The Costume Institute’s Spring 2018 exhibit at The Met is a holy show of religiously inspired garments
“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is the largest exhibit in the history of The Costume Institute and The Met museum. More than a fashion parade, it’s a spiritual happening, with celestial soundtracks wafting through the rooms and a silent choir of mannequins in the upper reaches of the Medieval Sculpture Hall. It not only spans four locations at The Met Fifth Avenue — the Byzantine and Medieval galleries, The Robert Lehman Wing and the Anna Wintour Costume Center — but it continues to enchant at The Met Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, where outfits are presented indoors and out.
As Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop, said at a preview: “In the Catholic imagination, the truth, goodness and beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion. The world is shot through with his glory and his presence. That’s why I’m here, that’s why the Church is here.”
Organizationally speaking, this sartorial spectacle mimics a pilgrimage, curator Andrew Bolton said, with spectators advised to begin the journey in the galleries on the first floor of The Met Fifth Avenue before venturing to the Anna Wintour Costume Center on the lower level — home to some 40 vestments and accessories on loan from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy — and concluding at The Cloisters. In all, the show spans 25 galleries and 60,000 square feet, with some 150 ensembles.
A collaboration of The Costume Institute, The Met’s Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, “The exhibition situates costumes alongside religious artworks to provide an interpretive context for fashion’s engagement with Catholicism,” Bolton said. “Whereas the focus at The Met Fifth Avenue is on the pageantry of the Catholic Church, The Cloisters addresses the more contemplative and reverential aspects of Catholicism, fashions inspired by monastic orders as well as the holy sacraments of the Catholic Church.”
Most of the designers featured have been raised Roman Catholic, and though many do not practice the faith, “most acknowledge its significant influence over their imaginations,” the curator said. On the one hand, the influence can be seen in the use of Catholic symbols and iconography — the cross, a pierced heart or an image of the Madonna and Child.
But dig deeper and see that it is “conveyed through their reliance on storytelling and, specifically, the trope metaphor,” Bolton said, invoking Father Andrew Greeley, author of “The Catholic Imagination,” who believed “metaphor is the essential characteristic of a distinctly Catholic sensibility that he defines as ‘the Catholic imagination.’”
The storytelling traditions of Catholicism play out here through a succession of short stories told through “conversations” between haute couture and medieval sacred art. The drama begins in the corridors flanking the Grand Staircase, in Byzantium. Behold five mannequins on high pedestals, costumed in Gianni Versace metal-mesh dresses with crosses (autumn/winter 1997-98). The iconography was derived from a gilded silver processional cross, on display, that Versace first saw at The Met’s 1997 show, “The Glory of Byzantium.” The metalwork riffs the tesserae of mosaics found in Ravenna’s Byzantine monuments.
Enter the Crypt, under the staircase, for an eye-popping selection of Versace halter-tops and jackets from autumn/winter 1991-92. They boast crystal-embroidered images of Byzantine icons that play off the real thing in The Met’s collection.
The journey comes to a glorious climax in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, where the organizers unabashedly pay homage to Federico Fellini’s famously blasphemous “ecclesiastical fashion show” in the film “Roma” (1972; see the clip here), in which nuns, priests, bishops and cardinals take to the runway and strut their stuff.
Here, the side aisles of the hall are turned into an ecclesiastical fashion runway and lined with outfits that reference the hierarchy and gender distinctions of the holy orders that Fellini mocks. The right aisle is devoted to outfits that mimic the female habit. Rossella Jardini (House of Moschino) designed a jokey ensemble for spring/summer 2014 with a winged headdress in white that evokes the cornette worn by the Daughters and Charity and, laughingly, Sally Fields in “The Flying Nun.”
But the main action is reserved for the center aisle, which, like the nave of a church or a fashion runway, is the setting for a major theatrical performance — in this case, a solemn procession of faith-full couture by the likes of Alexander McQueen for the House of Givenchy, Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino and John Galliano for the House of Dior. Piccioli’s sweeping red silk taffeta dress, with a train and plunging neckline revealing lots of skin, cheekily recalls the ceremonial cape (“cappa magna”) worn by cardinals and bishops for liturgical occasions.
The holiest site on this pilgrimage, however, lies below ground, in the peaceful realm of the Anna Wintour Costume Center, where papal vestments, crosses, mitres, tiaras and clasps from the Vatican are displayed. The pieces span more than 15 papacies and date back to the mid-18th century. Many have never traveled outside the Holy City, including several embroidered treasures from a suite of vestments commissioned by the Empress of Austria for “the dandy” Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-78).
Fifteen women labored 16 years to complete the set, a paean to beauty and the fashionable Catholic imagination.
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