Floating angels, chic nuns and golden saints have taken up residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, thanks to the new exhibition presented by the museum’s Costume Institute entitled Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which explores how the Catholic Church has inspired the world of fashion.
Featuring 40 fine pieces from the Vatican, many of which have never before been seen by the public, plus 150 ensembles from designers such as Balenciaga and Chanel, the show offers a rich look at how both the splendour and austerity of the Catholic church have influenced style.
The exhibition is the immaculate brainchild of Andrew Bolton, the museum's Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, and has been years in the making. Not least of Bolton's curatorial challenges was navigating the politics and complexities of the Vatican. It was only after several trips to Rome, for example, that he discovered that the trove he was after was housed not in the Vatican Museum but in the Sistine Chapel Sacristy.
The resulting show at the Metropolitan Museum is the Costume Institute’s biggest ever, in terms of square footage. Beginning in the downstairs Anna Wintour Costume Institute, it moves to the centrally-located Byzantine and Medieval Galleries and Robert Lehman Collection, and finally travels beyond the Met's Fifth Avenue space to the picturesque Cloisters in upper Manhattan, which specialises in the Romanesque and Gothic periods.
The treasures from the Vatican that inspire the exhibition’s fashions are on display in the Anna Wintour Costume Institute. On view are pontifical vestments including embroidered capes, and accessories such as jewelled clasps and papal tiaras or crowns, one of which glitters with some 19,000 diamonds.
Upstairs in the Byzantine and Medieval Galleries, this extravagance is interpreted in sparkling gowns by Christian Lacroix, John Galliano, Gianni Versace and many others, which are posed among the galleries’ art and sculpture. ‘The installation changes the way you look at things,’ says Jonquil O’Reilly, Christie’s Vice President, Head of Sale, Old Masters Paintings. ‘It frees you up to view the art and sculpture in the galleries in a different, lighter way, while you look at the gowns.’
As O’Reilly observes, the relationship between fashion and faith is not a stretch. In the past, she notes, women donated their dresses to be remade into ecclesiastical garments. ‘Rich gowns with embroidery were given to the Church to make vestments or trimmings for Bible covers and lectern covers,’ she says, ‘so a skirt from Elizabeth I is reused as an altar cloth.’
At the Cloisters, the more monastic side of Catholicism is presented with clothes by designers including Madame Grès and Claire McCardle, culminating in Balenciaga’s sculptural 1967 wedding gown (below) worn by a figure who faces a crucifix and has no accompanying groom — she is a bride of Christ. Balenciaga, like many of the designers in the show, was a practising Catholic.
‘As a curator I am always interested in what drives an artist’s creativity,’ says Bolton. ‘I never once thought it would be religion, but in fact, growing up Catholic had a big impact on the creative development of the designers I looked at. I also found it interesting that there was a commonality: it’s all based on stories. The designers gravitate toward narrative-based collections, and that is also inherent to the Catholic imagination, which is all about storytelling and metaphor.’
While reviews for the exhibition have been radiant, some conservative Catholics have been less than charmed, claiming that it is irreverent. But Eloise Blondiau, a producer at America, the Jesuit Review magazine, sees the exhibition as an opportunity. Blondiau, who had the unlikely experience of interning at British Vogue while attending the Harvard Divinity School, notes that the exhibition had ‘a lot of input from the Church’. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, approved the exhibition in Rome, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, attended the Preview and the Gala Ball at the Met.
‘It’s important to remember that Catholicism is not limited to church on Sunday,’ says Blondiau. ‘The exhibition and the Met Gala give people the chance to engage with the Church when they might not otherwise, and we should invite that engagement.’ Whatever their religion, visitors will surely be taken by the beauty on display, which was, after all, created in the name of glorifying God. In bringing it together, the Metropolitan Museum is offering a little bit of heaven on Earth.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York until 8 October