Sacrilegious chic is the trendiest way to protest

The Gen Z fashion trend uses sacred Christian imagery as a form of sociopolitical critique.

April 19, 2024
Sacrilegious chic is the trendiest way to protest Illustration by Cady Siregar

In the fall of 2019, Brooklyn creative collective MSCHF sent “cool pastors” and holier-than-thou hypebeasts into a frenzy by releasing a pair of white Nike Air Max 97s with a crucifix pendant and Holy Water in the soles. Dubbed the Jesus Shoe, it was a viral sensation that cost more than what most Americans pay for a month’s rent and sold out in less than a minute. In the mainstream market, the shoe acted as a symbol of status and sanctity during a brief moment when celebrities were flocking to Hillsong Church to see disgraced former pastor, Carl Lentz, and Kanye West’s Sunday Service, dressed head-to-toe in Fear of God’s faith-based streetwear. Except what Drake and the other Christian clout-chasers didn’t know was that they’d unknowingly dropped a rack on something that was sneakily sacrilegious.

“Sacrilegious chic” is a tongue-in-cheek fashion trend that reappropriates traditional Christian imagery in a satirical way. As TikTok hashtags like #ChristianCore and #NunCore show, it’s a winking mockery of sacred Church symbolism, which, depending on the context, can be interpreted as critiques of the Church as a Western institution that deeply influences American culture and politics.

After decades of metalheads, goths, and punks wearing inverted crosses as a form of sartorial intimidation, mass consumption means you can order a pleather pentacle jacket for $130 (free shipping included). There’s more shock value in TikTok superstar Addison Rae wearing Praying's “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” bikini, the infamous rosary necklace from Cruel Intentions, Rose in Good Faith’s BYU Virginity Club collection, I Need God's "God Won't Let Me Die" booty shorts, and, most notably, the Jesus Shoe.

As MSCHF’s co-chief creative officer Kevin Wiesner and Lukas Bentel explain to The FADER, the Jesus Shoe’s satirical critique of Christianity’s commodification was subtle enough that it actually attracted a contingent of earnest Christians. So while the collective expected their customer base to “only be people who bought the shoe ironically… or liked the joke we made about the Church being a brand,” per Wiesner, there also ended up being “this other audience of people who are like, ‘Hell yeah, I love Jesus.’”

“But that’s the thing about satire, right? It has to be [misunderstood by] some," Wiesner shrugs over Zoom. “Otherwise, it’s not satire.”

So for two blissfully ignorant years, the Brooklyn-based creative collective let the Christian clout-chasers have their shoes, at least until Lil Nas X slid down on a stripper pole to Hell. For the release of the pop star’s controversial music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” MSCHF decided to alter another Nike Air Max 97 called the Satan Shoe. This time, it was black with a bronze pentacle and a sole that contained a drop of blood mixed with red ink — overtly campy and playful in its symbolism and imagery. An onslaught of public condemnation and a lawsuit from Nike ensued, despite Wiesner pointing out that the Jesus Shoe “should have been considered way more offensive.”

Worshiping the Jesus sneakers makes a mockery of the New Testament; clout, materialism, and consumerism aren’t exactly aligned with Christianity’s outward emphasis on humility, false idols, and kindness. It’s sacrilegious, far more so than the Satan Shoes, Wiesner says, adding that he also thought "everyone was pretty much anesthetized to Satanic imagery at this point.”

“But then all of a sudden, it's like, ‘Oh, they're sure not,’” he says.

There's even some confusion from Bentel, who was raised an “upstanding Catholic boy," yet remains puzzled by the public’s reaction to the overtly absurd Satan Shoe. Like Wiesner, he agrees that the Jesus Shoe contains a far more scathing critique about egoic individuals fighting over an “object that was bought and sold by religious noise” to project not faith, but status.

“Capitalism doesn't care about the subject matter or the cultural context,” Bentel says, before bringing up Pier Paolo Pasolini’s La Ricotta, a Passion-inspired short from 1963 that almost led to the Italian director’s imprisonment for religious contempt.

“Then he makes [The Gospel According to St. Matthew] right after, which the Vatican loves,” Bentel rolls his eyes. The straight-from-the-Bible epic is still considered “one of the greatest Jesus movies ever made” by Catholic critics, whose wanted a script that literally comes from the Bible, seemingly outweighs Pasolini being “an atheist, a Marxist, and homosexual."

“There’s so much rich imagery and cultural significance attached to the Christian faith that people should be messing with,” Bentel argues. “I think if you feel like something is not touchable, it usually means there's probably something underneath.”


