Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

by Flaunt Magazine

“Why is the Church here?” His Eminence Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York asked the audience inside the sumptuous Temple of Dendur at the preview for the largest exhibition ever mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that spanned over 60,000 square feet covering more than 25 galleries in the Byzantine, medieval arts and the Anna Wintour Costume Center at both Met Fifth Avenue and The Met at the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan.  “In the Catholic imagination, the true, the good and the beautiful are so personal and so real.  In the Catholic imagination, the truth, goodness and beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion,” expounded the Cardinal on the symbiosis that naturally existed between faith, art and fashion.  

“Catholics live in an enchanted world: a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures.  But these Catholic paraphernalia are merely hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation,” said Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute who organized the exhibition, reading a quote from the sociologist Andrew Greeley book The Catholic Imagination.  What follows is a groundbreaking exhibition encompassing a graphic display of fashion of the 20thand early 21stcenturies intersperse among the numerous and rare religious artworks, clothes created by designers who embraced narratives in their collections the multifaceted images expressed by the centuries of Catholic stories and their respective expressions in art on clothes, stones, accessories, paintings, rugs and statues.  “The journey through all the galleries is itself a pilgrimage,” said David Weiss, the new president of the Met.  

The 42 special pieces of papal robes and accessories travelled for the first time outside of the Vatican particularly from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy formed the elaborated point of departure that linked the historical Catholic sartorial practices with contemporary fashion. The extraordinary hand craftsmanship Pius IX’s embroidered painted beige dalmatic portraying Christ carrying the cross, an accompanying chasuble and a gold and colored jeweled tiara from the Royal court of Belgium or white silk large half circle cape with gold threads vivid 3D embroideries, gold tinsel and gold palettes would rival and possibly out compete any work done today by the Parisian haute couture houses. Not far from the staircase to enter the Anne Wintour Costume Center, where all the Vatican loaned objects are showed inside glass encasements, stood the Henri Matisse design chasuble made for the Chapel du Rosaire, a community order of Dominican nuns, in the early 1950’s as an introductory artwork to the display case containing John Paul II’s zimarra, fascia and zucchetto in white wool twill and embroidered silk and perhaps the famous red leather and suede shoes by the Italian shoemaker Loredano Apolloni.  Among the special item is a papal tiara with an estimated 19,000 gemstones most are believed to be diamonds.  While seemingly excessive as a part of religious vestments, these papal clothes offer modern fashion designers the impetus towards a sense of heightened creativity coupled the resources and know how to craft unique garments inspired by the stories of Catholicism and the faith’s adherences to the accouterments of allure to the point of excess.  Even the gold and silver keys to heaven and earth are no ordinary keys but XXL versions made by the silversmith G. Landi for Leo XIII.  

The linkage of the symbols, icons and imagery of Catholicism to modern fashion comes from a wide range of fashion designer’s personal adoption of these representations of faith like the cross, the angels, the Virgin, the stained glasses windows, the sculptures and the Saints depicted in art throughout the centuries as part of a process of story telling around the clothes they created. The Met’s extensive holdings of medieval paintings and sculptures provided the ideal background to display modern designer fashion’s infatuation with religious symbols as inspirations for their brand clothes.  The fashion on display is incorporated to be part of the art collection rather than separate from the Met’s objects and there is a wide range of clothes from ornate to minimalist.  

More than any other symbols, the cross represents Christ’s passion and a firm sign of the Christian faith and in particular the crux gemmataor jeweled cross remains ubiquitous in the Byzantine world. A visit by Gianni Versace to the Met’s 1997 exhibition ‘The Glory of Byzantium’ inspired his final Atelier couture show in July 1997 with mannequins dressed in gold metallic mesh dresses with large embroidered crosses hung from the ceiling above the actual gold professional Byzantine cross circa 1000-1050 A.D. at the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Byzantine Art.  A black biker jacket with a large Byzantine cross from Versace’s Fall-Winter 1991 is also included.  The Chanel Fall-Winter 2007-2008 Métier d’Arts collection black silk velvet vest made with glass cabochons and black faceted crystals and mother of pearls encrusted stones recalled the medieval reliquary cross. Another Chanel cross pendant and necklace was from the Spring–Summer 1973 Haute Couture.  Inspired by the splendid mosaic stones images at the Cattedrale di Monreale in Sicily, Dolce & Gabbana embroidered vivid images of saints on the colorful prints of the dresses in their Fall-Winter 2013-2014 collection. At the end of the hallway is the black jacket with the large colorful stone color cross covering the front of the jacket from Christian Lacroix Haute Couture Fall-Winter 1988-1989 – this same jacket made the November 1988 Vogue cover worn by the Israeli model Michaela Bercu.   

