The week that designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana presented their fall 2013 ready-to-wear collection in Milan, a scandal in the Catholic Church was about to hit a crescendo. Months prior, papal documents detailing corruption, financial impropriety, and blackmail within the Holy See were leaked. On February 28th, Pope Benedict XVI would officially resign, becoming the first pope in 600 years to do so. That’s a very reductive summary of a very convoluted controversy that took so many twists and turns it was given its own shorthand: Vatileaks. If you were to Google it today, you’ll find over 250,000 results, including plenty for “Vatileaks 2,” the sequel.
To say that the Catholic Church has had its fair share of controversy would be equally reductive. There’s no shortage of things to take issue with: its abhorrent stance on homosexuality, despite some recent progress; its centuries-long history of sexism enabled by its male hierarchy; financial corruption, past and present; and its infamous cases and cover-ups of pedophilia. And while all of that is so completely entrenched in the history of Catholicism, there’s another element with equally deep roots: its overwhelming influence in art. Yes, even in fashion.
Pieces from that 2013 Dolce & Gabbana collection are on display now as a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new spring exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which opens on May 10th. On the surface, the show aims to connect the dots between two gigantic industries — Catholicism and fashion — that have been inextricably linked for centuries. Deeper though, it explores the binaries of class and wealth, inclusion and exclusion, the profane and the sacred. It examines the relationships between religion and art, what we put on our bodies and why, the complicated past of the Catholic Church and the (sometimes secular) visionaries who derive inspiration from it.
The exhibit was first announced last year, and is anticipated as one of the museum’s most controversial to date, both in topic and in medium. But clothing and Catholicism also have a deep history, and the significance of what Catholics wear is one that’s hotly debated today. “Clothing has been a primary mechanism through which Catholics have communicated with one another and those around them for centuries,” scholar Sally Dwyer-McNulty wrote in her book Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism. “Today, Catholic apparel is less unifying than it once was. Nevertheless, Catholics still use their carefully or carefreely, as the case may be, attired bodies to debate who they are, what they believe, and what the priorities of the church should be as it looks to the future.”
The Costume Institute’s head curator Andrew Bolton addresses these apprehensions in the introduction to the exhibit’s hefty catalog, “There might be concerns on the part of Catholic and non-Catholics alike that fashion is an unfitting and unseemly medium by which to convey ideas or reflect imagery related to the sacred and the divine.”
While there are indeed sacred items on display, borrowed directly from the Vatican itself, there’s also a Versace metal mesh mini-dress from the 1997-98 haute couture collection, and a Jean Paul Gaultier silk chiffon dress from 2007, whose asymmetrical cape depicts an image of Christ as an infant, a trompe l'oeil that makes it look as if the wearer is carrying the child herself. All of that asks of museum-goers: What does it mean to have objects of devotion in dialogue with objects of such obvious consumption? Is it sacrilegious to embroider a rendering of the Virgin Mary on the back of a cocktail dress? Is it weird to slap an image of Saint Christopher on a cotton T-shirt and pierce it with a couple of metal hooks, even if the designer who did that (Christopher Kane) was raised a Catholic?
If the exhibit stands to be one of the Met’s most controversial, it also stands to be one of its most profitable. The museum’s third most-popular exhibit, The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art, raked in over $2 million in the roughly four months it was open in 1983. Catholicism is big business, and that extends down to every branch of the company — clothing included.
“Throughout its history, there has been an overt display of rich vestments: expensive fabrics such as silk, furs such as ermine and, in some centuries, precious gems, all in stark contrast to Christianity’s humble beginnings,” Lynne Hume wrote in her book The Religious Life of Dress. (This hasn’t always been the case, and isn’t currently; reigning Pope Francis is a pretty plain guy, and the antithesis to his “Best Dressed” predecessor.)
How we dress — and specifically, how we dress to show reverence or devotion or appreciation, or just celebrate the body we were born into — is important, and essential to any form of spirituality.
While the bulk of the decadence and luxury comes from the designers featured therein, one of the show’s most ornate items comes straight from the Vatican: the tiara of Pius IX, whose reign began in 1846 and ended in 1878. It’s constructed of silver silk lamé, embroidered with gold metal, and adorned with more gold, gilt silver, diamonds, emeralds, pearls, and semi-precious stones. (There are actually two tiaras belonging to Pius IX on view; the other was a gift from Queen Isabella II of Spain and includes 19,000 precious stones, the bulk of which are diamonds.)
Though the items on loan from the Vatican are only on display in the Costume Institute (located on the lower level of the Met Museum and separated from the strictly-fashion garments in the galleries upstairs), what’s particularly stunning about Heavenly Bodies are the concrete ties the Met has made between historical works of art and the clothing it emulates. A blue silk crepe georgette embroidered Lanvin gown mirrors one worn by an angel in a 15th-century Fra Angelico painting of Saint Dominic, while a red Balenciaga evening coat looks as though it was plucked from an El Greco painting of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara from the early 1600s.
Some of the clothing on display appears to be in an actual dialogue with art and artifacts that already exists in the museum: a Dior wedding gown is reverently placed in front of an altar at The Cloisters; a Thierry Mugler gown is hung on the archway of the Medieval galleries, presiding over the fashion, art, and museum attendees below like a scene from the Assumption of Mary.
As he addressed the crowd during yesterday’s opening remarks, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that he was there because both the church and the exhibit’s theme are all about three things: truth, goodness, and beauty. The first two in that list feel as though they’re reserved for practicing Catholics, or, anyone on board with organized religion. But the third is something you couldn’t separate from the exhibit if you tried. It’s beautiful, and spectacularly done. And like any other museum exhibit in the world, it can be enjoyed passively from a distance or with intimacy and introspection. You’ll find its beauty through either avenue, but if you do choose to look at it more closely, you’ll see that how we dress — and specifically, how we dress to show reverence or devotion or appreciation, or just celebrate the body we were born into — is important, and essential to any form of spirituality.