NEW YORK — On the lower level of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, the chasuble of Pope Pius IX is spread out in all its regal splendor. It’s stitched from white silk, embroidered with gold and silver thread, and embellished with gold paillettes.
But if there’s a star attraction in this subterranean gallery, it’s Pius IX’s tiara, which was a gift from Queen Isabella II of Spain. The glittering crown of silver and gold has been thickly encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls. The lavish ornamentation is at once magnificent and vaguely vulgar.
The exhibition notes explain the papal extravagances thusly: “Splendor is seen as a symbolic assertion of divine transcendence. Their opulent materials and ornate, intricate embroideries . . . communicate the detachment of sacred worship from everyday life.”
In essence, the disconnect is intentional. These pieces are grand to emphasize the distance between the sacred and the secular, the church hierarchy and its congregants, God and you.
It’s a matter of status, identity and tribal connections. And that means it’s about fashion.
“Heavenly Bodies” explores the relationship between the Catholic Church and the inspiration the fashion industry takes from it. Many of the designers whose work is represented in the exhibition, such as Gianni Versace, Thom Browne, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, have a personal connection to Catholicism. All of the featured designers found aesthetic fodder in the garb, art or rituals that can be traced to the Catholic Church. They have riffed on nuns’ habits and the cloaks of friars, the red vestments of cardinals and the simple cassocks of priests. They have mimicked the gilding of Vatican treasures, looked to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and the altarpieces of cathedrals. They have even dabbled in the chain mail worn during the Crusades.
Although the fashion designers drew some disapproving comments from Catholics when these collections initially debuted, in the context of the exhibition, the few complaints felt more perfunctory than heartfelt. (Mostly they were connected to the opening-night gala and too many faux pope hats and crowns on the red carpet.) After all, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, attended the celebrity-drenched benefit celebrating the opening. The question running throughout the show is not whether fashion blasphemes religion, but just how much of church orthodoxy is bound up in appearances. If spirituality is defined by our ability to consider our worth beyond the realm of the material, why is there so much glittering, gilded stuff connected to the Church? How can there be so much fashion fodder here?
The Church’s aesthetics blend seamlessly into the varied points of view of each design house while always remaining distinctive. Catholicism is universal but also discrete. The list of designers who have considered the nun’s habit is long. For an industry often derided for sexualizing women’s bodies, putting them on display or viewing them only through the male gaze, these austere, buttoned-up garments are a striking rebuke to that argument. They’re a study in control and calm. Browne’s vision of a nun’s habit is austere and refined and incorporates black mink. Dolce & Gabbana’s more tailored version toys with the notion of forbidden or rejected desire.
Catholicism — and religion in general — tends to cast women in opposing roles — saint or slut, pious or not — and those templates form an ongoing tug-of-war that fashion energetically explores in the context of full seasonal collections or even in a single garment. A billowing crimson Valentino gown on display is an example of that dialogue between sexual frisson and modesty: It is almost monastic in its simplicity but subverts that asceticism with a plunging, U-shaped neckline.
Both Catholicism and fashion have a power rooted in the visual presentation of the internal self, whether that interior soul is full of humility and compassion or righteous hellfire. There’s an element of theatrical performance to both.
It took tremendous patience and coaxing by Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator-in-charge, to persuade the Vatican bureaucracy to lend pieces from its collection to the Met. Part of its willingness had to do with Bolton’s agreeing to separate the papal attire from the fashion frocks, the sacred from the profane.
The geographic distance is polite, but ultimately meaningless. Liturgical vestments are still, ultimately, clothes. And the style of those clothes raise certain questions. Is extravagance in the service of religion more palatable than when it’s in service to beauty, art or humankind? Does God look more kindly upon a loyal servant bedazzled in diamonds than one in simple black wool? Is a veiled woman inherently more devout than one whose decolletage sweeps low?
“Heavenly Bodies” is unsettling. It considers what it means to enrobe oneself in honor of God and what it means to simply dress to impress. There is little difference. In the same way that secular fashion asks us to consider how our attire connects us to or separates us from our fellow man, the Vatican robes draw our attention to the ways in which the Church connects to and separates itself from Christianity and the world at large.
The exhibition is the largest the Costume Institute has ever mounted based on its footprint. It moves upstairs from the Anna Wintour Costume Center to the medieval and byzantine galleries at the Met Fifth Avenue and extends to the Met Cloisters in Upper Manhattan. There is no chronological order and no clearly defined path through the galleries. No dramatic holograms or Hollywood installations pull the viewer along. It’s easy to double-back over previously viewed artifacts or fail to meander around a corner and miss an entire section. And if a guest fails to glance skyward, there are a host of gold metal dresses by Gianni Versace that would be missed.
The trade-off for this sometimes frustrating approach is that there’s a purer sense of context. An extraordinary Alexander McQueen “angel” constructed of birch plywood, leather and lace, for example, is juxtaposed against a 14th-century altar piece depicting the coronation of the Virgin and the Adoration of the Magi. The setting wraps McQueen’s work in history and gives the historical altar contemporary resonance.
The part of the exhibition housed on Fifth Avenue is a study in hierarchies, paternalism and duty. The garments are beautiful but the experience is cold. For an exhibition essentially rooted in the human ache to lead a more godly existence, there is little sense of spirituality here, no indication of the internal monologue that one presumes is part of the religious experience. Is it only the rituals of the Church that keep designers so engaged? Or is there something more profound that keeps them enthralled?
The exhibition comes closer to answering those questions at the Met Cloisters. The garments on display there speak in a more pronounced way to religion’s humanity. There’s less emphasis on the glories of the Church; the monastic orders are in the spotlight instead of the Vatican bureaucracy.
Visitors are invited to stroll through a courtyard and into intimate chapels where the quiet work of designers such as Rick Owens, Madame Grès and Geoffrey Beene are on display. Their work is notable for its restraint, the rigor of the silhouettes and their cleansing simplicity. There is elegance in their reserve and confidence in their humility.
A 1961 wedding gown by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior is unnervingly ascetic. A 1967 gown by Cristobal Balenciaga captures a purity of emotion that takes the breath away.
This is the portion of the exhibition that’s most alive and inspiring. It has the least amount of glitz, but that’s what makes it so moving. It’s part of the same story but speaks to the church’s humanity rather than its treasures. And in doing so, Catholicism, and the fashion it inspires, are more welcoming and more relevant.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination Through Oct. 8 at the Met Fifth Avenue and the Met Cloisters. metmuseum.org.