How does a seven-year-old express reverence, devotion and respect for her Church on the day of her First Holy Communion? In my case, by wearing the same white organdy dress my mother had worn as a first communicant 30 years before, along with a forget-me-not-trimmed white eyelet bonnet and a monogrammed white cape she made for me.
What I wore on April 10, 1977 perfectly fit me, in more ways than one. To me, it was high fashion, carefully made, beautifully designed and filled with the family and religious traditions so important to me.
Make the pilgrimage to see Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and you’ll have a revelation of how more carefully made, beautifully designed garments were inspired by Roman Catholic traditions. The exhibition is controversial; horrifying to some, heavenly to others. It’s designed to inspire conversations – between art and fashion, and between viewers — and that’s what makes it worth experiencing. I think it’s magnificent.
Heavenly Bodies features the work of haute couture designers who, for the most part, were brought up as Catholics. While some may not consider themselves practicing Catholics today, most acknowledge how influential Catholic imagery, symbolism and religious garments are on their creative imaginations.
For example, the sacrament of the Eucharist led Karl Lagerfeld to recall the style of dress that French first communicants favor when he created a wedding dress as the finale of his 1990-91 Chanel collection. Jean-Paul Gaultier brought the Eucharist to mind when he fashioned a garment of pink silk mousseline and brown cotton lace applique for his 2017 “Communion” ensemble.
“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,” Andrew Greeley wrote in The Catholic Imagination. “But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation,” he continues as quoted in exhibition signage. This enchanted world has transformed The Met Cloisters and the medieval galleries at The Met Fifth Avenue, filling them with hundreds of striking garments, displaying them alongside complementary medieval religious artworks, and organizing the exhibition like a narrative pilgrimage.
Our first glimpse was an extraordinary one. Entering through the monumental arched doorway of the Romanesque Hall of The Cloisters, we beheld a shimmering dress from Viktor & Rolf’s “Russian Doll” collection that brings to mind the medieval tradition of carrying dressed wooden statues of the Madonna and Child in processions. Strings of rosary-inspired crystals are designed to be wrapped around the wearer’s wrists. It was breathtaking.Two fitting Valentino ensembles tower over the rounded arches of the Saint-Guilhem Cloister. One cape recreates the arches of Rome’s Colosseum in black silk velvet pieced into double-faced cashmere; the other was inspired by the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, an oil painting on wood depicting the Madonna in a black cape adorned with stars.Garments inspired by the sacraments of baptism and marriage are dramatically displayed in Cloister chapels. A single camellia adorns the veil for “Hymenée,” a wedding dress with a nun’s wimple-like front bib from Marc Bohan’s debut collection as head designer of the House of Dior. Inset crosses fashioned from sheer white silk mousseline in a simple white cotton dress suggest the tracing of the sign of the cross during baptism. Most dramatic of all is a 1967 Balenciaga wedding dress, made from two lengths of fabric, with three shaping seams. Monochromatic fashions inspired by monastic clothing include Madame Grès’s simple tunic-style dress with a hood similar to a Franciscan monk’s Capuchin-style cowl. Her wedding gown evocative of a Cistercian monk’s habit was reproduced in home-sewing patterns by Folkwear under the title “Cloister Dress,” advertised as a romantic but practical choice for a wartime bride.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s “les Vierges” collection brings to mind Marian iconography. His “Guadalupe” evening ensemble of light blue silk jersey and red silk mousseline is accented by a halo headdress and an image of the compassionate Immaculate Heart of Mary, embroidered in red bugle beads, paillettes and crystals.Another dress was inspired by Fouquet’s painting of the Virgin and Child, which Gaultier fractured to look like a stained-glass window. And the music! While admiring these garments, we heard a recording of Barbara Bonney singing Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, and began paying closer attention to the heavenly selections playing in the galleries. They included Missa tu es Petrus, a 1572 composition by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; Agnus Dei, Op. 11, from Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings; and music from the soundtracks of A Zed & Two Noughts, The Mission, Diva, A Draughtsman’s Contract and The Double Life of Veronique.
