldn't be so much of an issue.

If someone does begin to harass you as to why you're wearing a cross, here are a few sample responses:
  • I think they're very beautiful
  • I'm a student of religion/art
  • A reminder of my favorite executuion techniques (Evil eye)
  • It was a gift
  • I finally accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior after people like you kept harassing me about it
  • (Exclaiming) How did this get here?
  • It keeps away the vampires (especially effective if you ward it towards them while saying so)

As for worrying about betraying one's own religious beliefs by wearing the iconography of another, I would hope that one's connection with their God and belief is strong enough that it isn't threatened by a necklace, but what do I know? If it helps, Christians didn't invent the cross and it's been used for executions far before Jesus. So it's a bit like wearing a noose on a necklace, except for the religious connotation. 

This also goes for worrying about what the cross represents and the messages you are sending to others. Now, you'll never be able to remove the religious connotations of a cross from the minds of most people. However, wearing crosses has recently become a more popular fashion statement among hipsters, even if those crosses are St. Peter's crosses rather than the traditional one, so it's not like people are generally very surprised by fashion crosses. You can view wearing crosses as an ironic, anti-Man statement if it helps as well, which is pretty Punk Rock. You can think about the vampire connotations of a cross, or you can just think of them as a beautiful piece of jewelry. Either way, there are more ways to think about crosses than just as Jesus symbols. 

So, that's how I justify wearing crosses despite the fact that I'm not a Christian. Now, other religious symbols come with questions of cultural appropriation, but I think this is a good starting point of a long-term discussion on what responsible decisions we can make with our wardrobe.

Do you guys wear crosses, or other religious jewelry? Do you wear religious iconography when you're not a member of that religion? Why? What responses do you get? What do you say if people ask why you do?


  1. I wear crosses, rosaries, ankhs, etc even though I'm no longer as religious as I once was. Even when I was ridiculously religious I didn't care too much. I understand that some believe that symbols should be preserved to represent a certain meaning but, in regards to Jesus being prosecuted on the cross, lots of criminals/etc were crucified the same way. I think it resembles criminals of the time more so than it should be religious iconography.

    As for the Ankh. If traditional Egyptian religion was still around I would be into it so fast you couldn't stop to sing the Addams Family Theme.

  2. I don't wear crosses or ankhs at all, partially because of the religion thing, but also because they just aren't my favorite goth cliche. I prefer bat wings and skulls, thanks. :) That said, I don't sympathize much with people who get bent out of shape about non-Christians wearing crosses. Can it be done disrespectfully? Sure. Does getting butt-hurt about it accomplish anything? Nope.

  3. I myself wear crosses a lot. I have quite a variety of them, around 18 pieces, in form of ankhs, Greek crosses, military orders and 'Christian' ones alike. But why did I put the last kind into quotation marks?
    For me, a cross represents Christianity only in form of a crucifix - and I don't like people of various fashions wearing it. But a simple latin cross is a nice geometrical symbol with many other meanings than just passion of the Christ (sometimes I say 'oh, it's just a torture device from Ancient Rome').
    As for Goths wearing jewellery with crosses - I think it comes from our love for graveyards :D They are full of crosses, so we wear this little symbol of macabre :D And it could somehow explain, why so many people feel uneasy when they see somebody sporting a cross - they don't view it as something beautiful, but macabre, maybe.

  4. I love and wear crosses and ankhs.
    Like Ra above me commented, for mee cross isn´t really (only) christian symbol aside from crucifix. Crosses were here before christianity. I love them and I like to wear them, that´s all.

  5. I generally (although not always--sometimes something too pretty to resist happens to have a cross on it) avoid crosses because I feel like I'm either communicating false information about myself (even though generally Christians only seem to wear crosses as small, simple necklaces) or being tacky. I don't judge others as tacky for wearing crosses, but its history as an execution method feels tacky to me when I wear them. I feel weird about bullet belts for the same reason. Then again, I like (fake--brown isn't as pretty >D) blood spatters, so maybe I'm being a bit irrational here.
    I like but hesitate to wear rosaries simply because their original function is not as jewelry (although I wear one anyway when I cosplay as Mello from Death Note.) If it's made like a rosary but with something other than a crucifix at the end then I'd wear it gladly, but with the crucifix feels odd to me.
    I love wearing ankhs, on the other hand. The religious origin here doesn't bother me because it's not a religion that's broadly practiced anymore, and the symbolic meaning behind them (eternal life/protection after death) is one that pleases me.

