On Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at the Met's Costume Institute
View of the Medieval Sculptural Hall.
Screenshot taken from the Costume Institute's Instagram post
When I first heard of the title and theme of the Costume Institute's Spring 2018 exhibition which opens on the first Monday of each May with the Costume Benefit also known as the Met Gala, the museum's big fundraising event, I was quite surprised. I was surprised not because I didn’t see a connection between fashion and the Catholic church or any religion for that matter, but rather the timing of it seemed a little out of touch with what was going around the world.
At this point in time at every region of the world, nationalism, nativism, and tribalism are causing huge drifts among people, therefore the choice of only one specific religion’s influence on fashion at a major museum—a temple for every type of art for every type of person—seemed a little odd. But more than that the timing is off too. We are at this point in time when the initial excitement with the election of the new pope has waned as he still doesn’t do anything really impactful about the child abuse cases by church officials. (Which I really don’t understand. I mean all you have to say is, this is not Catholicism, they are not part of us, and send them away. Period. By not believing the victims, all he is doing is condoning this atrocious and criminal behavior and basically saying that child abuse is acceptable in the Catholic church). It is also a major disappointment that the pope is not even trying to do anything impactful about the horrible crisis in Venezuela where people are suffering immensely when in fact there really, truly is no reason for them to. (The stories I hear from my Venezuelan friends are really frustrating and the inaction of the whole world is utterly unbelievable).
As I then watched the entrance to the Met Gala on television, I heard that guests were asked to sort of "dress appropriately" and not make any political statements out of respect to having an archbishop being among the guests. I was surprised to see the guests being so compliant, so obedient to this command by the authority. Nobody thought that rebelling against authority, silently, is criticism but only to make things better? Except for the beautiful and smart Lena Waithe of course, who came wearing a Carolina Herrera suit and cape with the Rainbow Flag designed by Wes Gordon, and saying she felt like a "gay goddess". Now here is a rebel: a genius!
Lena Waithe entering the Met Gala 2018, wearing a Carolina Herrera Pride Cape by Wes Gordon
Photo credit: Vogue.com
They also call it the most important night in fashion and you should be able to make statements with what you are wearing after all. I was also surprised to see Madonna coming to this specific Met Gala, even more so when I later learned that she performed at the event which I saw fragments of. I was surprised because I remember all too well the time when Madonna was contracted by Pepsi for an ad campaign, using her then-latest album’s name-sake song “Like a Virgin”, just as she was launching the album. The music video caused a huge controversy, such a public outrage that eventually led Pepsi to cancel her contract, cancel the sponsorship of her concert tour which came after even the Vatican called for a boycott of her and banning her to set foot at the Vatican. I was seriously disappointed by Madonna performing at his event.
Screenshot of Like a Prayer, by Madonna,1989
Watch the video on YouTube
As a side note, in two classes I took back in college we studied this music video—one was a poetry, another a film class—and in both instances we watched it without sound, for its imagery, and commented on it. The reaction those people who found the video outrageous was unconscionable then, and I think they are the same people who want to go back to those days when everything was so "great" again. How have times changed, right?
Back to the exhibition: Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. I finally saw the exhibition at its last week. The collection from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy was displayed in the Anna Wintour Costume Institute. I read that the church required that these collections be on display all onto themselves with no mingling of the modern day fashion objects, or any other art works for that matter. I thought in this section the vestments etc. were displayed in an exhibition design that placed the focus solely on the objects themselves, making the whole section seem a little sparse. I thought the request of the church caused the rich objects in that empty setting to seem distant, like objects worn by non-humans, all out of reach and out of touch.
Mantles of Pius VII (ca. 1800), Benedict XIV (1741), and Benedict XV (ca. 1920)
Anna Wintour Costume Center
I loved that the vestments could be seen from all angles though. The workmanship in those objects were exquisite. I wondered as I was walking through these displays what people really thought. I felt the mostly female demographic looked at the artisanship and marveled. I wondered if anybody thought about the opulence, or that how different these objects were from what everybody else was wearing, hence creating a position of authority, of power, through what you are wearing; you are establishing a rank above all others, thus creating a hierarchy. I later found out that this in fact was the premise of the exhibition: That there is a hierarchy in Catholicism and that this exists in fashion too.
