Style Relics and the Mystification of Material Life


“Without the spiritual world, the material world is a disheartening enigma.”

— Joseph Joubert

Have you been wondering what Pope Benedict XVI, the first Pope to step down from his position in over 600 years, will wear now that he’s not the Pope anymore? Why can’t he keep the clothes? And when are clothes more than mere materiality?

Traditional papal attire symbolizes purity and devotion. One of the things Pope Benedict has to give up — along with his title — is the Papal ring, also known as the “fisherman’s ring,” which is a gold ring with an image of St. Peter and the current Pope’s name. This item is “a sign of authority … and must be destroyed once a papacy ends, so that no one can assert that authority except within whom it has been invested.” That ring is considered to be so powerful, it will actually be smashed and destroyed with a hammer.

As for the Pope’s clothing, Benedict is being allowed to continue to wear a simple white cassock, a color which is usually reserved only for the Pope, but he gives up the mozzetta, a short, elbow-length cape that covers his shoulders. Originally, the Vatican had suggested that he revert back to the cardinal’s red-colored clothing, over the white, but Benedict has chosen to continue to wear the white robe. Benedict also had to turn in the traditional red “Fisherman’s shoes” and has decided to wear the brown loafers that were presented to him on his trip to Leon, Mexico.

The belief that we can understand ourselves and those around us through the objects that adorn us is derived from Karl Marx’s notion of the mystification of material life and his theory on the fetishism of commodities, in which goods are thought to have human, psychological qualities.  The objects are both mediator and sign and facilitate distinction, class differentiation and social mobility, and the projection of individual identity. Thus, items like the Pope’s red shoes transcend trends or aesthetics and symbolize much more than personal taste preferences. Instead, they represent the individual himself and signal what he is capable of and how he is to be treated.

In addition to Christianity, many religions consider certain articles of clothing and accessories as symbolically significant. In Judaism, for example, the men wear a Yarmulke or skullcap to serve as a reminder that there is always something above you.   In Hinduism, statues and recreations of deities are often dressed and redressed in traditional clothing depending on the time of year. Once these clothes have been displayed on the statues, they take on new meaning and are considered sacred.

The concept of ritual attire and mystical commodities also exists in other secular parts of our society and larger culture. Certain objects come to symbolize more than their immediate function or aesthetic appeal because of the individuals who owned them.  After Michael Jackson’s death, an auction was held to sell some of the star’s iconic possessions, like his jewel-studded fantasy glove and his BAD tour jacket. Most of these items went for over $100,000, but not because the article of clothing was worth anything beyond that of typical vintage garb, but because of the man with which the items were associated. The biggest bidder on these items actually turned out to be Lady Gaga, who purchased over 55 of the items and made a promise via her Twitter account to “archive & expertly care for [them] in the spirit & love of Michael Jackson, his bravery, & fans worldwide.”

Sometimes even the most bizarre artifacts can take on spiritual significance and importance. Notoriously, sports fans are among the most superstitious when it comes to winning the big game. Many athletes and fans alike, subscribe to a long list of rituals that they must do if they have hope of winning. During the Super Bowl for example, sports fans will don unwashed jerseys of their favorite players for weeks and months on end, claiming that washing them will wash away the “mojo.” Other sports-related relics include the game-winning ball or other piece of equipment used by a famous athlete during a life-changing game.

Here are some suggestions for acquiring (or ridding yourself of) style relics and mystical possessions:

  • Have a favorite TV Show or movie that you just can’t get enough of? Check out this website that lets you participate in online auctions for memorabilia from some of the most popular shows.
  • Check out these ideas for turning nostalgia into style, including repurposed accessories, a signature tattoo, and other creative ways of fashionably keeping your memories alive.
  • As much as certain commodities can bring us happiness and remind us of good times, they can also be unwanted reminders of certain people and time periods. Need to rid yourself of something given to you by an ex? Try Never Liked It Anyway, a website that lets you buy, sell, and tell the stories of old items that have personal, historical significance for you.


Do you have items that have symbolic significance to you?  Tell us about them!

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Anna Akbari

Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and “the thinking person’s stylist.” She is a former professor at NYU and Parsons and the founder of Sociology of Style, as well as Sociology of Style services, its image consulting division. A prominent thought leader, she can be found speaking or writing for such outlets as TED, CNN, The Atlantic, Daily Worth, and the Financial Times.
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