  6. I wear crosses, ankhs, pentacles, Buddhas, om symbols and pretty much anything I like.

    I wear them because they're pretty.
    I wear them because I've studied them and find them fascinating.
    I wear them because I believe in religious equality and don't put mine before others or others before mine.

    Sometimes when I'm putting on a cross I feel unsure. I think, You know, I'm wearing a cross and a pentacle at the same time.. I wonder what that says to people??
    But most people don't notice. Most people don't care.

    Maybe once in a while I get a random person giving me a Christian hand-out or something but it maybe once every four months.

    I honestly think this "I can't wear crosses when I'm not Christian" thing is Christian hate that is so popular in certain religious groups. As a Pagan myself I see it all the time. Christian bashing everywhere because they had been treated badly by a Christian at one time. They don't realize that they are taking that negative experience and doing the exact same thing to Christians and the Christians did to them.
    So they purge themselves of all the "demon Christian symbols" as revenge against the evil religious patriarch that has attempted to control their lives..
    Now think of all the demon symbol purging Christians have done over the years as well? Same religious hate wrapped up and seals with different shaped bows....
    I think it's ridiculous.

  7. I don't wear crosses because wearing one to me, anyway, may indicate that I either am Christian or have some affinity with Christianity and I don't. This is not a case that my devotion to the spirituality in which I do believe is threatened, but that I do not want to appear as an adherent of something I am not; I do not want to make a statement that is inaccurate.

    1. that's a good point. I like crosses and was given a lovely one as a gift by ex work colleagues who'd seen me admiring it as a beautiful piece of jewellery - but I feel uncomfortable wearing it because I'm agnostic and it is a bit of a statement (a bit like the cross Angel gives Buffy in season 1). However, my husband gave me a lovely silver bound heart pendant which I don't really see as a cross (though the description calls it one), and it's caused some blurred lines of communication with people mistakenly identifying me as religious. You can see my pendant at the Whitby Jet Shop here and make up your own mind :

    2. Crosses are much more ancient than Christianity...especially equal armed crosses. They often symbolized the 4 directions or elements.
      Blessed Be

  8. "That cross you wear around your neck; is it only a decoration, or are you a true Christian believer?"

    I love religious iconography as well as symbology. As an atheist, I wear these symbols not as amulets but rather as decorations.

  9. Wonderful post! I've been meaning to make a video or blog about this topic for some time, and I pretty much agree with everything said here. I grew up Catholic, and even though I'm not Christian anymore I still love how ornate Catholic art is, and I see wearing a cross as taking a little bit of that with me. Also as you said, I like the whole association with graveyards and vampire myth, plus there's just a lot of freakin' beautiful ornate cross jewelry out there.

  10. i think there's something very tacky about wearing any symbol, that has so much meaning for some people, "because it's pretty". i don't think you have to identify with that religion for it to have meaning to you, but it should mean something beyond superficialness. However symbols of current non-Western religions i would be even more careful about wearing, because of cultural appropriation.

    1. About cultural appropriation.

      Wearing something meant to have a transcendental significance WITHOUT knowledge of what it is is POTENTIALLY appropriating. However, if you are educated and don't do anything wrong, the argument still stands that if you are interested in the culture/practices of said culture whose images you enjoy wearing, even if the draw is only really aesthetic, as long as you have a healthy respect and understanding of what you are wearing, you aren't really appropriating anything. Appropriation gets thrown around so much. I saw a tumblr post of a woman wearing the neck rings worn by women in South Asia for the purely aesthetic purpose of neck-stretching being attacked as an example of cultural appropriation. She was just expressing beauty seen in other cultures that she, too, found beautiful. We shouldn't be afraid of global culture, unless someone's toes get TRULY crushed in the process (i.e. I'm wasted at a grad party in an eagle feather headdress, in flip flops with an inverted cross and HAIL SATAN written on my shirt).