Besides crosses and mosaics, images from frescoes and murals are another great source for print on fabrics.  Jun Takahashi for Undercover featured prints on dresses his Spring-Summer 2015 using images from Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Gardens of Earthly Delightsthat showed Eden as a false paradise where a mixture of real and fantastical plants and fruits served to deceive the senses instead of revealing the beauty of creations. A polychrome silk jacquard and embroidered gold sequins coat dress by Alexander McQueen for Fall-Winter 2010-2011 featured a combination of images taken from three separate Bosch works – The Temptation of Saint AnthonyThe Last Judgementand The Garden of Earthly Delights.  Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli created a highly decorative tulle dress with the embroidered image of Adam and Eve brought to live inspired from the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve painted in 1526 for Valentino’s Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2014. 

The angels that populated Catholicism’s imagery now reincarnated in the pastels silk georgette ethereal and statuesque elongated soft dresses that included a cantaloupe pleated silk with draped silk georgette and taffeta dress with gold ray belt from Rodarte Fall 2011 special couture collection based on the frescoes Annunciation(1438-1445) by Fra Angelico, an Italian monk at the abbey of San Marco.  Thierry Mugler feted his tenth anniversary in 1984 with a L’hiver des angescollection that drew from his conceptions of angels, saints and the Virgin with a gold silk lame pleated winged shoulder long dress.  Roberto Capucci’s 1987 gold silk pleated with back wing and train dress called Angel d’Oro or that light brown silk taffeta dress with from Spring 1969 by Madame Grès are simply magnificent ‘angel’ dresses.  Not to forget the angelic beauty of the blue long draped dress belted at the waist with gold crystal embroideries by Jeanne Lanvin in 1939 or for that matter the white long dress with black cross motifs by Azzedine Alaïa in 1992. 

These soft dresses contrasted with the stern artwork in the Medieval Galleries.  

The fecund image of the Virgin as seen in tapestries, statues, stained glass windows or altarpiece is one of the more ubiquitous iconography of Catholicism. In art as in the fashion that looked to religious art, the dress is solemn and completely covered the body representing the Virgin.  Yves Saint Laurent made a statuary vestment of long gold silk brocade sleeve cape dress in camel silk jacquard with shining rays bronze face and headdress and a tiara in 1985 now at the Chapelle Notre Dame de Compassion in Paris. Riccardo Tisci created another version for the statue of the Madonna delle Grazie in blue silk jacquard with gold passementerie, crystals, gold beads and metal studs in 2015.  While these are unique garments made for a specific church site not actual runway clothes that can be commercialized, they nevertheless allowed the designers to ponder how to deploy the modern crafts to create specific modern religious garb in a similar way that clothes were made for the statues and tapestries in prior centuries.  In another instance a stain glass window at a Carmelite church in Boppard-am-Rhein near Koblenz, Germany, the Virgin is represented with a blue gown adorned with gold wheat or Ährenkleid where the wheat meant the grain to nourish mankind that metamorphosed into a Spring-Summer 1960 haute couture Chanel strapless gown with tulle overlay with gold wheat embroidery. 

As for wearable clothes in the exhibition, the Met focused on designs that adapted the more simple frocks worn by nuns and priests in their daily life in the lower hierarchy of the Church like the cassock or soutane worn since the 12thcentury rather than the garments made to the church upper echelons that featured more substantial ornamentation and expensive materials.  Color of garments also delineates the church hierarchy – black for priests, violet for bishops, red for cardinals and white for pope. In front of a series of tapestries in the Medieval Sculpture Hall Gallery is a seven mannequins line up of mostly black dresses fathomed from nun garments with white turtleneck, collar and headdress like a Raf Simons black wool twill long coat from his Fall-Winter 2000-2001, Dolce & Gabbana’s black wool tricoline dress and white poplin blouse from Fall-Winter 1997-1998, or A.F Vandervorst’s black silk rayon crepe long dress with violet belt to represent daily dress of bishops in their Fall-Winter 2001-2002 collection.  Finally there’s a men’s look from Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga Spring-Summer 2017 show - a black mid length coat with a yellow pattern scarf made from textile by Felisi that supplied the Vatican. 

On the other side of the hall are the ensembles of clothing that represented female religious dress principally a tunic, scapular and veil and also a white under veil called a bandeau – the total look is referred to as a habit. Two great habits looks from Dolce & Gabbana Spring-Summer 2016 Alta Moda both black wool crepe with gold metal buttons but the designers tailored the tunic sharp along the body’s contours and made the veil into a hardened egg shaped hood covering the head.  The most spectacular display is the 21 mannequins wearing the white silk crepe loosing fitting with tight sleeve choral robes by Cristobal Balenciaga first made in 1945 for the Orféon Donostiarra, a Spanish choir founded in 1897 and redesigned in 1964 in a simplified version installed in front of a large 15thcentury tapestry of Christ. 

