Dangerous Design: Sonia Rykiel, Victorians, and Burkinis

​As the design world today mourns the loss of iconic French designer Sonia Rykiel, two recent controversies involving what one should be allowed to wear in public make me wonder what she might have made of these stories.

Ms. Rykiel catapulted to fame back in 1963, when Audrey Hepburn sought out her boutique in Paris after seeing one of the designer’s “poor boy” sweaters on the cover of Elle, and bought 5 of them on the spot. She employed a mostly dark palette punctuated by electric colors and designs from the Pop Art movement. She was particularly praised for her knitwear and for the use of unusual textures in her work; I am fortunate enough to have several somber but pleasing ties designed by her house. When it comes to style, you could not get much further away from Ms. Rykiel’s aesthetic than the prim and prudish Victorian era, even though she herself was famous for her almost Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

Today however, it is Victorian prudishness which is considered shocking. As this article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation describes, Washington State couple Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman recently took a trip to Canada to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Chrisman take the idea of period living far beyond simply putting on old clothes at the weekend for something like a Civil War reenactment, and actually try to live as much a Victorian lifestyle as possible – albeit with a very 21st century divergence, in that they blog about their experiences. Thus, when the couple visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia during their vacation, they were unpleasantly surprised to be asked to change clothes or leave, since the park maintains a “no costumes” policy.

Then yesterday, news stories and photographs surfaced from France, in which police officers were shown asking Muslim women who had covered themselves up on the Riviera to remove their Victorian – or perhaps better put, Medieval Revival – coverings or leave the beach. The commentariat went ballistic, as summarized in this opinion piece in the New York Times. There were photographic posts of men in wet suits or nuns in their habits at the seaside, asking what was the difference between the French allowing such garb to be worn at the beach, but not allowing Muslim women in France to cover themselves up in the so-called “burkini” or similar garments.

Being French and a member of the Legion of Honor, I would imagine that Ms. Rykiel would mock the Canadians but side with her own countrymen. The French have a habit of chastising everyone else while making exceptions for themselves. Given how many times their country has been subjected to Islamic terrorism in recent years, there is a tendency even among the left-leaning French to categorize Fundamentalist Islamic forms of dress as an actual public danger, rather than as an expression of modesty.
That being said, a ban on the wearing of costumes in a park seems to me just as untenable as insisting that women remove their clothing at the beach. Do we draw the line of acceptability of either practice at whether the space is publicly or privately owned? Who gets to decide what is a “costume”, or what makes an article of clothing dangerous? I would be curious to read some debate in the comments section.

Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016)

Dangerous Instruments: Your Online Life And Your Creative Legacy

I get email inquiries all the time from visitors to my side project, CatholicBarcelona.com, which is an online guide in English to all of the historic churches, monasteries, etc. in Barcelona. People want to know which sites are closest to their hotel, or if I can recommend a particular Sunday Mass, or where they can get married. A common question involves requests for Masses in other languages.

Some months ago I received an email from a lady whom I will call “T”. T had recently moved from her country to suburban Barcelona, but she had started to look into becoming a Catholic before she had left her home country. She wanted some suggestions on joining a parish, and also whether I knew of anywhere that she could receive instruction on Catholicism, through the program commonly known as RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I gave her a couple of recommendations and wished her luck, assuming I would never hear from her again.

Then yesterday morning, I received an email from T, some four months after I last heard from her. She told me that not only had she joined the parish I suggested would probably work for her, but one of the priests there was giving her private RCIA instruction. She is thrilled and hopes to come into the Church next Easter.

Now at the end of the day, what is happening in T’s life is the working of the Holy Spirit, not me. If she hadn’t found the information she was seeking through me, she would have found it somewhere else. However I wanted to share this story with you for an important reason.

There’s no question that the connections we make via online media can be toxic. All you have to do is read the comments section on just about any blog to realize that there are a lot of bitter, unhappy people out there, who not only espouse crazy theories, they are more than happy to share them with you. Twitter and Facebook, at times, can seem little more than a flame war, while even the most seemingly innocuous Instagram account can take on a different tinge, when you look not at the images being posted by that user you’re following, but at the images that they are “liking”.

I‘ll be the first to raise my hand and declare that I’m as big and bad a sinner online, as I am in real life: the Seven Deadly Sins and I have been shacked up for quite a long time. It’s easy to think, when we look at someone’s online presence, “Wow, what a hypocrite/whackjob/jerk!” Except that if we turn the mirror around, I expect most of us will find ourselves doing the same things.   

Online media is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool: a means, not an end. It can be a tool of darkness, absolutely, for it can create all kinds of evil things. Yet it can also be a tool for good. We all, myself included, need to take a step back from time to time and ask what sort of online instruments we are.

Certainly we are all rusty, dangerous instruments when we chose to do evil. The fellow downstairs is more than happy to use us to injure others, if we let him. In the process, we end up injuring ourselves, becoming weaker and duller until we eventually snap and get tossed in the garbage.

Yet if we put ourselves in God’s hands, even in our sorry and decrepit state, by choosing to work the way that He wants us to, we can be as beneficial and healing in our online relationships as a well-wielded scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon. That is where, as the saying goes, the struggle is real. And it is a struggle all of us, myself included, need to be reminded of, when we are doing anything online.

Whether you are writing a blog post or tweet, sending a direct message or chat, or uploading an image or document, in creating online content you are creating a body of work that speaks not only to who you are as a content creator, but also about whom you are taking as your creative advisor. You can be an instrument for creating good, or you can be an instrument for destructive evil. Don’t let that choice go by, unexamined, in your online activities.


"Against The Common Good" by Francisco de Goya (c. 1814-15)