Wearing Their Beliefs on Their Chests

Late last week, Trapper Blu, a ski and snowboarding instructor from Wanship, Utah, dropped in with his family at Christopher’s, a T-shirt shop in Greenwich Village, and tried on a shirt emblazoned with an image of Jesus and the slogan “Put Down the Drugs and Come Get a Hug.”

“I would wear this, you bet,” Mr. Blu, 23, said, scrutinizing his reflection in the mirror. “The shirt is funny,” he added, as he tweaked the brim of his cowboy hat, “but it doesn’t make fun of Jesus or anything.”

A few blocks south at Urban Outfitters, part of a youth-oriented chain that sells T-shirts along with shag rugs, coffee mugs and multitiered hippie skirts, Jurek Grapentin, visiting from Germany, looked on as a young friend of his examined a shirt printed with a rosary entwined with the words “Everybody Loves a Catholic Girl.”

“It’s a nice message,” Mr. Grapentin, 22, said. “Catholic people most of the time can be so traditional in their thinking. To me this looks more new, more in.”

Mr. Blu and Mr. Grapentin are among the legions of the faithful, or the merely fashionable, who are increasingly drawn to the religious themes and imagery – portraits of saints, fragments of scripture – that have migrated in recent months from billboards and bumper stickers to baseball caps, T-shirts, flip-flops and even designer clothing. Such messages are being embraced by a growing number of mostly young people, who are wearing them as a testament of faith or, ironically, as a badge of hipness.

“There is no question, religion is becoming the new brand,” said Jane Buckingham, the president of Youth Intelligence, a trend-forecasting company. “To a generation of young people eager to have something to belong to, wearing a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt, a skullcap or a cabala bracelet is a way of feeling both unique, a member of a specific culture or clan, and at the same time part of something much bigger.”

There was a time when such symbols were worn discreetly and were purchased mostly at gift shops or Bible stores. Now, emboldened perhaps by celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Paris Hilton, who are photographed brandishing spiritual messages on shirts and caps, aspiring hipsters and fashion groupies as well as the devout are flaunting similar items, which are widely available at mass-market chains and online.

A casual survey of the Internet last week, including mainstream marketers like Amazon.com, turned up T-shirts, bowling bags, belt buckles and dog tags by the hundreds bearing messages like “Inspired by Christ,” “Give All the Glory to God,” “I {sheart} Hashem” (a Hebrew term for God), “Moses Is My Homeboy” and “Buddha Rocks.”

Plastic tote bags and tank tops bearing images of Jesus and the saints stock the shelves of drugstore and cosmetics chains like Walgreens. Some items have worked their way up the fashion chain to stores like Atrium, a New York sportswear outlet popular with college students, which offers polo shirts with images from the Sistine Chapel; and Intuition, a Los Angeles boutique that sells rosaries, cabala bracelets and St. Christopher medals as fashion jewelry.

Come fall, members of the fashion flock, at least those with pockets deep enough, will find chunky sweaters that read “Jesus Loves Even Me” from Dsquared, a label that only a season earlier traded in fashions stamped with obscene images and slogans; a Derek Lam blanket wrap embroidered on the back with a torso-length cross; and Yves Saint Laurent coats and evening dresses seeded with ecclesiastical references.

Fashions with spiritual messages are just the latest expression of religion as a pop phenomenon, one that has steadily gained ground with consumers since the best-selling “Left Behind” series of novels, based on a fundamentalist Christian interpretation of apocalyptic prophecy, turned up on bookshelves, and “The Passion of the Christ” became a box-office hit. Their popularity arrives at a time when faith-based issues, including school prayer and the debate over the definition of life, are dividing Americans, a rift reflected to some degree among those who wear the new fashions.

Tanya Brockmeier, 19, another German visitor browsing last week at Urban Outfitters, wears a cross and sees nothing amiss in wearing a religious-theme T-shirt, “so long as it looks modern,” she said. “These things are a way of showing my faith.” But Larry Bullock, 41, treasures a T-shirt with an image of Jesus as a D. J. Mr. Bullock, the general manager of the Civilian, a gay club on Fire Island, N.Y., was brought up as a Roman Catholic. “But for me,” he said, “wearing this shirt is a way of mocking the rhetoric that goes on over religion, which I think is just ridiculous.”

The commodification of religious faith “is born of a consciousness that any religious movement, to stay viable, has to speak the idiom of the culture,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Barnard College in New York. Dr. Balmer also observed that airing one’s religious views in public, which would have been regarded as unseemly or even presumptuous 20 years ago, has become acceptable. “We live in a multicultural, pluralistic environment,” he said, “and acknowledge implicitly that individuals have a right to differentiate themselves. In fact, there is cachet in that.”

Whatever is driving the popularity of message-driven merchandise, it is generating robust sales. Last year sales of apparel and accessories at Christian bookstores and gift shops reached about $84 million, according to the Christian Booksellers Association, a trade association of retailers. Teenage Millionaire, the Los Angeles-based makers of the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirt, a million of which have been sold, reported $10 million in sales last year, up from $2 million three years ago.

The Solid Light Group of Columbus, Ohio, which sells T-shirts with legends like “Jesus Rocks,” does not disclose sales figures but is projecting a 40 percent increase from a year ago. “Ours has become a mainstream business,” said Debbie Clements, a sales manager of the company. “It won’t be too much longer before you see more designers in the secular marketplace doing religious fashions.”

Chris Rainey, the director of marketing for Kerusso, a company in Berryville, Ark., that sells wristbands that say “Live for Him” and T-shirts with messages like “Dead to Sin, Alive to Christ,” maintains that his wares make faith seem relevant. “We’re just doing what a lot of churches have started to do, using marketing to reach a new generation,” he said.

Still, the concept of religion as a wearable commodity rankles some consumers. “I would not wear clothing with a religious message,” said Megan Schnaid, 27, a New York University graduate student from Los Angeles. “I’m not used to putting my faith on such loud display.”

Many retailers, too, balk at selling fashions with an aggressively religious bent. Aurelio Barreto, who runs a Southern California chain of five stores called C28 (a reference to the biblical verse Colossians 2:8), recalled that when he first tried to sell his Not of this World line of tank tops and hoodies to secular stores at California malls, he was shown the door. “I was told, ‘There is no way we will buy this,’ ” Mr. Barreto said. ” ‘We’re not going to have God in here.’ “

Michael Macko, the men’s fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, who viewed the Dsquared collection in Milan last winter, said he was somewhat taken aback. “Hmm, I thought, ‘Religion as a fashion theme. That’s a little different from corduroy or camel. How do we handle this?’ ” Undeterred, Saks bought the Dsquared line for its stores across the country. “We bought it as a fashion item, not as a moral statement,” said Ronald Frasch, the chief merchant of Saks. “We sell crosses, and it’s not a big step from crosses to sweaters.”

Not surprisingly, some secular retailers stock religious-based paraphernalia because they are loath to miss an opportunity. “We don’t just want all the punks and rockers to walk into the store,” said Priti Lavingia, the owner of the T-Shirt Stop in Marino Valley, Calif., which carries the Not of This World line. “Maybe 20 percent of the people in this area are very religious,” Ms. Lavingia said. “I want their business also.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Mar. 28, 2005
Ruth La Ferla
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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 30, 2005.
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