Considering this context, sacrilegious chic can also be a small way to critically engage with the source material being weaponized by right-wing politicians to justify huge sociopolitical overhauls. Whether it’s overturning Roe v. Wade, a wave of anti-trans legislation, or fundamentalist Christian right-wingers infiltrating politics, the conservative Christian agenda has already taken over the U.S. Supreme Court, deadlocked Congress, and, if Trump gets reelected, will have control of the executive branch. So when you’re already trampling over the rights of non-believers and those of other faiths, why is a shoe with a pentacle or a bikini referencing the Holy Trinity such a big fucking deal?

As Rose in Good Faith founder David Teitelbaum says, most of his customers are either younger millennials or members of Gen Z, who find his satirical slogans “ironic” and funny, especially if they’re Mormons. And while it may seem “not so self-serious” on the surface, he does think sacrilegious chic may indicate that this trend isn’t just a phase. Rather, it could be a sign that their mindset is shifting in a much darker direction.

Edgy clothing has always been used as a way to rebel against the status quo, but for the first time ever, we have a generation that has almost unparalleled access to world events, political analysis, civilian journalism, and different ideologies via the internet, where the entire American public is watching the status quo rapidly spiral out of control.

“Looking at politics right now, a lot of these 18 to 22-year-olds, they're like, ‘nothing's real.’ The world, it’s all a joke on the internet. It's just a giant joke,” Teitelbaum says, reiterating that recent events have made everyone feel like the government is becoming synonymous with the Christian Church. “There’s no trust. There's no virtue.”

Much has already been written about American Zoomers adopting nihilistic attitudes and pitch-black humor to cope with a perceived absence of societal structures that are supposed to protect or comfort you. It makes sense to feel this way though given that the internet has made it easy to become “overexposed and desensitized to shocking events,” as Bloomberg’s Amanda Little wrote in a column about Gen Z’s “comedic deflection.” And the hard data is telling as well, a global study from 2021 found that 56% of young people believe we’re “doomed.” The study also reported that 60% of respondents blamed this on the inaction of national governments, with the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute mentioning a “formative distrust” amongst younger Americans, per The New York Times.

It’s a feeling so strong that Gen Z has actively chosen to disengage with most sociopolitical issues, especially when it comes to matters related to the government and the Christian Church. While there is a subset of actual "Trad Cath" believers, Slate's Molly Olmstead has pointed out that a good portion of "Trad Caths" are irony-driven meme-makers and Dimes Square trendsetters, who identify more as "God's thot daughter AND gay son," rather earnest believers in the Holy Spirit.

Like the Jesus Shoe, some may argue that behavior is even more "sacrilegious" than Lil Nas X being crucified in the music video for “J. Christ,” Sabrina Carpenter's punny "Jesus Was a Carpenter" Coachella shirt, or Sydney Sweeney’s buzzy new film, Immaculate, with its overt critique of religious institutions attacking women’s bodily autonomy. Either way, it’s a watershed moment for pop culture, one facilitated over decades by other controversial music videos like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Lady Gaga’s “Judas.”

A lot of the time, it really does feel like America is turning back the clock by bringing back a number of archaic and oppressive rules from when public policy was still dictated by patriarchal cherry-picking of Christian doctrine. So when we continue to see right-wing politicians use Jesus to justify their own bigotry and polarize politics, society, and culture, it makes sense that sacrilegious chic has become a form of commentary and critique, even if done on a subconscious level.

As Teitelbaum says, Gen Z is still making a loud statement through sartorial sacrilege — whether it’s a crop top that says “God’s Favorite” or a demonic shoe with blood in the sole — and its importance isn’t diminished if you just like that sacrilegious chic “scratches your brain in a different way.”

“Because I think there's definitely a statement they’re trying to tap into. Something that's a little subversive,” he said. “Something that people have always played with, but not to this extreme nature.”

Right now though, sacrilegious chic may be more important than ever, especially as we barrel towards election season, a time that brings to the fore even more hypocrisy, hopelessness, and obfuscation than normal. In that context, fashion is one of the few “safe and creative ways” for young people to express their views, especially when everyone else is screaming at each other, Teitelbaum says — a way for people to openly scrutinize conservatives, the Church, and the U.S. government as failed institutions.

In an age where the internet and condescending adults can make it hard for a young person to feel heard, it makes sense that some let sacrilegious chic do the talking for them. And, besides, Praying’s “Ultrasound” dress looks like it’d be a lot more comfortable than a chastity belt or an ugly potato sack, straight out of a nunnery.

Sacrilegious chic is the trendiest way to protest