Commentary: Inspirational Fashion By Way of the Catholic Church at the Met
By A. E. Colas, Contributing Writer, May 11, 2018
For many people, fashion isn’t just something to cover (or reveal) the body: in their eyes, fashion is practically a religion. These devotees travel to cities famous for designers and stores, buy items that are cherished for years afterward, and even credit clothing with transformative, nearly miraculous powers to change their lives.
The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum understands this aspect of fashion’s meaning: the new exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and The Catholic Imagination attempts to give visitors a sense of the inspiration and dialogue possible between the iconography of a religion and the secular appropriation of it.
For many generations, the art and pageantry of the Catholic church was the only formal aesthetic experience most people had. When the fine arts became less about religious subjects as well as more accessible to the public, the power of the iconography waned and was co-opted by the secular world. Today, using the symbols of Catholicism in fashion rarely gets much attention, mostly due to lack of knowledge by those doing the looking. But designers know what they are doing when they display or invoke these motifs. Many were surrounded by Catholic imagery in their hometowns, raised by Catholic families, going to schools run by various religious orders, participating in the milestones of the faith. Seeing embroidered vestments of priests, praying to an image of a beautifully dressed statue of the Virgin Mary, looking at a brightly colored stained-glass window telling the stories of the Bible: all had a powerful effect on their imaginations.
Curator Andrew Bolton takes an interesting approach to this idea by arranging this year’s Costume Institute show within the permanent gallery spaces of The Met’s Medieval Art, The Cloisters, and The Robert Lehman Collection. With these departments’ generous support, the Costume Institute displays modern pieces directly next to their historic/stylistic influences.
The problems come with the way the exhibit flows through these spaces. Most people will enter from the Great Hall, then chose a narrow corridor on the left or right of the main staircase. Each passageway has a line of mannequins mounted on extremely tall pedestals. The figures are all dressed beautifully but it’s difficult to see much detail, given the space in question. The corridors themselves are part of the permanent Byzantium display and have long wall cases with many small objects, all requiring a level of attention impossible to achieve in that confined space. After passing through this area, visitors usually walk forward into the first large space of the Medieval collection. They tend not to notice the rest of the Byzantium display in the Apse Gallery, which is a shame because there are some modern pieces with beautiful beadwork being shown, including the Christian Lacroix jacket used on the cover for Anna Wintour’s first magazine issue as American Vogue’s editor-in-chief. The 29-year-old design still looks fresh, thanks to the simple cross shape on a plain background.
The Medieval Europe Gallery and Sculpture Hall has religious statues vying for attention with dressed mannequins arranged on platforms, lying down in vitrines (possibly to mimic stone tomb lids but looking like Disney’s Snow White instead), suspended above doorways, as well as free-standing within the gallery. A wide variety of clothes and accessories are on view: heavily embroidered gowns, cloaks, robes, and crowns but also severely plain black-and-white dresses combined with various styles of head coverings. The effect is one where the sublime and divine collide in a frenzied ecstasy of color, fabric, and tailoring. None of the statues stand a chance, except for two beautiful small wood sculptures in the back of the hall: one of a female saint, the other representing St. Catherine of Alexandria. Both are elegant, poised women, dressed in the height of 16th century fashion. They are more than equal to the flashy ladies of the Costume Institute invading their turf – it’s just too bad they can’t make themselves heard.
To the right side of the gallery, in the Medieval Treasury, there are some obvious pairings of accessories and religious items. A genuine reliquary matched with a modern decorated breastplate illustrates a theme of body parts being venerated. The difference of course, is what is being treasured: a scrap of saintly human remains vs the body beautiful. In this area there is also a stunning ensemble piece by Alexander McQueen of a sleeveless top paired with trousers. The top is hand-formed cut and pierced plywood that flares at the shoulder to create a wing effect. It is an imaginative take on an idea that angel wings are not made of feathers but of shaped light.
After this, it comes as a disappointment to enter the Robert Lehman Collection space. In a long room to the left of the gallery entrance, there is a rather traditional selection of pretty evening wear that touches on the grand themes of the show but mostly leaves the visitor feeling as though they are looking at a senior class prom picture. The display is awkward as well, with most of dresses facing the doorway. The visitor may not be aware that there are three more pieces to see behind the main group and must walk around the large display, only to be hemmed in between the platform and the wall. A painting of Christ’s baptism is the only artwork in the room, hung too high for viewing as well as being unclear as to its purpose in the installation.
To see the superlative loan from the Sistine Chapel sacristy in The Vatican, walk over to the Anna Wintour Costume Center, located on the ground floor. The display area is shockingly austere, all the better to appreciate the opulence and splendor of the objects. Two rooms, painted in white, contain items that, in some cases, defy monetary value. There are three papal tiaras: not large pieces but heavy with gems, gold, and symbolism. Clothes for celebrating the mass are embroidered with silk and gold thread, designed to be beautiful but also stand out in a crowd. Jewelry that is simple in shape but opulent in materials, such as a pectoral cross made of gold and several perfectly matched amethysts with each stone expertly cut. All these items show the wealth and political power of the Catholic Church, but they also illustrate the devotion and skill of craftsmen and women to create the finest items possible to be used in celebrating the Mass and by extension, God.
If you have the time, visit The Cloisters branch of the museum, located in upper Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. The display style for the exhibit is like that of the Medieval Europe Gallery and Sculpture Hall, with the mannequins in various spaces, including the Unicorn Tapestry Room and Cuxa Cloister. The effect of these elegant figures seems more harmonious in the smaller rooms, allowing a close examination of the clothes in a way that is difficult downtown.
In all the galleries, it pays to move around slowly. The exhibition has no obvious beginning or end, no signage directing visitors to various areas or objects, and loud music playing in an endless loop. Some patrons will love this approach to the fashions and space, but most will feel frustrated and annoyed, unable to work out what to see and worrying about missing sections of the show. Try not to think about these flaws. Instead, focus on the heavenly beauty that was made here on earth.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and The Catholic Imagination on exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue) and The Met Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park) through October 8, 2018.
Hours: Sun – Thurs: 10-5:30, Fri – Sat: 10-9
Out of state visitors: Adults: $25, Seniors: $17, Students not from NY, NJ, or CT: $12, Children under 12 years: Free, Members: Free. These admission tickets are good for three consecutive days and permit entry to The Met Breuer, The Met, and The Met Cloisters.
NYS residents (must show proof, see website for details): Pay what you wish, Students from NY, NJ, CT (must show current student id): Pay what you wish. These admission tickets are good for same day only and permit entry to The Met Breuer, The Met, and The Met Cloisters.
Cover: Gallery View, Medieval Sculpture Hall; image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.