reading the signs

Watching Her Burn


Watching the Notre-Dame cathedral fire felt, to me, like a physical blow — bringing the sudden, light-headed, sickening sensation you get upon learning you might lose someone you love to illness or a breakup. I walked around in a daze for much of Monday, on the verge of tears, compulsively checking the ever-worsening images of the cathedral online, its lacy spire collapsing, its vaulted roof caving inward.

I knew the entire globe was riveted by this horror, but the intensity of my feelings felt disproportionate to me. I am not French. I am not Catholic. But I have spent large segments of my life living in Paris, which feels to me like my second, spiritual home — in a cultural more than a religious sense. French history, art, architecture, and fashion have been a big part of my life, and this tragedy encompasses them all. I felt compelled to be in touch with many friends, contacting people from many parts of my life and many parts of the world, to commune with them about the cathedral and our shared sorrow.

There are countless ways one could try to process the fire at Notre-Dame. But one approach for American women, especially secular women connected to fashion and to France, is surely to consider the way the cathedral weaves together themes of bodies, femininity, transcendent beauty, and history. In French, it’s impossible to forget the femaleness of any cathedral: The word itself is feminine, la cathédrale, and takes the feminine pronoun elle. And this one is devoted, of course, to Mary, to Notre-Dame, “Our Lady.”

Curiously, though, people are now using feminine pronouns for Notre-Dame even in English, referring to it as “she” and infusing the cathedral with an embodied feminine humanity. (“Notre-Dame Cathedral: What It Took to Build Her,” read one headline on Tuesday. “Notre-Dame will regain her glory,” wrote a Canadian columnist.) This makes sense. Something we love has been hurt, we are feeling it physically and mentally, and so we imaginatively share some of our own personhood with Notre-Dame, with her.

To me, Paris remains the capital of a certain kind of elegance we think of as feminine. Paris was the birthplace of fashion and remains one of its crucial centers. And the glories of its architecture — including sacred buildings such as Notre-Dame, the Sainte-Chapelle, and the nearby cathedral of Chartres — feel bound inextricably to the city’s role in fashion’s past and present. The seductive glamour of cathedrals is not unlike that of fashion. Soaring Gothic structures in particular dazzle us with their combination of artworks; complex geometry (vaults and domes of stone and marble); and the kaleidoscopic, saturated jewel tones of stained-glass windows. And all that beauty comes to us via stories and character, bringing sacred Christian texts to life through sculpture, painting, music, and symbolism — offering what Victor Hugo, writing of Notre-Dame, called a “symphony in stone.”

In its secular way, fashion operates similarly, marrying structure, design, color, and lavish materials to ravish us with beauty, to usher us into a grand narrative. That beauty, for both fashion and Gothic architecture, involves bodies — our own and those of others. Fashion is an embodied art, shaped, experienced, and enjoyed by bodies. And just as we might take pleasure in slipping into an exquisitely constructed Chanel jacket, feeling it enhance and alter our own bodily contours, we marvel upon entering a space like Notre-Dame, allowing it at once to envelop and expand us, exulting our senses. Are these the same sensations, on the same scale? No. But they are related. Both involve a kind of bodily transcendence, a sense of being connected to centuries-old traditions, the sense of giving your body over to a new space that imbues it with meaning beyond itself, then sharing that space with others who feel similarly inspired.

I am hardly alone in suggesting the connection between sacred Catholic traditions and fashion: Just one year ago, the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the Met devoted a vast exhibition to precisely this theme. Andrew Bolton’s 2018 masterpiece show, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” reminded us of the long and intimate connection between the Church and fashion, especially in their shared reliance on luxurious materials, fine craftsmanship, and grand narratives. Part of that exhibition was set at the Cloisters, where the medieval architecture lent the clothes particular poignancy. I can never forget entering one small chapel to find a bride (in mannequin form) kneeling prayerfully before an altar in her vast white Balenciaga wedding gown. The spiritual quality of the space was only enhanced by the somber splendor of her long, unembellished dress of cream satin with its architectural matching hood.

In two weeks, the Met will reveal its 2019 extravaganza, a show devoted to camp and fashion, and while I look forward to it, the subject gives me pause in light of the fire at Notre-Dame. Camp is by definition ironic, arch, self-conscious, and hyperaware of itself. Suddenly, I am feeling weary of such an attitude. The fire at Notre-Dame is far from the only — or the worst — catastrophe we have to contemplate these days, but it feels epoch-defining. It has sharpened our sense of shared humanity, reminded us of the majesty of beauty both sacred and profane. And of how important symbols are. Now does not feel like a time to celebrate irony but rather like an age for earnestness.

President Macron immediately announced France’s commitment to rebuilding the cathedral and his establishment of an international fundraising campaign. Macron understands the power of beauty and heritage, of what they call in France patrimoine culturel. He understands that there is a deep, even bodily connection to Notre-Dame throughout much of the world. To raise funds to restore it is to invest in that communality.

Finally, driving home the deep connection between Parisian fashion and the cathedral of Notre-Dame — between secular and sacred treasures — French luxury-goods companies LVMH (which includes Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior) and Kering (which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen) have been among the first to step up to help, pledging hundreds of millions of euros. Said François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, “Everyone wishes to give life back to this jewel of our heritage.”

Watching Her Burn