John Galliano’s striking combination of black silk crepe, paillettes, crystals and bronze-plated metal is just as strikingly exhibited in the Gothic chapel, in the manner of its sculptural effigy tombs. Other dresses stand guard, evoking Goth fashions of the 1980s and the medieval martyr, St. Joan of Arc.Stunning sights are everywhere. Take Philip Treacy’s swooping, curving hats inspired by nuns’ cornettes. Or a silver crown of thorns used in Alexander McQueen’s “Dante” collection. And a voluminous red velvet cape decorated with feathers executed in trapunto quilting. Gold silk and metal macrame lace, gold metal filigree and gold silk tulle with gold Lurex create Dolce & Gabbana’s “Penelope” wedding ensemble. It was inspired by the Madonnina, the gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on the main spire of Milan’s cathedral that was camouflaged during World War II to avoid being bombed.In the Unicorn Tapestries gallery, a unicorn is embroidered in gold thread on Thom Browne’s wedding dress, made from hundreds of white tulle ribbons.The Cloister’s magnificent medieval gardens are echoed in dresses lavishly embellished with lace pomegranates and sheaves of wheat rendered in gold embroidery and gilded feathers. Inspired by Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting of Adam and Eve, Chiuri and Piccioli created an exquisite dress depicting the Garden of Eden, with silk and metal thread embroidery and a variety of feathers.Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights led Jun Takahashi to create six ensembles — complete with fabulous shoes — printed with collaged sections of the triptych.Peek inside the doorway and staircase enclosure from the timber-framed house in Abbeville, France long known as the house of King Francis I. There, find John Galliano’s House of Dior ensemble of red and black rubber-coated cotton-linen twill, black silk chiffon, metal grommets and beads. The dress was inspired by the title image of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, the influential treatise that was not only part of the king’s library, but also was placed by Pope Paul IV on the Catholic Church’s index of prohibited books until the index ceased in 1966, because it promoted anti-Christian values. At The Met Fifth Avenue, Heavenly Bodies begins in the galleries of Byzantine art, with fashions inspired by the religious art and architecture of Byzantium. Five glittering Dolce & Gabbana dresses with hand-stitched pailletes recall the elaborate mosaics of Sicily’s Monreale Cathedral and other religious sites in the city. A metal-mesh fabric known as Oroton gives the illusion of tesserae. The nearby Byzantine Crypt displays three shimmering evening tops by Gianni Versace, inspired by the luminous mosaics of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo and other religious buildings in Ravenna. An elaborate cross embroidered on a veil was inspired by a gilded silver processional cross on display in this gallery, which Versace admired while visiting The Met’s 1997 exhibition, The Glory of Byzantium.The theme of the Medieval Europe gallery focuses on garments created for the Madonna within churches, such as by Yves Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci, who created an extraordinary dress and cape for his local church in Puglia. The Catholic practice of placing a votive offering, or ex-voto, in a church, led Jean-Paul Gaultier to create his “Ex-Voto” evening ensemble of gray silk mousseline, white silk-metal lace, crocheted gold and silver silk and iridescent crystals, with hand-sewn holograms and aluminum plaques.Enter the Medieval Sculpture Hall, laid out in the same manner as a church, with its nave, central aisle and two side aisles. There, meet Alexander McQueen’s version of a priest’s cassock, paired with leather biker trousers and lined with tiered white lace ruffles in the style of a flamenco dancer’s costume, as well as a lavish John Galliano ensemble based on a bishop’s mitre and cope, embroidered with “Dieu est mon Maitre” (God is my Master).Watch a clip of the “Ecclesiastical Fashion Show” scene from Federico Fellini’s 1972 film, Roma, then pass dresses that bring to mind nuns’ habits…and the soutanes worn by the clergy, where color establishes the hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope. For example, the “Il Pretino” (Little Priest) dress from Sorelle Fontana’s 1956-57 “Cardinale” collection, based on a cardinal’s red-trimmed soutane, was popularized by actress Ava Gardner.Turn around to see the balcony, where there are 21 robes Balenciaga created for a Spanish choir in 1945, then redesigned in the mid-1960s. Fashions inspired by the cults of saints and angels fill the Robert Lehman Wing. A suite of dresses were inspired by the angels depicted in Fra Angelico’s paintings; Jeanne Lanvin developed a specific dye for one blue garment, which became known as “Lanvin blue.” A dress inspired by Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa alludes to the feathers of the angel’s wings, the drapery of the nun’s habit, and the gilded rays behind the figures, in the headdress and the pleated gold silk lame bodice. Other “wings” are central to dresses of pleated gold silk lame with exaggerated shoulders, also inspired by angelic figures.Continuing through the Medieval Europe Gallery and the Medieval Treasury, descend the stairs to the Anna Wintour Costume Center, passing one of six chasubles Henri Matisse created in colorways corresponding to the Catholic liturgical calendar, when he was commissioned to design the interior for the Chapel du Rosaire in Vence, France around 1950. Nuns in Cannes sewed them; this was the first to be completed. The chapel’s priest declared it too heavy for regular use, so it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.
Sumptuous pontifical vestments and accessories from the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican, conclude this pilgrimage. For example, Saint John Paul II’s Italian red leather and suede shoes are displayed nearby a chasuble made for Pius XI on the 700th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis of Assisi, with scenes from the life of the saint and of Franciscan friars conducting missionary work around the world. A beautifully embroidered suite of vestments for Pius IX draws on copies of well-known religious paintings by Italian artists. Other Papal treasures on loan were gifts from Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Isabella II of Spain, Britain’s Queen Victoria and Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is on view through October 8. For the complete experience, check out the exhibition’s two-volume catalogue, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, written by Andrew Bolton and illustrated by Katerina Jebb, an artist who created dozens of scans of each garment and collaged them back together, giving the images an almost ethereal quality.
Listen to what Cardinal Timothy Dolan had to say about the exhibition and how it inspired this year’s The Met Gala, on his podcast, here.
The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns, by Elizabeth Kuhns, which I found for sale in the museum shop, is an insightful read, especially into the period when designers like Christian Dior, Sibyl Connolly and Bergdorf Goodman were commissioned to offer new ideas for habits.
Watch a series of videos created by The Met to see the exhibition installations at The Met Fifth Avenue, The Anna Wintour Costume Center and The Cloisters, as well as an installation time-lapse and a preview of the catalogue. See Katerina Jebb scan the garments here. Andrew Bolton gave a tour of The Met Fifth Avenue installation on Facebook, which you can watch here. See the Ecclesiastical Fashion Show from Federico Fellini’s Roma here. Finally, watch an insightful discussion about the exhibition with Andrew Bolton, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, and C. Griffith Mann, Michel David-Weill Curator in Charge of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, moderated by Fr. James Martin, S.J., here.
Julie Lê, assistant museum librarian at The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Costume Institute, shared a list of the musical selections playing in the galleries to accompany Heavenly Bodies. If you’d like it too, let us know.