Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest blockbuster, is dazzling. Organised by Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the museum’s Costume Institute, the exhibition brings together contemporary fashion designs with the imagery of the Roman Catholic Church by which they were inspired. The featured outfits are presented on mannequins interspersed among the permanent artworks of the museum’s Byzantine and medieval art galleries, the Robert Lehman Wing, and The Met Cloisters, its branch in uptown Manhattan. Also included, something of a curatorial feat, are around forty vestments from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, which are on separate display in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. By way of this organising principle, the exhibition enacts a fashion-inflected storytelling pilgrimage.
Beginning in the Byzantine art galleries, five evening dresses from 2013–14 by Dolce & Gabbana, and five by Gianni Versace from 1997–98, are held aloft on pedestals in two separate hallways that display mosaics and other artefacts from the Byzantine world. The dresses’ glittering materials recall the tesserae of these ancient mosaics and both design houses drew inspiration directly from Byzantine religious sites, in Sicily and Ravenna respectively. While it feels somewhat incongruous to encounter these dazzling, high fashion garments in such a setting, their beauty, like the objects that surround them, is ravishing. This apparent inappropriateness aids the exhibition’s delight, drawing attention to the centuries-old artworks as much as to the recent fashions.
These runway-type displays give an indication of some of the juxtapositions that follow, but Heavenly Bodies as theatrical spectacle reaches its apex in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. In a space dedicated to the display of religious tapestries and statues of the saints and of the Virgin and Child, a haute couture fashion show, albeit one conflated with Roman Catholic ceremony, takes its place. The scenography here is breathtaking, with mannequins bathed in raking light while music by Michael Nyman adds to the dramatic, processional effect. Framed by a magnificent eighteenth-century choir screen, the clothing on display reflects that worn by different sectors of the Catholic Church here on earth, and by the angels and Virgin Mary of heaven as depicted in art.
A ‘choir’ situated on the medieval hall’s balcony and dressed in white silk crepe robes designed by Cristobal Balenciaga (1964, 1990s), is a striking example of the latter, while the former includes an updated version of the clergy’s cassock, or soutane, by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy (1999). Here, McQueen renders the cassock seductively in black silk taffeta, while further subverting its conservative form by adding a white lace lining and black leather trousers. Equally enticing is an evening dress by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino (2017–18) that recalls the cappa magna (great cape) traditionally worn by cardinals and bishops, but in this case its low-cut neckline and sumptuous silk taffeta fabric place it firmly in the earthly realm of human desire.
This back-and-forth between imagery invoking Roman Catholic doctrine and secular fashion is scintillating, and likely sacrilegious for some. Perhaps this is why the Vatican requested that the items borrowed from the papal sacristy be kept separate. But it is this part of the exhibition that is perhaps most disquieting. At the press preview, the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, stated that the Church’s involvement in the exhibition was because of its belief in ‘truth, goodness, and beauty’. God’s beauty is made visible in fashion, too. And it is certainly true that the pontifical clothing and accessories displayed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center – including chasubles embroidered with gold and silver thread and elaborately decorated tiaras – are beautifully made. Their opulent grandeur, however, also calls to mind Roman Catholicism’s more decadent, corrupting elements, and it’s hard not to be cynical about Cardinal Dolan’s statement. Practising Catholics might feel similar unease at the appropriation of sacred imagery in the service of secular fashion. As the exhibition organisers point out, the designers included have varying relationships with Catholicism, but each one is influenced by the enchanting, storytelling possibilities of ‘the Catholic imagination’, and it is this aspect that is celebrated by Heavenly Bodies, doctrine be damned.
The most enchanted part of Heavenly Bodies is in The Met Cloisters far uptown. If the exhibition is a type of pilgrimage, then those who make the greatest effort are amply rewarded. Located in the grounds of Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River, the Cloisters is dedicated to the art of medieval Europe. Its architectural structure contains elements reconstructed from early European churches and monasteries, including four French cloisters, three of which are planted with gardens. To encounter modern fashion designs within these serene spaces might be assumed to be jarring, but the effect is in fact stimulating and charmingly odd. Here in particular, where there are less visitors and more space to view the works, the dialogue created between the old and the new assumes a magical dimension.
One of the first instances where this conversation takes place is in the Fuentidueña Chapel, where a beautifully spare 1967 Balenciaga ivory wedding dress, and its accompanying shrouding hood, is in harmony with the solidity of the Romanesque architecture. In this instance, the presentation draws on the theatricality of the downtown exhibition. Accompanied by the music of ‘Ave Maria’, the mannequin stands facing the chapel apse, her figure highlighted by a dramatic cone of light, as though illuminated through the arched windows by the very light of heaven.
Mannequins dressed in haute couture are encountered throughout the Cloisters. Two Valentino evening ensembles (2015–16) are elevated on pedestals in the building’s one enclosed cloister, their black robes sartorially elevated expressions of Benedictine monks’ black habits. In the large, open-air Cuxa Cloister, which is currently abloom with crab apple trees and spring flowers, and the adjacent, open-sided Pountat Chapter House, are further examples from designers who draw upon the pared-back nature of monastic dress. Suggestively displayed in protective vitrines, ensembles by the likes of Madame Grès, Claire McCardell, and Rick Owens recall religious robes in their apparent simplicity of form and monochromatic colouring of black, white, and brown. But the incredible seductiveness of the drapery and materials – including wool jersey, wool crepe, and silk paper taffeta – take these outfits far away from the ascetic life of the monasteries, recalling instead the carnal body for which fashion is made, and which it celebrates.
Another particularly striking highlight at the Cloisters – and there are many – is a 2018 wedding ensemble by Thom Brown, which is displayed on a mannequin in the room containing the museum’s famous Unicorn Tapestries. With the figure of a unicorn incorporated into its design, this snowy-white marshmallow ball of a dress channels the elusive symbolism of the tapestries, which have been interpreted both in sacred and profane terms. But the eclectic, patch-like design of the ensemble, and the smeared quality of the mannequin’s red hair, situates the religious imagery within a contemporary world of postmodern punk. The creation of such complementary dialogues, and enlivening dissonances, between religious works and those of fashion is Heavenly Bodies beneficence.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is showing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until 10 October 2018.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and The ABR Patrons.