Faith & Fashion

Volume 51, Issue 2 :: Michael J. Crosbie

A new exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum investigates the impact of Catholicism on clothing design.

Do religions make fashion statements? Is there a “Catholic style” that offers a well of imagery from which a purveyor of haute couture might draw? The premise of a new exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” is that the long history of the Roman Catholic Church includes a sense of aesthetic style, expressed in liturgical vestments, clerical garb, and holy jewelry that is perennially ripe for transformation into secular fashion. The show, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute through October 8, features the creations of such fashion giants as Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Dior, Geoffrey Beene, and Valentino (part of the exhibit is on display at The Met Cloisters Museum, also in New York). Designers of these haute couture powerhouses whose work is represented in the show cite the influence of the Catholic esthetic on their work or the cumulative marinate of being raised in the Catholic visual culture.

The exhibit is organized in two spaces in the Fifth Avenue museum building. The bulk of the show’s display of Catholic-inspired fashion is dramatically arranged throughout the Met’s extensive collection of Byzantine and Western medieval art, which includes period artifacts of religious art and architecture. These museum works become the perfect foil for the objects of contemporary fashion. As one wanders the exhibit, thousand-year-old sculptures of bishops with mitres (those tall, pointy hats) and veiled nuns form the backdrop for such stunning reinterpretations as an evening ensemble (complete with mitre) designed by John Galliano for Dior, or an evening dress by Valentino inspired by Lucas Cranach The Elder’s 1526 painting “Adam and Eve,” or Yves Saint Laurent’s take on a Statuary Vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio. The Dominican Order’s habit is reinterpreted in a variety of garments on display by several contemporary designers.

Part of the show’s nature is to shock, of course, mixing sacred images with secular frocks, and that theme is underscored by the fact that an excerpt from Federico Fellini’s film “Roma” (1972) is part of the exhibit. Fellini devoted a scene in the movie to an “ecclesiastical fashion show” in which clerical costumes are reinterpreted in a wickedly funny turn on the runway, as priests, nuns, bishops, and even the pope make appearances in the latest Catholic fashions, reinterpreted as only Fellini could. The Met’s show owes a debt to the Italian cinema icon.

Another segment of the exhibit is on display in the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Met: a stunning collection of approximately 40 objects from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel Papal Sacristy, many of which are on view outside of Rome for the first time. There are gold- and jewel-encrusted chalices, croziers, and several papal tiaras from the 19th and 20th centuries (the last pope to wear one was Paul VI, who put an end to the tradition in favor of the papal mitre—his is on display as well).

The papal copes, robes, chasubles, slippers, crosses, and gauntlets on display provide a taste of Catholicism’s tradition of sumptuous threads that Church leaders donned within an environment of elaborate church architecture. These were all part of Catholicism’s magnificent visual culture—which since Vatican II had been on the wane, but is now enjoying a revival (as is traditional church architecture). This makes the Met’s celebration and interpretation of heavenly garb all the more provocative, and perhaps prescient.