‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ exhibition

Split across three venues of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Costume Institute’s spring 2018 exhibition examines fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism by juxtaposing pieces of clothing and fashion looks with religious artefacts. Address contributor Kate Sekules visited the exhibition.  


The sign at the shop by the entrance of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination promises “must-have items that continue the conversation.” But, after spending many hours in all three sections (in The Met’s galleries, the Anna Wintour Costume Center, and The Cloisters) of The Met Costume Institute’s spring show, I’m wondering: what is this conversation? And who is having it? The May show is the splashiest and grandest in the world’s museum fashion calendar, and Heavenly Bodies is The Met’s biggest ever: there should be lots of conversations among anyone with a passing interest in clothes.  Instead, there are, basically, two: one among the Church and the other among Anna Wintour.  The rest is Instagram.

OK, that’s reductio ad absurdam. But among the laudatory coverage—rightfully: the show is magnificent, opulent, scholarly, impressive—there’s not much out there, from the fashion perspective, to counter the glamour, which is being swallowed whole and regurgitated across every social platform. But tour the show without Instagram goggles, and Heavenly Bodies can be clearly read as an ethical crisis in both museum and fashion worlds, a story about patronage and branding, elitism, exclusion and disconnection.

In The Met’s own words, the exhibition –the fifth by Andrew Bolton (the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute)– “speaks to religion’s enduring and divine imprint on art and design.” It is “the first collaboration between the Vatican and The Costume Institute,” presenting “masterworks of religious art in direct dialogue with fashion… as the exhibition unfolds in a veritable pilgrimage.” It was years in the making, entailing ten Vatican visits by Bolton to secure his headline coup: an unprecendented loan of 41 liturgical vestments and accessories from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy. Unsurprisingly, this loan, and the entire sacred/profane idea, has resulted in Catholic chatter (“…tasteless, indecent, and blasphemous fashion items,” a “frivolous, ignorant and at times sacrilegious extravaganza…pointlessly offensive to believers…“), though some criticism has been assuaged by the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s, presence at the Met Gala: the infamous “First Monday in May,” –which is a DVD you can buy in the shop. A lot of the Catholic outrage was actually triggered by that gala, by pregnant Cardi B as the Virgin Mary and Rihanna’s Maison Margiela mini-and-a-mitre, but that’s only to be expected: show and gala are intimately intertwined. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers of the Vogue bookazine Inside the Met Gala ($14.99 in the shop) had no idea the “East Coast Oscars,” where SJP had the nativity on her head and Zendaya was Joan of Arc, had an exhibition attached. This doesn’t matter: the gala funds the show. Patronage is how all museums operate, especially in the United States. What is less normal is that this museum has one trustee, the one with her name over the door since 2014, with power over the content not just of her gala, but apparently, of the show itself.  Of course, this is not official. The only hint that Andrew Bolton’s neck might be slightly clammy with Anna Wintour’s breath is that the actual clothes in Heavenly Bodies are straight out of Vogue, tasteful in the Wintour way, gorgeous, unsurprising and straight off the runway. Given that the Costume Institute has the world’s largest holdings of important dress objects, how did Bolton resist going in to extract anything—just one outfit! —pre-Twentieth century? Or, even if the remit is to show only contemporary fashion (though, why?), surely they could have pulled more from those deep and unavailable (even to researchers) archives: a Mainbocher, perhaps? A Galanos? The Costume Institute owns over 200 of each.

Those two, you will notice, are American designers. You might expect one of the most important museums in the United States to favour its own, but there is a paucity of home-grown talent here: One Norell, one Valentina, one Beene, a couple of Claire McCardells, and, in current designers, a row of Rodartes, some Rick Owens pieces and a few by Andrew Bolton’s partner, Thom Browne. Of course the subject itself narrows the field considerably. Bolton has said his original intention was to include work influenced by Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism—only he found that most of the material he was considering used Catholic iconography and he didn’t want to insult the other religions through imbalance. Still (aside from a suite of Heironymous Bosch-themed dresses by Jun Takahashi), there is not one piece from outside the U.S. and Europe, from, say, the countries with the largest number of Catholics: Brazil and Mexico. Or, from anywhere in Africa, the continent the Vatican’s Central Office for Church Statistics anointed as the future axis of Catholicism after running the numbers this April. According to The Met, fashion still comes from Italy, France and England, in that order (Versace, after all, is sponsoring the exhibition). Excluding Mexicans from representation in America seems especially wrong at the moment. Mercedes Benz has sponsored Mexico City’s Fashion Week for a dozen years, could there really have been nothing good enough? But perhaps The Met is not the place for politics.

