Over the weekend I went to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest Costume Institute exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” After hearing of the curator, Andrew Bolton’s, coup in getting the Vatican to lend sacred garments for the show (and seeing all the celebrity buzz on Instagram!), I had to check it out for myself.
The exhibit features four different sections. The first is couture pieces scattered throughout the Met’s Byzantine wing. As I walked through the gallery with Ave Maria playing over a loudspeaker, I kept thinking: is this not a little kitschy? The exhibit continues downstairs in the actual Costume Institute space, and there is a large section at the Met Cloisters as well. I have not made it to the Cloisters part of the exhibition yet, which I have heard is genuinely breathtaking, but having seen the rare artifacts from the Vatican that really drew me in the first place, I don’t feel as compelled at this point.
Bolton’s concept is that the “Catholic imagination” revels in visual splendor and appreciates beauty as something ordained by God, including fashion. And, indeed, the Catholic Church has historically used beauty and pageantry to attract worshipers. I remember going to the cathedral in Chartres and being bowled over that this incredible, ornate and beautiful building was built in the 12th century. Imagine what the residents of the town at the time thought. You can completely understand why they would believe in the holiness of such a place, that it was divinely ordained to be built.
The problem I have is that the exhibition presents Catholicism in a visual sense, without distinguishing between visual iconography and Catholic doctrine. Just because you are looking at a representation of a cross or a new take on a nun’s habit does not mean you are engaging with the Catholic religion in any way. I found it kitschy and off the mark, lacking depth. Fashion items throughout the show may have religious iconography that has been borrowed, but that does in no way mean they were directly inspired by catholic liturgy or the principles of religion itself. There is a big difference between visual inspiration and ideological inspiration — these lines are blurred here, and not discussed. It is a central point of the exhibition that is missing; no less underscored by the fact that the Vatican’s pieces are held in a completely separate wing of the museum from the high fashion gowns. This only serves to highlight the difference in religious garments versus fashion, and therefore makes the entire concept feel silly.
It is true that papal dress is important in its ritualistic sense, and the vestments and accessories from the Vatican that span 15 papacies were breathtaking. The amount of detail in each garment and ornament was stunning. You could understand how some of these objects took over 10 years to complete by-hand (unfortunately, but understandably, no pictures were allowed). However, there was no deep dive into the corresponding doctrine or liturgy of each piece. As an art history major, I wanted more context. I wanted the nitty gritty; the historical and religious framework. I wanted the symbolism represented on the priestly robes dissected and the ceremony the various items are used for explained. This is where the show falls short.
My main problem with the show is that celebrities who attended the Gala saw it as an Instagram moment, an attention-seeking opportunity, and did not care about blasphemy or the real undertones of the show. Unfortunately, I believe that the Gala and its sensationalism actually took away from the exhibit itself. I can imagine that the show’s catalogue contains everything that I felt missing from the physical exhibit, however the celebrity hubbub undermined Andrew Bolton’s thoughtfulness and the serious approach that Met scholars actually did take to the exhibit.
I saw the Costume Institute’s PUNK:Chaos to Couture exhibit from 2013, and I thought it landed so much better than this. Part of the strength of that show is that the clothing represented there was either part of, or inspired by, a cultural movement. This movement was about principles and attitude, not about religion or spirituality. The clothing in that exhibit all came from people aspiring to a certain “look”, a certain way of representing themselves to those around them in that particular time. 80s punks and all those who came after didn’t aspire to anything higher or enduring. Whereas the Catholic vestments we see are actually designed for God, they are meant to transcend our world and be representatives of a higher being and place. I didn’t feel as though the high fashion element truly represented that idea. But even so, I have to admit they were certainly pretty to look at.
To see more:
At The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters
May 10–October 8, 2018