When I noticed I was the only mom at the pool without crosses on my flip-flops, I knew I was out of my element. People in Texas wear their faith on their sleeves – and feet – literally. As we both know, this type of thing does not go down well back East. My lifetime experiences as a Catholic have proven to me that we are one of the frumpier congregations out there, as a rule. Growing up, my brother and I often commented how much better-dressed the Episcopalians were, which I believe accounts for his brief foray into that religion. Fashion is confusing to most Catholics. Is it the expression of divinely-inspired creativity or the sinful excess of the wicked? This conflict may explain why I was drawn to explore that question at the Met’s new exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” this past weekend.
The blockbuster exhibition combines the Met’s existing collection of sacred objects with 20th and 21st Century haute couture, and vestments from the Catholic Church never seen outside of the Vatican. Yowza. Organized to be a pilgrimage of sorts, the viewer is intended to so throughout the Met’s medieval wing, its Costume Institute, and the Met Cloisters. The exhibition is the brainchild of curator Andrew Bolton, who was improbably inspired by a book of the Fr. Andrew Greeley’s on the Catholic imagination. Fr. Greeley was perhaps best known as the controversial author of The Cardinal Sins and other racy, cassock-ripping tales. Given the backstory, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I be offended or thrilled?
Thrilled, hands down. Surprisingly, The New York Times review of Heavenly Bodies by Jason Farago summed up a lot of my thoughts:
Mr. Bolton, a Catholic, treats the faith so earnestly that he re-sacralizes the medieval art on display. His approach to the “Catholic imagination” treats the visual splendor of the church as more than just a poor man’s bible, but as a manifestation of God that inheres in all beauty, including fashion. Holy vestments serve in the transubstantiation of wine and bread into blood and body, and in a similar way these secular garments also turn the Met’s medieval collection back into objects of worship.
Here are some of my key takeaways from the Heavenly Bodies show:
- Do not be afraid of this exhibit. Yes, there are things you will find challenging. Certainly, the leather mask with the little crosses on it is an obvious “Nope,” but it is hanging next to a rosary of creepy skulls, so who am I to judge?
- Some of the displays are a little wacky, like the bride without a face/Ghost of Christmas Future. The many habits and soutanes intended as evening wear would probably help the Church get more vocations if they could be adopted on a more economical, utilitarian scale. I am sure my husband would love to get one for our daughter to wear to prom.
- Yes, it is obviously ironic that 99% of the fashion items displayed were made for women and 100% of the Vatican objects displayed were made for men. No further comment necessary.
- Most of the designers represented were either raised Catholic and no longer practice, or still identify as Catholic. What is amazing is the amount of influence the faith has in their design, regardless. The sheer number of garments displayed points to the influence of faith in these designers’ lives. You cannot walk away without thinking of these works as divinely inspired.
This brings me to another important point: the tension between the rich spending millions on such clothes, even if perceived as works of art, and the opinion that money paid for these dresses could go to the poor but. I would maintain these are two separate things. I see these creations, not a celebration of excess, but a celebration of God’s gifts. The exhibit is not an ad for haute couture, nor does it aim to fuel conspicuous consumption. If you have bazillions of dollars to support this particular art form, go for it. The rest of us can admire and draw inspiration from it. In his blog post on the exhibition, Mr. Bolton refers to Pope Emeritus Benedict as “The Pope Who Wears Prada,” noting the red shoes worn by him and Pope John Paul II. His successor, Pope Francis, is not going to be on Esquire’s Best Accessorized list any time soon. That’s not his thing. There is room for both in the Church and the Catholic imagination.
I agree that, the exhibit can’t help but have you re-focus on the works of art already in the collection. I took a lot of pictures of sculptures and paintings I had probably raced by in previous years on my way to see the Angel Tree. There is a lot of powerful stuff there. As much as I marveled at the gold embroidery on John Galliano’s House of Dior evening gown, my husband and I were even more captivated by the inches-tick needlework of the papal cape on display in the Costume Institute. Some of the outfits were designed for religious statues, to be clothed in for feast days, etc. Some items, like the Matisse-designed chasuble at the Costume Institute, were the products of designers’ collaboration with churches.
Let the exhibit challenge you as much as it may awe you. Questioning is never a bad thing, IMHO. Celebrate the creation and inspiration from the faith. I was impressed with seeing each designers’ personal relationship to the sacred. The ties to the faith are strong. Most of all, the exhibit shows that the Catholic faith, far from being irrelevant or dead, is part of an ongoing dialogue called “life.”
Happy dressing! Love,