Gender politics, however, is inextricable from fashion and, though the news meme we file under #metoo kicked off too late to affect the planning of this show, there could have been some slight visual acknowledgement of the patriarchal bullying intrinsic to Catholicism, the religion that bans contraception, claims abortion is a moral evil and won’t ordain women. Unless some point is being made by this vaguely nightmareish staging? The mannequin is a white female. Her eyes are closed, her arms hang down by her sides. What must be intended as beatific holy reverence looks more like meek subservience when it’s repeated over and over and over. When she wears white headgear—including one absolute highlight, Balenciaga’s 1967 so-called one-seam wedding dress—it brings to mind not Sally Field’s Flying Nun cornette (an influence cited in at least two of the exhibition labels) but the “wings” in the Hulu production of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which high church turns terrifying.

That Balenciaga is on display in the third station of the pilgrimage, The Met’s upper Manhattan outpost named for the medieval Cloisters that comprise its core. This (being, frankly, a pain to reach) will come last, if it comes at all, in most visitors’ tours. Most will enter via the five gorgeous A/W 2013 Dolce and Gabbanas perched on a row of high plinths, encrusted with sequin renditions of Sicily’s Monreale Cathedral mosaics. Thus the opening scene of Heavenly Bodiesis a phalanx of illuminated screens held high as every single visitor takes the phone bait. This will continue throughout (except in the Anna Wintour Center).

The glittery trail leads to the main hall, via our first close-up encounter: the Lacroix Gold-Gotha jacket, a giant crux gemmata, jeweled cross, practically parodying the whole exhibition in its late-80s “sweetie darling” over-the-top glitz. “Anna Wintour famously featured the jacket on her first cover for American Vogue after being appointed editor in 1988,” says its label, lest we forget who’s in charge. Then, introducing the sponsor, a S/S 2018 Versace tribute to an equally-highly embellished classic Gianni piece. Between the gaudy items sits a relatively modest, frankly superior, heartbreakingly beautiful 1938 Schiaparelli cape embroidered with goldwork ex votos, and then: on to the hall of medieval and Byzantine art. This is a breathtaking fashion theatre, no doubt about that: statuary vestments (Yves Saint Laurent, Ricardo Tisci), wedding gowns (Galliano for Dior, another Lacroix, another, 1978, Saint Laurent, ravishing and architectural), evening wear—a showstopping voluminous scarlet Valentino with a plunging neckline you have no doubt seen on Instagram.

Among the insane opulence, two rows of severe black ensembles inspired, respectively, by the priest’s soutane and the nun’s habit provide a rest for the eyes, a highlight and a surprise. The highlight is the tailored, perfect 1956-7 Sorelle Fontana Il Pretino dress, made famous by Ava Gardner; the surprise is a wool crepe ensemble inspired by fetish nuns by “the one designer you won’t recognize,” (said Vogue), the Londoner Carli Pearson of Cimone.  “I love to play with these notions of power and the provocative nature of the untouchable,” says a quote from her on the card. Despite copious, learned label copy about iconography and ecclesiastical vestments and artworks and tomb effigies, this is probably the most intellectual statement in the room. But we’re not here to think. An insistent bombastic music loop makes that difficult anyway: it’s by Michael Nyman, and completes the sense of being trapped in the fetishistic misogynistic symmetry of a Peter Greenaway film. There are further disquieting details: in its original runway appearance, the model in that (ridiculously costumey) Galliano wedding dress carried a gun. It’s displayed in apposition with the architectural 1978 Saint Laurent wedding gown, whose “angelic wings echo those of the John Galliano wedding ensemble also in this gallery.” Should that not be the other way around? Fashion has absolved Galliano of his anti-semitic rant, but in this overtly religious context, should he really get so much respect? Most disquieting of all is a pervasive, creepy shopability. The aforementioned newness is overwhelming, with so many pieces from 2015 to 2018 that are suspiciously on-message, one wonders if the designers (often Valentino) were tipped the wink. And this begs the question: does that matter? Can a museum’s educational mission coexist with a more commercial purpose? Because surely co-sponsor Condé Nast’s agenda includes bolstering its advertisers?