Perhaps the obvious reason for the few designers that have multiple looks at the exhibition – Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier (silk jersey dress with embroidered 3D red heart, silver cross and veins from Spring-Summer 2007 couture to represent the Immaculate Heart) for examples – is that they used narratives to tell a specific story in each of their collections.  Each collection has its own story and often some of these stories involve religious thoughts or affinity.  McQueen and Galliano were the pinnacle of designers whose fashion show are spectacles simply because the personal narrative, one that encompass many aspects of their lives including at times religious questions whether or not either designers practice any formal religion, is central to offer meaning to the clothes.  

One of the most memorable outfit at the exhibition and I remember this look from the show is the black ‘Joan of Arc’ silk crepe dress with black palettes, clear crystals, and gilt metal arms by Galliano for Dior Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2006-2007 now laid immortal in a glass tomb along side various stone tomb statues of a knight of the d’Aluye family from the Abey of La Clarté-Dieu and the lady Margaret of Gloucester, wife of the Baron of Neubourg looking toward the sky at the Gothic Chapel. Galliano’s armour Dior Joan of Arc outfit is like an effigy representing the men of l’Aluye reclaiming the cross across Europe.  And there’s the one giant dress that dissolves into around 17 siblings all contained within the massive embroidered gold coat with slit sleeves worn by the model Maggie Rizer that Victor & Rolf showed in Paris in July 1999 fall-winter haute couture collection now inside a glass container in the Romanesque Hall Gallery in front of a small altar flanked by two stone statues.     

At the Met Cloisters there are a series of nun inspired ensembles that defined a purity of design with little need for ornamentation.  Among all the ostentatious and sumptuous clothes and various accessories made from the best materials and employed the best talents – fine silks, diamonds, feathers, laces et al – there is a slight sense of superficiality among all these artifacts on exhibition.  Surely one can expect an overwhelming emphasis on surface shine from the clothes of modern fashion designers but a bit less of ornamentations from the actual papal collections over the ages.  

Inside a glass container at the open-air gallery along the inner walkways of the Cloisters are silhouettes that resemble the more simple priests frocks rather than the higher echelon of the church’s rigid hierarchy.  Here are some of the best minimalist dresses displayed among the calm church atmosphere were the more simple ones – the black long wool crepe dress from Geoffrey Beene Fall-Winter 1993-1994 that emphasized the tradition of minimalism and functionalism in American sportswear with detachable hood and the black wool jersey dress that Claire McCardell made in 1945 she termed ‘monastic’ meaning the dress has no waistline to be belted in any manner. Well there is also the infamous Rick Owens Fall-Winter 2015 collection that inadvertently revealed the male penis on the runway. These dresses showed the mastery of cuts and materials as well as the humility often lacked in today’s fashion scene from designers like the American Geoffrey Beene.   

The portion of the exhibition at the Met Cloisters are far stronger thematically as well as from a curatorial perspective – while the ornate ensembles at the Met Fifth Avenue seem obvious in their religious connections, the clothes mounted at the Cloisters feature subtlety of design and a required a greater understanding of the complexity of fashion as to how they are linked to Catholicism.  

But the last outfit that I saw before leaving the Cloisters is the white wedding ensemble of white silk organza and white mink jacket with crystals gold bullion, nylon tulle ribbons and mother of pearls skirt from the Thom Browne Spring-Summer 2018 show at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris where for the finale a women in white organza suit lead two men dressed in a unicorn outfit complete with life size unicorn puppet staged in the middle of the Unicorn Tapestries Room in front of The Unicorn in Captivity, a tapestry from South Netherlands from the early 1500’s. Depending on how one interprets the tapestry, the white unicorn inside the low wooden fence surrounded by seed laden pomegranates in the trees with so many medieval allusions to marriage and procreation is identified as Christ or as a groom bonded in marriage.  At the Thom Browne show, the wedding dress and the unicorn appeared and transported the audience and fashion to a new realm that merged the lyrical and the reality of clothes into a singular sphere.  

In the exchange between the iconography of Catholicism and modern fashion result in a compilation of beautiful and uplifting creations from a range of designers who adopted some of the sensibility and expressions of Catholicism into unique sartorial specimens. 

Fashion designers interpreted the ornate and the mundane aspects the iconography of the physical clothes of religious life.  There is also a very subtle undertone lurking beneath the surface – while the chosen fashion exhibited are 98% women’s clothes, Catholicism is primarily a male dominated religion where women still play a secondary role.  This domination extends as well to clothes where the men of the church dabbed in more ornate clothes than the women – a kind of reversal of high fashion.  Here perhaps fashion gears towards a male universe have utmost influence over clothes make for women outside of the realm of the church. 

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination from May 10 to October 8, 2018

Written by Long Nguyen