God Loves Versace in Met Museum's Fashion and Catholicism Exhibit


Gallery view, Medieval Sculpture Hall (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Devil may wear Prada, but God seems more like a Versace fan in Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring costume exhibition, also partly on view at the Met Cloisters, through October 8. The museum’s largest costume exhibition to date, it yolks the spectacle of fashion and the spectacle of Catholicism, complete with Virgin Mary drag, angelic attire, and a mingling of contemporary clothing with ancient iconography already on display at the institution.  

It makes sense to draw a distinct line between fashion and Catholicism — the ceremony, decadence, and ornamentation of each are in natural conversation with one another before even considering the obvious borrowing of sacrosanct iconography of crosses, crowns of thorns, and nuns’ habits in fashion. With offerings from Catholic-raised designers like Lacroix, Gaultier, and Versace (both Gianni and Donatella, the latter a sponsor of this exhibition) smartly presented amidst Byzantine mosaics and the hallowed halls of the Cloisters, the subject seems a natural fit for the Metropolitan.

Gallery view, Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Though originally intended to include all religions, it was decided that a laser focus on Catholicism proved comprehensive enough for an exhibition. This includes the allowance of several religious garments from the Vatican to be displayed in New York, many for the first time outside of the world’s smallest country. But as logical as it may be, this paring down of the theme missed many opportunities to showcase both fashion history and the globalization and diversification of religion and culture.  

Some other examples that come to mind include Jean-Paul Gaultier’s infamous “Chic Rabbis” collection from 1994, inspired by hasidic garments, or how brands are currently embracing and capitalizing on Muslim religious garb, like the Nike Pro Hijab. A more diverse approach could have drawn broader parallels between the cult of fashion and the exploration of a higher power. It would also be nice to let the eye rest from all the gold embroidery and crosses for a second.

Gallery view, Medieval Europe Gallery (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Still, it’s resplendent to see a Virgin Mary-inspired, iridescent Lacroix wedding gown rendered in the most delicate silk with a gossamer-swathed mannequin hovering high above it, like the annunciation taking place on a Paris catwalk. The problem, however, is displays like these are spaced very far out throughout the building, with small clusters of mannequins housed meters away from other displays, easily missed, like a frustrating fashion Easter Egg hunt, and the entire Vatican collection several levels below the rest of the show. 

Though likely a result of presenting these clothes outside of the Vatican for the first time and preserving their exclusivity, this choice ladders into the overall design of exhibition, which meanders and confuses patrons. Though curator Andrew Bolton describes navigating through it a “pilgrimage,” few may even journey to the Cloisters to see the entire show, and those at the Cloisters may be confused at the presence of a gothic McQueen concoction amidst medieval tapestries.

Gallery view, Saint-Guilhem Cloister (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Nevertheless, the show succeeds in showcasing the tension between high fashion and high religion at the Cloisters more so than the main building. Ghostly apparitions float above the ground of an atrium, a blood-red Christian Dior gown peeks behind a wood-carved door, and a Gaultier stained-glass dress catches the light through a stained-glass window. Perhaps because of the intimate space, these displays spark a more intriguing narrative between the old and the new.

Gallery view, Glass Gallery (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the vein of discussing the old and the new, it’s interesting to note that past popes are frequently invoked throughout this exhibition, while the current one is not. Pope Francis is suspiciously absent from the narrative of this exhibition — Pope Benedict’s red Prada shoes were invoked in Bolton’s statements on the impetus of this exhibition, and Pope John Paul’s cassock is on display. Francis is a radically different head of the Catholic Church, one who has stirred ire and controversy for his progressive views (by Catholicism’s standards, anyway), and one who eschews too much ostentation. He wears black shoes, not red. That may seem insignificant, but draws a clearer line between him and the people (peasants are symbolically associated with drab colors, especially in footwear — ask van Gogh) versus self-deifying aspirations (the red shoes represent Christ’s blood.)

Cope of Benedict XV (reigned 1914–22) Italian (1918) (courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City; image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb)
Gallery view, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

At the press preview of the show, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York, presided over a congregation of clotheshorses and said: “In the Catholic imagination, the true, the good, and the beautiful, are so personal … that they have a name, Jesus Christ. The true, the good, and the beautiful is [sic] reflected all over the place … even in fashion.”

Tiara of Pius IX (reigned 1846–78) German and Spanish, (1854) (courtesy the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City, image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb)

In a somewhat spurious correlation between the Messiah and the mode, Cardinal Dolan gave his blessing (so to speak) to the affair. Given Anna Wintour’s control over fashion, and the Met’s control over art, it only makes sense that they should tap the highest Catholic in the United States to give credence to this exhibition.

Politics aside (though certainly impossible to ignore), the exhibition is too scattered in its design, too literal in interpretation of the theme, and simultaneously encompassing too much in its scope as well as too little.   

I pray that the Met can formulate an exhibition that more firmly articulates why fashion is important in a cultural sense, rather than drawing superficial comparisons to the high and low. For now, at least, we have a beautiful spectacle to indulge in this summer. And for that, I suppose, we have to say, “amen.”

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and the Met Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan) through October 8.

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