Dalmatic of Pius IX (1854-56), and Chasuble of Pius VII (ca. 1800)
Anna Wintour Costume Center
While the collection from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy were on display in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, the fashion designs influenced by Catholic vestments and elements were in the Medieval and Byzantine Galleries of the Met.
Designs inspired by The Habit (the ensemble of clothing and accessories worn by nuns)
Medieval and Byzantine Galleries
I actually liked that the Met’s galleries were used for this exhibition, like the 2015 exhibition of the Costume Institute China through the Looking Glass was also displayed in the Asian galleries. I believe that all museum professionals have to find ways to increase museum visitations, and clearly this was accomplished here. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is the most visited exhibition in the Met’s history, surpassing all others exhibitions, not just the Costume institute’s.
Choral robes by Cristóbal Balenciaga,1964, above, and design by House of Givenchy, by Alexander McQueen, 1999, in the center
Medieval Art galleries
A lot of people criticized that the artworks in the galleries themselves were upstaged. Well maybe it could be true, but then just for a short while what is wrong with that being so? I mean anybody who came to only see the objects of the medieval galleries were able to see them. And lastly, those galleries never would have gotten this many visitors. Period. You just can’t argue with success.
Then I went to the Met Cloisters in "northern Manhattan, where elements from French monasteries have been rebuilt as four cloisters", and where the Met's religious artifacts are on display. What a beautiful place by the way. I just couldn’t believe that after a short drive in Manhattan I was transported to a place that made me feel like I was in France. Here too the designs were fantastic.
Ensemble, AW 2006-7 haute couture, House of Dior, by John Galliano
Evening Dress, SS 1999 by Olivier Theyskens, and Ensemble, AW 2011-12, by Gareth Pugh
Gothic Chapel, Met Cloisters
Seeing all these beautiful clothes on display also make you think how they are in fact so well preserved and stored, in pristine condition. I also imagine how much space these dresses take in storage with the optimum conditions of humidity and temperature always under control. Kudos to all museum professionals who work at collection management in all museums.
Ensemble, AW 2006-7 haute couture, House of Dior, by John Galliano
Gothic Chapel, Met Cloisters
All the fashion designs were fabulous: Impressive, exquisite, very smart, beautiful, and very clearly inspired by Catholic vestments, symbols, icons, and imagery as well as by art inspired by religious events. I read in the two-volume catalogue of the exhibition—one is about the collection from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, and the other about the fashion designs—that the fashion on display were created mostly by Catholic designers. Normally I am not crazy about curatorship of this type. Exhibition making is telling a story, so putting together a specific group of artists' works together, does not an exhibition make unless there is a good common theme, or a story is being told. In this specific case there clearly was, so it was alright: All the designers got their inspiration from Catholic imagery and vestments, so that’s perfectly fine I thought.
Now on to the catalogue, which I had one issue. I don't like taking pictures as I visit exhibitions. I focus more on my impressions, my thoughts. I observe how others are acting and reacting; and this time I thought I didn't take good pictures. Therefore I was looking forward to owning the catalogue so I would be able to see better pictures. But the catalogue contained writings and included photographs which in and of themselves are works of art. By that I mean, they did not reflect the real thing unfortunately. They are beautiful, but they will never remind you or make you re-live the beauty of them all as they did by seeing them in person. So if you haven't seen the exhibition, it is your loss.
Most importantly, reading the two volumes of the catalogue reinforced my opinion about the only thing that bothered me about this exhibition: The clothes are almost all designed for women. They are all meant to be worn by women. Of the 55 designers whose works were on display only 15 were women, like Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin and Madame Grès (Alix Barton). Of course I am a feminist and I take notice of these, but this exhibition had such a strong male voice that was too evident, that shouted out of a male hegemony. But perhaps that was intentional? To draw another parallel, in the church hierarchy, women can only be nuns—which is basically a service job and there is very little upward mobility and no real power—they basically all wear the same clothes on all occasions. There exists a sameness, blandness, simplicity, within one lower class. Whereas all these powerful men in the church of different ranks have different ornaments for different occasions living in posh designs in lavish styles, the women mostly live in simple settings.
