Inside Heavenly Bodies, the Costume Institute's Latest Fashion Extravaganza

You've seen all the red carpet looks from the gala, now see what they were celebrating.
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“There are two aspects of Catholicism [and dress],” Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, mused at an advanced preview of the museum’s latest fashion exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. “One is this idea of spectacle and opulence being a manifestation of one’s faith and beauty. And the other one is the same approach with the idea of simplicity.”

When the theme was announced in November, many critics wondered exactly what aspect the Met would attempt to explore—the influence of religious dress on society? The aesthetic influence of the church in high fashion? Or, as Bolton discussed, the duality of dress within the ranks of the church itself, which sees nuns and priests adopting modest wares, while the Pope exudes decadence. As it so happens, Heavenly Bodies makes a stab at doing it all.

Being a Costume Institute show, designers were always going to play a major role, and there was no shortage of examples to choose from (a staggering 150 looks made it into the exhibit). Iconic works from John Galliano, Versace, and Jean-Paul Gaultier are featured prominently in the Medieval and Byzantine art galleries of the Met.

Ranging from modest wares inspired by nun habits, to more theatrical offerings from McQueen, viewers certainly get a sense of how designers interpret references and themes and translate them into thoughtful collections and pieces—commenting on the aesthetic nature of the church, and its wealth of iconography. Otherwise, there is a bit of a disconnect between space and subject.

Will the average viewer really get why there are a bunch of mannequins in one of the museum’s most central rooms? Sure, if they take the time to read. But the display of fashion feels a bit forced.

That is, until, one sees the exhibit portion held at the Met Cloisters, where Heavenly Bodies truly shines. Utilizing the museum itself to great theatrical effect, the show is able to bring out the best of its theme by focusing on the artistry of the fashion itself—and by carefully curating how the ensembles fill each room.

Balenciaga’s couture bride gazing up at Jesus on the cross; caped Valentino figures hovering in a stone courtyard; gorgeously patterned McQueen dresses set in front of centuries-old tapestries. It is haunting, ethereal, and an absolutely stunning marriage that brings out the artistry of the designers, and the world around it.

Of course, the Met’s biggest highlight is held back at its Fifth Avenue location: vestments on loan from the Vatican itself. In what will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, getting an up-close-and-personal look at some of the church’s most prized pieces. The intricate embroideries and jewels worn by Popes are enough to put much of the couture on view at last night’s Met Gala to shame (although Rihanna managed to capture the essence of Papal opulence with ease).

There is a level of decadence and lavishness that proves fashion has been an important element of Catholicism for centuries. It’s enough to make one wonder if we—the followers of the church of High Fashion—still have some catching up to do.


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