Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence tempt sin at SF’s Project Nunway V

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Tommy Lau/Courtesy

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In the dissident future, saints will be canonized by men in nun’s habits acting out of joyful compassion and sinless bliss. In this same future, impeccable clothes will be mined out of the garbage and cut by artists into images of the Sun God, Father Time and various gender-queer goddesses. I have seen this future sashay down the runway at Project Nunway V, a fashion benefit presented by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence of San Francisco. The future is a gorgeous plural reality that buries the notion of sin and singularity in the dust. In the future, everything is as wild and beautiful as it was born to be.

Hosted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, this show was billed as a space flight. In the main gallery space, boarding announcements rang out urging the audience to find its seats before takeoff. Air traffic controllers manned the catwalk and directed our attention with light sticks, and platinum-haired flight attendants circulated with glowing trays of mints. Eerie music out of a science-fiction movie gave way to the inevitable disco anthem, and we reached our cruising altitude. The fashion show had begun.

Modeled on the television show “Project Runway,” this event allowed teams of designers to create a single runway look based on the theme of “Dissident Futures.” Fashions imagined for the apocalypse were created from recycled and reclaimed materials in endless forms and combinations. Trash bags and plastic tubing followed discarded balloons and tiny blinking LEDs. The looks expressed drag in every sense of the word: emulating gods and men, women and monsters.

The winning look of the show was a gold-masked image of the sun god. A halo radiated in a perfect circle around a serene face, palms together like an asana, a cloak draped in a cool blue cloud below made of 30 pairs of discarded jeans. Like all great fashion, the work was artistic yet accessible, projecting an image of the idealized wearer as s/he might actually exist someday. This exact dissident future is within view; it doesn’t require the seas to rise or the sun to supernova. It is only an image of our society more resourceful and less wasteful than it is now — a reflection of the 2020 goal of the city of San Francisco to generate zero waste.

Winning was not the climax of our flight, however. At the high point, former police officer Ron Huberman was brought up on stage and made to kneel. The saint of the evening was a longtime ally of the LGBT community in San Francisco, providing a sympathetic presence on the SFPD since the time of Harvey Milk. The ceremony was touching in the extreme, reminding all present that these futures are dissident in nature because it has always been incumbent upon this community to fight for its rights, fund its own tragedies and glorify its own heroes. The conferral of sainthood for these people is not dependent on miracles but on acts of compassion that seem miraculous in a cruel world.

Afterward, the sisters made themselves available for photos and lingered in the galleries of the YCBA, presenting tableaux vivants for attendees. With their perfect makeup and eccentric costumes, the sisters reminded us that they are advocates and activists, offering tiny packages of lube and condoms they call “bliss kits.” Their performance art benefits charity, and their work in the community never ceases.

Project Nunway V was a stunning display of everything the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence stand for. It was beautiful, but the standard of that beauty is as wide and as varied as the world. It was fashionable, but that fashion was created by willing hands out of overlooked treasure. It was a vision of a future in which the world has changed and a great deal has been lost, but the cause of bliss has won.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected]