Met’s exhibition 2018 Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination includes about 50 papal robes and items by top designers.
The Costume Institute’s spring 2018 exhibition will feature a dialogue between fashion and medieval art from The Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.
Next month sees the opening of the Met’s highly anticipated exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. The exhibition is the Met’s largest show to date but also, given the theme, could prove controversial.
Famously preceded by a celebrity-studded, red carpet gala of the same theme and hosted by US Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, it is a highlight of New York’s social calendar. But precisely how it will explore the relationship between fashion and religion has become a hot topic.
“It has the potential to offend some Catholics, and there is likely a worry that it might seem frivolous to combine fashion with Catholicism” says Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald. “But it is worth taking the risk by giving a window into its past and showing how culturally prominent it can be.”
The exhibition will feature 50 or so papal robes and accessories borrowed from the Vatican alongside key pieces from designers such as Chanel, Balenciaga and Dolce & Gabbana.
A dialogue with the Vatican over how the exhibition would look began in 2015, with curators consulting representatives from several Catholic groups. Pope Francis has neither endorsed the show nor officially approved of the theme, although Cardinal Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and a cardinal for the Catholic church, has.
Ravasi declined to be interviewed, but in a statement to the Guardian said: “Liturgical vestments are a veritable mirror of the historical phases of the Catholic church,” suggesting the show will demonstrate just how much the church has progressed under Pope Francis.
The exhibition is being viewed as a rather brilliant piece of PR for a faith which, historically, has demonstrated its power through opulent vestments. Under Francis, the Vatican has sought to put a more humble face forward. The timing is fundamental, agrees Anne Higonnet, professor of art history at Columbia University, who is hosting a series of talks at the Met titled Art, Clothing, and the Catholic Imagination.
“Pope Francis has made opulent liturgical vestments history,” she says. “His sartorial humility now means this is the moment to do it.
“When you look at the fabulously ornate ecclesiastical garments, one is confronted with the financial power of the Catholic church and the intentionally visible wealth worn by Catholic prelates.
“At the very spiritual end of the Catholic spectrum there has now been a renunciation of wealth.”
Higonnet thinks the connection is clear: “The impulse to clothe the body in a spectacular way that continues to conceal the human body is a very powerful part of the Catholic imagination,” she says. It is an impulse that is at the very heart of high fashion.
Many of the designers featured in the exhibition were raised Catholic, including Elsa Schiaparelli, Riccardo Tisci and Jeanne Lanvin. “Religion was always going to aesthetically inform their work,” says Coppen.
Spanish designer Cristobel Balenciaga was raised Catholic, and designed the cassock worn by the priest who delivered Christian Dior’s eulogy. The exhibition also features a Chanel wedding gown inspired by a communion dress, and a Dolce & Gabbana mosaic piece from the AW13 collection. To counter any potential fray, garments provided by the Vatican will be shown separately to the rest of the clothes. The last time this many Vatican pieces were shown in the US was 35 years ago.
When you consider the relationship between the carnal and the spiritual, the mortal body and the garments around it, “you think of Balenciaga”, says Higonnet. “He understood how you express the human body and how you produce a surrounding for it. The body is mortal. But what surrounds it is not.” In many ways, she says, the Spanish fashion house is the three-dimensional embodiment of the Catholic aesthetic.
As to how this will manifest itself on the red carpet is up for debate – and the gala provides a slightly different context. Often dubbed “the Oscars of the east coast”, it is sponsored by Versace, a label which has long integrated Catholic iconography into its work. The opening night party for the Costume Institute’s exhibition will see the famous and powerful interpret this theme at the Beaux Arts palace. Rihanna is co-chairing the event with Amal Clooney and Anna Wintour.
“There has always been an extreme polarisation between the awesome vestments and the monastic sublime”, says Higonnet. The tension then will be between this extravagance and humility.
She thinks celebrities will look to the three corners of the Catholic imagination for inspiration, “so I’m thinking a lot of opulent encrusted magnificence, a lot of austere bold shapes, and a lot of angel gear”. Other designers likely to appear on the red carpet include Japanese designers, Rei Kawakubo (whose work was the theme of last year’s exhibition), and Yohji Yamamoto, famous for his collaboration with David Bowie, whose approach to silhouette also adheres to the theme.
Historically, male guests at the gala tend towards regulation black tie. Pope Francis curiously won Esquire’s best dressed man in 2013 – for “black shoes and unadorned, simplistic regalia”. Both Higonnet and Coppen think they may well look to Jude Law’s character in HBO’s The Young Pope, a glorious celebration of papal finery, but which paved the way for putting “Pope Francis back into the pop cultural world – and laid the ground for exhibitions” says Coppen. Higonnet adds: “I anticipate some marvellous use of cassock-like forms and some very beautiful silks.”
Higonnet thinks the marriage between celebrities and fashion houses is crucial to the exhibition’s success at “creating a hinge between costume institute and contemporary fashion”. Still, the red carpet interpretation remains anyone’s guess. “The outfits for the gala will probably be as tied to the latest fashion trends as they are to anything within the Catholic imagination”.
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