  11. Another excellent post! As a Jewish goth, I always feel rather strange around the subject, because the crosses are such a huge part of the culture's image, and I obviously would never wear one. I do however, wear a Magen David that looks as if it's been fashioned out of twisted metal which is perhaps the closest to a gothic-styled Magen David I'll ever find.

  12. It bears remembering that the cross is NOT only a Christian symbol. it is essentially the human spread out. We make a cross shape. Each human is a cross. Native Americans and many other cultures have used crosses before knowing of Christianity, so as far as I'm concerned, unless Jesus is actually ON said cross, any cross is simply a symbol of the human spirit. If someone has a problem with this, I guess they have a problem with Jungian worldwide symbolism etc etc.

    I'm starting to have an issue with so many inverted crosses. mostly because as a Thelemite and occultist, it's considered unhealthy to wear them too much as they are the material conquering spiritual. I have avoided buying any for said reason. As far as inverted crosses are concerned, however, you can just explain that you are too humble to wear an actual crucifix. Peter, after all, was crucified upside down to show his humility and to make sure not to place his martyrdom too close to that of Christ's.

    I also really dig the Eye of Fatima and Lorraine Cross, and alchemical and astrological symbols. As a big Dolly Kei fan (which to me is kind of like a lot of goth aesthetics now) I just chalk it up to the look. Any images that transcend the spiritual in any way shape or form are fair game for creating an outfit that attracts the "sublime" so treasured in Romantic literature...the sort of awe and beauty, and a little bit of fear, that I believe many goths are drawn to.

    1. *issue with inverted pentacles

  13. Great post!

    I wear an ankh almost daily--partly for religious reasons (I'm Pagan, and mainly honor the Egyptian Gods), partly because I love what it symbolizes, and yes, I think it's pretty.

    I can't count how many times I've had this conversation:

    "Nice cross!"
    "Thanks...but this isn't a cross." *explains what an ankh is and what it stands for*

    but I'm actually glad that it can pass as a fancy cross, because I'm not ready to have *that* conversation about my beliefs yet.

  14. Hmm, this is something I personally have had a lot of thought over - I would never wear a crucifix or a cross that could remotely be viewed as christian (the only piece of cross jewellery I have is so elaborate and ornate it would never be mistaken as an item signifying religious belief) but I'm fine with the concept of wearing crosses as a non-christian.

    I feel that, as someone who was made to take part in church ceremonies in the Guides, told to sing hymns and read psalms everyday at a christian school (when the public still regard the concept of Islamic schools as controversial) , told by the law that I need to obey christian principles when I do not follow the religion, it's not right that I am expected to accept the role Christianity plays in my life and yet not wear their symbol.

    I would never ever wear something from another culture without researching it first (indeed, I have a sari that I would love to wear and don't, because so many people of Indian descent on the webs ask people not to), but Christianity is so ingrained in Western culture that I feel I know the issues and have considered them enough that I can wear the symbol.

  15. A symbol is so beautiful because it has a special meaning.Ι don't wear any symbols I don't know the meaning of. I believe I should be able to explain it when asked about it.

    As a theologist, I don't think it is wrong to wear symbols from another religion or beliefs, as long as you are not opposed to it and not insult it. For example, a singer in my country wore in a concert a T-shirt with a symbol that united jewish david's star with the nazi swastika. For him it was funny and ironical, but not for a jew. It' s unacceptable to make fun of other people's beliefs.

  16. I don't wear crosses, I used to, but as I've started searching more into my own personal feelings about religion, I've begun to feel uncomfortable wearing them -- namely because I don't believe in the religion that (the mainstream believes) they represent. I'm not Christian and while I respect peoples' right to be Christian, I'm not very fond of the religion and would rather not be associated with it.