This also made me think. The fact that this might be the very reason why most designers were Catholics. Until we come to the contemporary era so to speak, fashion was in the domain of the French and the Italian, and the Spanish if you include Cristóbal Balenciaga. All are Catholic countries of Europe! Hence could we deduce that this was so because of Catholicism? Had it not been for the clothes of the clergy and the spirituality and the hierarchy, the class system, the richness, the elaborateness, would the whole fashion industry have been born? I didn't study the history of costume and fashion, but it just might be: Awe and inspiration in one setting. (I mean Protestant clergy, or any other religion for that matter, did not and do not have as elaborate garments therefore no Protestant designer reached success on a global scale until after the Catholics). All these designers were there, running their imagination go wild, being inspired but the imagery, of being in beautiful surroundings, to create beautiful clothes. I thought of them being kids, in Mass, thinking, when is this going to end? But then being struck by authority, the power, the imposing and beautiful architecture of the building, rich and elaborate icons, the most different and beautiful outfits, and oh the music, and you stay put. You have no power. You are in awe. You are a pauper in this atmosphere. You just sit. And your imagination goes wild.
Wedding Dress (1967), House of Balenciaga
Fuentidueña Chapel, Met Cloisters
I read on page 131 of the catalog that “fashion, not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, is governed by hierarchy”. This was used in the context of fashion hierarchy of designers and dressmakers, tailors, and all other laborers within the fashion industry. But I also think this is true from another perspective: Nowadays I personally talk a lot about the democratization of fashion. There is a hierarchy of course, and then there is appropriation: The greatest haute couture designs inspire others to appropriate and mass produce at cheaper and affordable prices. It is like, there is only one Mona Lisa, but how many artists use the Mona Lisa as their inspiration, or use the image of the Mona Lisa on their works in some capacity? As long as it is appropriation it is good. There is hierarchy, and we should all respect creativity.
In the end, I liked Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. I loved it despite other critics’ complaints that music was used. (I think music/sound is one feature that needs to be added to all museum exhibitions. Those who don’t are not in tune with the times, nor do they know anything about young people. None of us can stand the quiet anymore, hence the ear plugs we see on all). I also—as I always do with the Costume Institute’s exhibitions—loved all aspects of the exhibition design and confirm once more that it has the best exhibition designs. I love fashion but mostly I think exhibitions about fashion/clothes are tricky and can get very boring because in the simplest forms they could look like store windows. Or they could end up being about collections only, and not having a specific story. But the Costume Institute under the direction of Andrew Bolton and his team pulls it off in the most fantastical sense. Beautifully.
Wedding Dress (1967), House of Dior
Langon Chapel, Met Cloisters
Oscar Wilde, said that “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”. Now there are those who ask if fashion is art? They question if fashion should be displayed together with art. Or whether we should place so much importance on pieces of cloth, or pieces of cloth as symbols. Or if the vestments of the men of the Cloth should be displayed together with secular clothes, if they should be kept separate, and not equal. While I worried about a strong male voice in the exhibition I also was cognizant of the fact that almost all of the male designers whose creations were on display were gay. Here were their designs which were inspired by the very same church that didn’t recognize them officially. Is the Vatican aware of this? Is this a way "in" to Vatican? Homosexuality is not accepted, but here are all these supremely talented fashion designers and their oeuvres, in an exhibition wonderfully organized by a gay curator. Madonna’s music was once prohibited and she was banned to enter the Vatican, but here she is performing. Are these artists/designers still believers? And finally, can the church continue to exist when they don’t keep up with the times, cut off those who are predators/criminals, and be on the right side of the history of man-kind? Aren’t they worried that otherwise they could see an en masse parting from the Holy See?
I don’t know of course. What I do know is that I am a believer that meaningful, beautiful stories will continue to be told with art and fashion and religion, and they will inspire one another, in beautiful temples/museums. I will just kneel to that.