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Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the latest exhibition from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explored the influence of Catholicism on fashion. As curator Andrew Bolton writes in the exhibition catalogue, it examined “how the Catholic imagination has shaped the creativity of designers and how it is conveyed through their fashions” (96). The exhibition design, by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, capitalized on light and height to endow each space with its own environment, and a distinctive soundtrack used the emotive power of song to envelop visitors as they entered. Credit is due to the conservation team at the Costume Institute, headed by Sarah Scaturro, whose work dressing and mounting the display made possible the exhibition’s arresting, immersive effect.
The main installation in the Metropolitan Museum’s Fifth Avenue building, which comprised both couture and ready-to-wear works, radiated out from the central gallery of Medieval and Byzantine art with further objects in the Robert Lehman Wing and along a route to the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Working in concert with the existing display, already set up to echo the layout of a church, the exhibition provided an emotive, transcendent viewing experience. A pair of draped Thierry Mugler dresses flanked the passageway through a choir screen. Elevated on pedestals and accessorized with wings, they resembled angels. Beyond the screen, another diaphanous Mugler gown, embellished with crystals, was suspended from the ceiling. From the opposite entrance to the room, the entire tableau evoked the majesty of an altar in devotion to the Virgin Mary. The radiating layout was designed to elicit the “concept and practice of pilgrimage” on an “experiential level” (96). It was, indeed, an experience for visitors, who had to wander the galleries from one area to another—and risk missing part of the show unless vigilant.
In the Anna Wintour Costume Center, objects from the Vatican were displayed separately from the fashion pieces. The works included elaborately embroidered vestments, jewel-encrusted papal tiaras, and Pope John Paul II’s distinctive Prada shoes. Unlike the other galleries, this display was purposefully clinical, inviting viewers to marvel at the exquisite craftsmanship of each object. Separated in this way, the Vatican objects related to the fashion pieces as sartorial inspiration only. At the same time, they seemed disconnected from the emotive power of the rest of the show. And despite their intricacy, these objects are not the true treasures of the Vatican collection: apart from one papal mantle from the eighteenth century, all date to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Arguably, the true exhibition was at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan, a substantial trek that felt like a pilgrimage and was a worthwhile venture. There, visitors found the fullest expression of the exhibition’s immersive ambitions. The entirety of the building was devoted to the exhibition, with at least one fashion object in every space, and here they were truly in conversation with their surroundings—Cristobal Balenciaga’s 1967 “one-seam wedding dress,” was displayed as if in prayer in the Fuentidueña Chapel. Throughout, didactics connected the garments to both the architectural surroundings and to various experiences of Catholic life, such as the holy sacraments and monastic ritual.
While the settings date from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, the exhibition was devoted exclusively to contemporary fashion. The earliest fashion objects dated to the 1930s, but most were from the last ten or twenty years. This was not surprising for a Costume Institute exhibition, but given the subject matter and the surrounding artwork and architecture, the inclusion of earlier garments from the Met’s vast collection would have been welcome.
Frustratingly, the information presented within the exhibition space and in the catalogue was lacking in critical fashion scholarship. For an exhibition purportedly about fashion and how Catholicism has shaped the “creativity of designers” (96), the text that accompanied the garments within the galleries felt overly simplified. Garments were analyzed for how they resembled Catholic vestments or connected to different Catholic rituals and themes. They were not placed within their own sociopolitical context but treated simply as a celebration of Catholicism regardless of when a garment was created or by whom. Even the work of designer Alexander McQueen—the brilliant British designer who took his own life in 2010—was presented in only the most basic referential terms, when in reality McQueen’s relationship with the church was much more fraught and complex than either the labels or catalogue suggest (130, 300). Given that the theme of this exhibition is the Catholic “imagination,” it follows that each label should touch on the inspiration for an object, but the lack of deeper context stripped each designer of his or her own unique relationship with the church and rendered each garment as a surface-level homage.
The scholarly essays are written by experts in Catholic theology, history, and vestments. The catalogue is divided into two volumes because the Vatican required its objects be separated both in the gallery space and text, as reported by the Washington Post (Robin Givhan, “Heavenly Bodies at the Met shows just how much fashion and Catholicism have in common.” May 6, 2018). The main essay in the fashion-focused volume, by David Morgan, professor of religious studies and art history at Duke University, primarily analyzes the role of garments as compositional devices in works of ecclesiastical art (97–103). The only catalogue texts focused on fashion are short blurbs, seemingly compiled from abridged versions of the exhibition labels and didactics. These short “essays” begin to feel like descriptive lists after a couple paragraphs as designers are referenced in rapid succession. Anyone reading only the catalogue text could be forgiven for thinking that the exhibition revolved solely around the significance of vestments within the church itself. Despite being a fashion exhibition, fashion is secondary to the church here. And Heavenly Bodies reads as an unabashed glorification of Catholicism.
The exhibition was also problematic for its glaring omissions. There was a lack of diversity in the designers represented—nearly all were white men from Europe and America, despite the fact that Latin America has the highest Catholic population of any continent, and the recent annual rise in global Catholicism is due to the faith’s significant growth in Latin America and Africa (Max Fisher, “This map of the global Catholic populations shows the church’s looming dilemma” in the Washington Post, February 12, 2013). One notable exception was Japanese designer Jun Takahashi of Undercover. He is not Catholic, but his work was included because he devoted an entire collection to exploring Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1490–1500), translating scenes from the paintings into textile prints. The label text used the garments to discuss the painting and concept of the Garden of Eden, giving no background on the designer himself.
Likewise, almost all of the garments were installed on white, waifish mannequins with distinctively Caucasian, doll-like features and blonde, red, or brown wigs that imitate Caucasian hair. Together, these curatorial choices served to whitewash the exhibition, presenting a biased view of the fashion industry and the Catholic church. Also avoided was the fact that many of the designers on view are (or were) homosexual and have (or had) complicated relationships with the church. These problems were compounded by the exhibition’s celebratory treatment of the Catholic church without acknowledgement of troubling realities in the church’s past and present, including the recent batch of sexual abuse allegations against powerful officials. While an institution cannot anticipate headline-making news that breaks during the run of a show, such scandals are hardly new to the church.
All exhibitions are political, a result of years of behind-the-scenes negotiations and development. By the end of August 2018, over one million people had visited Heavenly Bodies, making it the third most popular exhibition in the history of the Metropolitan Museum—by the show’s closing in October it had advanced to become the museum’s most visited exhibition ever. I have no doubt that the political maneuvering required to forge a relationship with the Vatican in order to secure the loaned objects influenced the tone of the exhibition. I also assume that the astronomical number of visitors is in part due to the Catholic focus and inclusion of the Vatican loan, considering that the former holder of the third most-popular spot was the 1983 exhibition The Vatican Collection (also noted on the Met’s website). But given how isolated and contemporary the Vatican objects are within the show, they ultimately do not seem worth the sacrifice of true fashion scholarship.
Associate Curator of Costume, Museum at FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology
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