Fashion and Faith: Friends or Foes?

Examining the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination"

With Thierry Mugler angels hovering above, a decadent Dior Haute Couture Pope, and Madonnas imagined by Cristóbal Balenciaga and Jean Paul Gaultier, the Met’s latest exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, is a sight to behold. Curated by Andrew Bolton, the decidedly grand show spans not just the Costume Institute, but the Medieval and Byzantine galleries as well. It also requires a pilgrimage of sorts to the Met Cloisters—located at the northern tip of Manhattan—which holds some of the most awe-inspiring installations.

Its sprawling layout is no coincidence. Open to the public on May 10th, the show is designed to be immersive and experiential—to take the viewer on a literal and emotional journey. It is, as the Met’s president and CEO, Daniel H. Weiss, explained at yesterday’s press preview, the largest exhibition in the museum’s history and, in a major coup for both the Met and Vogue’s Anna Wintour, it features 40 dazzling masterworks on loan from the Vatican.

Pope Francis didn’t walk the red carpet at last night’s gala (though Rihanna, in custom John Galliano for Maison Margiela, was a more-than-adequate stand-in). But the Church was well represented, with His Eminence, Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, New York’s Archbishop, speaking at the preview. “In the Catholic imagination, truth, goodness, and the beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion,” he said during the opening remarks. His speech read like a sermon, but surely, that was the point.

As you enter the show, you’re confronted by fantastical sartorial specimens—both contemporary and unearthed from the most hallowed depths of fashion history—set against religious tapestries, artifacts, and artworks. The resulting dialogue is meant to create various stories (one room in the Cloisters, for instance, has been transformed into the Garden of Eden; another showcases looks by Craig Green, who frequently pulls inspiration from religious garb and workwear, alongside tapestries depicting the Crusades). In fact, storytelling plays a central role in the exhibition concept. Bolton was fascinated not only by the way in which the Church uses storytelling and metaphor, but by how those modes of thinking have been ingrained in our subconscious. “Once I’d finished the curation, I did research into finding out the religious backgrounds of the designers. Unsurprisingly, about 90 percent were Catholic,” Bolton told Fashion Unfiltered. “But what did surprise me was the fact that the designers we had in the show often approached the design process in very similar ways—creating a collection based on a cast of characters and a very strong narrative. I found that compelling because…growing up Catholic has made them see the world in a very specific way, and as a curator, you’re always interested in finding out what drives an artist’s creative impulses. I never thought it would be religion, and initially, designers like Pier Paolo [Piccoli of Valentino] and Jean Paul [Gaultier] said, ‘No, no, no, religion has nothing to do with it.’ And then, they would slowly send me emails saying, ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right, it really has influenced how I see the world and also how I approach my work.’ It’s the idea of storytelling and metaphor that’s inherent to the Catholic education.”

In that sense, the exhibition provides a glimpse into designers’ subconscious. It also displays the enduring hold religion—any religion—can have. Whether we were brought up Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish, the religious stories we’re told as children stick with us in adulthood, even if our values are no longer congruent with those of our childhood faiths.

Another takeaway? The importance the Catholic Church places on pomp, ceremony, and clothing. The Vatican loans, many of which have never been seen outside of the Vatican, are some of the most opulent pieces on view—think diamond-encrusted papal tiaras, capes and robes with gilded embroidery, and John Paul II’s infamous red shoes.

But why, in this moment, was Catholicism the right topic for the Met? “In this current climate, as a curator, you’re terrified of the culture wars of the 1980s happening again, where artists who dealt with religious ideas and imagery were basically censored. We’re living in a time where there’s been a lot of sensitivity, rightly and wrongly, around art and religion. So part of it was just to put on an exhibition that would open up a debate and discussion around that relationship. We always try to put on exhibitions that have a contemporary resonance and tap into the collective conscience, so I thought it was timely.” Indeed, cultural and religious appropriation is a hot topic in art and fashion, but seeing as 90 percent of the designers in the show were Catholic, it doesn’t seem to apply here. Sure, there are looks that mock the extravagance of the Church in the vein of Federico Fellini (the satirical fashion show scene from the director’s 1974 film Roma is shown in the exhibition), and those that sexualize and fetishize Catholic iconography, but on the whole, Heavenly Bodies seems to celebrate the Catholic tradition.

And that’s fine—there’s much about religion worth celebrating, but it should also be questioned, particularly here, seeing as the Church of Fashion and its vibrant, diverse community could be seen as opposed to many of the Catholic Church’s stances. As a good Catholic girl, I must confess that I left both spellbound and wishing the exhibition did more to make us consider the role of religion and how faith and institution have been addressed—and confronted—through clothing. To be fair, with the Vatican’s involvement, surely the Church had to be portrayed in a certain light. Furthermore, Bolton had initially envisioned the exhibition exploring fashion’s relationship with multiple religions, rather than just Catholicism. But after years of back-and-forth with the Vatican, the curator felt that, as The New York Times put it, “dealing with one church proved to be enough.” While the show is brilliantly executed and visually spectacular, it feels like a missed opportunity to dig into a profound, provocative, and polarizing topic through fashion’s lens. But perhaps that’s a different exhibition altogether.

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