    Honestly, I don't like to wear symbols of things I don't believe in, regardless of how pretty the are aesthetically. I would love to have an ankh or a pentagram necklace because those symbols have meanings I agree with/would like to go with (the pentagram mostly because it can be used for protection against evil/negative forces and gods know, I could use more of that.)

    I don't care if other people do it, as long as they know what the symbol means and what it represents, but I don't.

  17. I do own a very pretty cross necklace, but I rarely wear it. I also own another one with a lot of crosses and skulls, which I do regularly wear, it just looks nice with more outfits I reckon. I also own two pentagram necklaces and wear those quite frequently and I'd love to own an ankh necklace at some point ^^ I only wear religious symbols of which I know the meaning. I don't want to be wearing symbols of which I don't know the meaning and perhaps, unknowingly, insult someone by doing so.

  18. I actually have the Freemasons 'G' and compass tattooed on me, I've been asked my a few Mason's as to why I have it...
    I reply, I'm interested in Freemasonry (true), I am well read about Freemasonry (true), what I don't say is that I'm fascinated by secret societies and was a student of a very Masonic-like organization once-upon-a-time.

  19. In the late 80s early 90s I had a huge collection of religious medals and crosses I found in junk shops and such. I'm also stuck with a rather ugly Celtic cross tattoo I haven't had the cash to cover up. It was kind of an old-school gothic thing, I guess. It seemed to be pretty damn popular in the UK gothic magazines I was buying anyhow. Somewhere I've still got some old thrifted rosaries and a chunk of scruffy altar lace I'd sewn on some underthings.

    But I never wore any of it as a religious thing; at the time it just went with giant black hair, eyeliner and ankhs. I guess it was an ironic fashion statement, same as all that Latin in the music. Back in the day guys dressed like altar boys and wore priests' collars and I'm pretty sure that was played for irony.

    I wouldn't be caught dead in a ditch in any overtly religious stuff (Christian, Pagan or whatever) nowadays. I'm a rabid skeptic so it would look a tad hypocritical to wear it as decoration.

    Plus Southerners just flat out assume you're churchy if you've got a cross on. Not really something you can casually wear to a family gathering and safely avoid creepy "born again" testimonials. Brrr!

  20. I'm not a vey religious person but I wear crosses to remind me me roots as my family is religious and by this it reminds me my granmothers and the good time I had with friends visitting church as in my mother's village we go for walks there.

    Also I think that many people wear crosses just to make their parents feel safe that they on't do something "accosiated with the devil" (something that I hate as it's better to explain than just do this) Symbols are just symbols and the whole thing is how does someone conceive them. For exaple pentagram is for protection and it isn't a satanic symbol. It started in rituals to protect the people from be possessed by an evil spirit. The whole matter is how we feel the symbol we wear

  21. Something to remember is that, even today, there are people who wear a cross who are then killed for wearing it. When I wore a pentagram, I risked a little bit of social awkwardness, that's it. But a cross has for several thousand years been a bull's eye. A discussion about 'cultural appropriation' is really a discussion about empathy. How would you feel if the situation were reversed? How would it feel if your whole cultural heritage was wrapped up in a symbol... say, a feather headdress, or dreadlocks, or a star of david. Let's go with that. Your family has been wearing it to show their heritage for generations. your grandparents were killed in the holocaust (or trail of tears, or Diocletian Persecutions) because of what it meant. It holds hundreds of years of meaning. And then, it's a fashion statement. Just a 'pretty' thing. Or, it's combined with other symbols that mean the opposite. Lots of people wear it "because a symbol means whatever I want it to mean to me." People wear it while they complain about you and say you're too sensitive. They say you just don't know what it "really" means. ...Would you feel disrespected? I'm not saying don't wear crosses, I'm just saying when you make choices about symbolic clothing, think about how someone else is feeling.

  22. Are our strict religious friends saying that without their doctrine we cannot know God? Yes, unfortunately this is exactly what some of them are saying, but my secret is no matter what religious or spiritual philosophies I am being exposed to, I take each one as they come.EyeofthePsychic