High Church and Modern Aesthetics Meet in Fashion

"Totus Tuus" means "totally yours" in Latin and was the official apostolic motto for St. Pope John Paul II. || Photo provided by the PAL Campaign.

"Totus Tuus" means "totally yours" in Latin and was the official apostolic motto for St. Pope John Paul II. || Photo provided by the PAL Campaign.


There’s a man in an old black-and-white photograph, looking right in the eye of the camera, wearing glasses only found in western Brooklyn, and surrounded by trees in the forest. 

This is hipster St. Pope John Paul II, an icon for “cool” Catholics.

St. John Paul II has become a patron for many young Catholics looking for examples of extraordinary people living ordinary lives. There are photos of him camping in the woods, hiking in the mountains, and wearing Converse sneakers. Some Catholic bloggers even call him the “hippest” saint.

Christian college students are combining church aesthetics with modern trends to create a style that puts them in today’s world but reminds them that they’re not of it. 

Joe Kim, the Creative Director of the apparel shop PAL Campaign said that one of the top-selling designs for the Catholic online store is the “Wojtyla” shirt. The “Wojtyla” design is a white shirt featuring a black silhouette of the “coolest saint ever” wearing a beret and sunglasses, with his birth name stamped beneath his head. PAL also sells mugs with the same design. 

The "Wojtyla" T-Shirt || Photo provided by the PAL Campaign.

The "Wojtyla" T-Shirt || Photo provided by the PAL Campaign.

Saints such as Pope John Paul II “speak to the hearts of a passionate younger generation, inspiring them to be more than what our world tries to tell them to be,” Kim said.

Kim described how his designs draw inspiration from words in scripture, church symbols, the lives of the saints, designs on a magazine, contemporary art, and other t-shirts. 

“Pope Francis said to ‘Make a Mess’ in our attempts to share the Gospel,” Kim said.

Anyone could scroll through PAL’s Instagram and see photos of students and young millennials wearing the company’s apparel. To the onlooker, it looks like any other Instagram apparel page— it has a coherent aesthetic, photos of people with blurry backgrounds, and promotional graphics— yet the caption under the photo quotes a saint or the Bible and there is a girl in Times Square with a shirt that reads “Dona Nobis Pacem,” which is Latin for “grant us peace.” 

Kim added that while most Christian t-shirts are known to be “cheesy” or “second-rate versions of popular culture,” he hopes that the designs of PAL’s apparel can be a reflection of the “first-rate beauty” of the Church.

“In the spirit of St. Augustine, I believe the Church is ever ancient, ever new,” Kim said.

According to a Barna Group research survey released in February, younger generations are more curious about liturgical traditions, such as the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Orthodox churches.

Millennials are more likely than any other generation to shift from a non-liturgical church to a liturgical one, the survey results showed. About 22 percent of millennials moved to a liturgical tradition, compared to the 16 percent from generation X, 11 percent of baby boomers, and 12 percent of elders.

Shifted from Non-Liturgical church to Liturgical Church

Edison Cummings, a student at The King's College, grew up Pentecostal and began to attend Episcopalian churches later in his life. He said he was captivated by the timelessness of high churches, such as the Episcopal, Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic traditions. These churches are connected to a deep history, he said.

His frustration with a lot of churches is that they abandon their past to get people to sit in their pews. Churches are built like sports arenas and community centers, not a place where miracles happen.

“Churches should draw the eye up and should inspire contemplation and silence,” Cummings added.

Inspired by these ancient churches, Cummings uses the textures inside cathedrals to coordinate his outfits.

“I borrow and use,” he said.

Cummings tries to incorporate the wooden pews inside the church, the stone columns, the marble altar, and the natural color tones into his style. He also loves to mix the textures together.

“When you contrast those looks, it comes out a little eclectic, but if you can do it right, it turns out really cool,” Cummings added.

Cummings appreciates the high churches’ reverence of saints because there’s a wider community he can be a part of. The past and the present are revealed in church architecture.

“This is the house we built in fashion of those who came before us,” Cummings said.

The Christians of all time create a “social heterogeneity” to make up the Church, Cummings witnessed. People come from different time periods, cultures, languages, countries, and more and the differences make up the whole.

This is the house we built in fashion of those who came before us.

This idea translates to Cumming’s fashion choices. He likes to combine church textures with a “rock” and “grunge” style. 

“You want things to synthesize to be unified in what the Bible describes as the Body of Christ,” Cummings said.

The combination of modern and high church aesthetics is symbolic of the collective whole of the Church body, according to Cummings. A Christian can have an appreciation of the rock style, the hipster style, and/or the punk style. Just by adding a touch of the traditional church, it reminds people, like Cummings, of the rich history that Christians have inherited and the history that they’re adding to. 

“When you reinterpret it [Christian themes] with a new look, it feels so fresh,” Cummings said.

Olivia Swinford, a senior at Parsons School of Design, designed a production line for her thesis project inspired by the philosophy of the Dominican order. 

“One of the mottos of the Dominican order is the fruit of contemplation,” Swinford said. 

Swinford’s designs were crafted in a contemplative state. This meant that while sketching, picking out fabrics, embroidering, and sewing, everything was done either in prayer or with deep intent. Then, the final product was meant to be the fruit of her work. 

Swinford hoped her fruit would bring others to reflect on the spiritual. 

Photo credit to Kayla Wolfe and courtesy to Olivia Swinford.

Photo credit to Kayla Wolfe and courtesy to Olivia Swinford.

Using the symbolism of fruit quite literally, Swinford designed a strawberry-shaped handbag that operated as a thurible, the vessel priests use to throw burning incense around a church. The bag was a collaboration with another Parsons student, Kayla Wolfe. 

The strawberry-shaped container is attached to a chain connected to a golden plate with a circular handle. When the chain was pulled, the top of the strawberry bag opened, just like a thurible emptying itself to fill the air. 

Swinford’s invention was inspired by Renaissance paintings that depicted the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. She noticed that baby Jesus held fruits in his hand. Curiosity brought her to research the meaning behind it. Each fruit was a symbol of something the viewer was called to reflect on, she learned. 

Pomegranates represent the Church. Figs represent the fall of man. Strawberries represent the sweetness and purity of the Virgin Mary.

Swinford knew she was going to have a handbag in her collection so she wanted “something you can hold, so you’re contemplating in your own hands,” she said. She hoped that the purse would bring the viewer to think about the sweetness of Mary and the beauty of ancient liturgies.

Photo credit to Kayla Wolfe and courtesy to Olivia Swinford.

Photo credit to Kayla Wolfe and courtesy to Olivia Swinford.

The rest of Swinford’s production line is a traditional take on modern styles.

“I try to incorporate things I see that are popular in modern fashion but with traditional shapes that relate to vestments and habits,” Swinford said.

Fashion trends such as pleats, off-the-shoulder dresses, and layers are reimagined in Swinford’s designs.

They become outfits intended to “reveal something higher” rather than revealing skin. For Swinford, she wants her fashion to remind girls that modesty can be beautiful. 

Just like the Renaissance paintings, the viewers of her clothes are called to reflect on the deeper meaning of the universe and the creator behind it.