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Review: Heavenly Bodies; Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

By Jackie Mallon

May 10, 2018


The Metropolitan Museum’s “Heavenly Bodies; Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibit opens its doors to the public today after being launched to great fanfare by the Met Gala Ball on Monday night. Flashing their Catholicism with pride, the twin pillars of Italian fashion, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, form a guard of honor above visitors’ heads to welcome them on their fashion pilgrimage which begins in the Byzantine and medieval wing. Mannequins in the latter house’s signature chainmail wear platinum blond wigs to resemble a celestial procession of Donatella Versaces and many might be tempted to genuflect given the level of devotion she currently inspires.

Byzantine iconography emblazoned on the front of heavily embroidered shifts, technicolor gemstones mosaiced on bodices, jeweled crosses scattered across a leather biker jacket, all items which sit on plinths next to ancient tapestries, and ceramic urns, and placed in dramatic archways and alcoves. The relationship between the dramatically spotlit garments and the paraphernalia of the holy mass echoes the level of performance associated with both the religious ceremony and the fashion show. Chalices sit next to a display of cuffs and necklaces by Chanel. The costuming and props aspect is underlined when a screen showing a scene from the 1972 Federico Fellini film “Roma” in which priests rollerblade by in pairs, wearing the different vestments associated with the complex hierarchy within the church.

On an experiential level, organ music and orchestral strings reverberate off the splendid high ceilings of the Medieval Sculpture Hall which has a nave-like aisle and two side aisles amplifying the awe-inspiring nature of some of the fashion. But much of it is from the late twentieth century up to present day suggesting that fashion only met religion when Madonna danced about in crucifixes, dressed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana arrived under the label of “enfants terribles.” A solitary black cape from Elsa Schiaparelli embroidered with motifs of ex-votos and the sacred heart in gold thread demonstrates that her faith was an influence on her fashions even in the 30s.

An opulent silk moiré great cape by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino in cardinal red is oddly shocking simply because of the contrasting exposing scoop of its neckline, and a lavish embellished gold haute couture ensemble by Galliano for Dior is pure liturgical baroque, complete with miter, long cloak and bearing the message “God is my Master” on the back. The outfit required the combined efforts of two vaunted Parisian embroidery houses to complete. Amidst all the gilt and crystal, feathers and veils, two rows of stark black ensembles prove to be arresting. Inspired by the clergyman’s soutane and the nun’s habit, with their disciplined accents of crisp white, are creations by Thom Brown, Moschino, A.F. Vandevorst, Stefano Pilati for Yves Saint Laurent, and even Demna Gvasalia’s first menswear collection for Balenciaga which was as close as we got to the influence of ecclesiastical vestments on the house’s founder Cristobal Balenciaga.

An Yves Saint Laurent wedding ensemble from Fall/winter 1977 complete with wings is cinematically haunting while a wedding dress from Christian Lacroix adorned with gold appliqué and red and yellow roses resembles an impression of the Virgin Mary from antiquity art. The third part of the exhibition continues at the Cloisters, but it is the contents of downstairs in the Costume Institute, that has raised the most controversy. Two rooms of glass cabinets displaying miters, chasubles, mantles, pectoral crosses and clasps dripping in stones, jewels, and gold which have been donated to the exhibit by the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Vatican State City. Their presence, while intended to render the event hallowed has the opposite effect, and it all rings a little hollow. The exhibit runs until October 8, 2018.

Photos by FashionUnited.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.