Down in the holy basement of the Anna Wintour Costume Center, nothing is new, nor shoppable—nor Instagrammable. “No photographs” was a condition of the Vatican loan, as was keeping the sacred vestments separate from evil fashion. Crowds here are sparse. There’s a peculiar disconnect, not just geographically, but in the sense of what fashion itself even means. The wall copy doesn’t help, not mentioning how for centuries fashion was, in a sense, synonymous with this kind of carbuncular finery, nor that Vatican II in the mid-Sixties sought to distance the church from ostentation. A Palestrina motet plays tastefully behind the displays of impossibly sumptuous embroidery and jewels. A suite of twelve vestments commissioned by Empress Maria Anna Carolina of Austria for Pius IX took fifteen women sixteen years to make–it’s moving to ponder how few eyes have been laid on them. Pius IX was quite the fashion plate: here are three tiaras, or triregnum, each with three tiers denoting papal powers and responsibilities: father of kings, governor of the world, and vicar of Christ. They’re terribly vulgar, especially the one with 19,000 precious stones, mostly diamonds, that resembles a giant Christmas bauble. This gallery may be the exhibition’s coup, but it is hard to understand it as fashion.

The most FASHION section of Heavenly Bodies is The Cloisters. Not only is the edit, inspired by monastic traditions, more avant garde, but there is far less phone waving. It doesn’t hurt that the premises are magical. The (1925 reconstruction of the) 12thcentury Cuxa Cloister features glass vitrines in semi-open air, containing “designers known for monastic silhouettes and minimalist sensibilities”—Claire McCardell’s Townley Frocks Monastic Dress (duh), some gorgeous Madame Grès, a brown and a black silk with an extravagant puffed sleeve, and The Cloister Dress (double duh) “a romantic but practical wedding dress for the young wartime bride,” and… Rick Owens. More highlights are that Balenciaga “one-seam wedding dress” casting a shadow in a dramatic slice of white light; three swoops of Philip Treacy hat, looking disturbingly Handmaid-wing-like; then, in the Late Gothic Hall, three heartbreaking McQueens from his final collection that was posthumously titled “Angels and Demons,” and, in the Early Gothic Hall, three (more—there are others) from Gaultier’s spectacular Catholic-baiting S/S 2007 Haute Couture and, in the Treasury, the most overtly ecclesiastical garments of all, actual chasubles Jean-Charles de Castelbajac did for 500 bishops and 5,000 priests for World Youth Day in 1997.

What’s happening in the tapestry rooms is more confusing. The “Nine Heroes” tapestries are accessorized by two Craig Greene A/W 2017 ensembles, which themselves resemble tapestries, but are adorned with “textures and patterns from Islamic art” or prayer mats. “This conflation of aesthetic codes from different religions is typical of the expansive embrace of Green’s designs,” the label says, without explaining how that fits into the Catholic theme. Because it doesn’t. It’s some religious-looking patterns from a different religion. Since the late-15thcentury Unicorn Tapestries next door are by far the most famous and beloved objects in the Cloisters, you’d expect a showstopper, and you get one. It’s an American designer, but he just deserted NYFW for Paris, where this wedding dress was the closer for his debut. It’s Thom Browne’s unicorn wedding dress, a giant white puffball with a unicorn embroidered on its bodice, and (no idea why) a pair of crossed tennis rackets on the back, and it was accompanied down the runway by a life sized white lace unicorn puppet. “Browne’s wedding dress, like the tapestry, serves as a poetic reminder that for the medieval mind the secular and the sacred were deeply intertwined and nothing was ever far from God,” says the notice, unconvincingly. This is emblematic of the ethical, and intellectual, problems in Heavenly Bodies. Throughout the three venues, has fashion been in dialogue with Catholicism, or has fashion simply eviscerated it for icons to embroider on frocks? Gaultier certainly did that in his S/S 2007 Haute Couture, but he did it as a conscious provocation. Thom Browne, perhaps less so. “’Two girls dreaming of unicorns and mermaids, and all the things that little girls dream of,’ was Browne’s initialpoint of departure,” Voguesaid of his Paris show, where men in corsets and four-inch heels carried pouches of glittery fairy dust to sprinkle on the audience. There is nothing wrong with that: the show sounds spectacular, the clothes are outlandishly imaginative, but the salient aspect seems to be less Browne’s relationship with Catholicism than his relationship with the show’s curator.

Andrew Bolton is brilliant. We all know his Savage Beauty had a profound effect on launching fashion into the realm of fine art. Fashion needs the museum imprimatur. Museums need money. Where The Met is concerned, Anna Wintour is cemented into the equation. This whole show is reminiscent of an influence cited by several designers (including Browne): the ecclesiastical fashion show from Fellini’s 1972 film Roma. But that hilariously satirized the faith, where Heavenly Bodies claims to revere it. Whether or not Catholicism has been dissed shouldn’t be the point though. “Dress is fundamental to any discussion about religion,” wrote Bolton in The Met blog, but the reverse does not pertain.  Maybe it isn’t orthodox Catholics who should be outraged; maybe fashion should be outraged at its appropriation by the Catholic church.