The museum yokes the spectacle of fashion and the spectacle of Catholicism in its largest costume exhibition to date.
Gallery view, Medieval Sculpture Hall (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Devil may wear Prada, but God seems more like a Versace fan in Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring costume exhibition, also partly on view at the Met Cloisters, through October 8. The museum’s largest costume exhibition to date yokes the spectacle of fashion and the spectacle of Catholicism, complete with Virgin Mary drag, angelic attire, and a mingling of contemporary clothing, with ancient iconography already on display at the institution.
It makes sense to draw a distinct line between fashion and Catholicism — the ceremony, decadence, and ornamentation of each are in natural conversation with one another before even considering the obvious borrowing of sacrosanct iconography of crosses, crowns of thorns, and nuns’ habits in fashion. With offerings from Catholic-raised designers like Lacroix, Gaultier, and Versace (both Gianni and Donatella, the latter a sponsor of this exhibition) smartly presented amidst Byzantine mosaics and the hallowed halls of the Cloisters, the subject seems a natural fit for the Metropolitan.
Gallery view, Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Though originally intended to include all religions, it was decided that a laser focus on Catholicism proved comprehensive enough for an exhibition. This includes the allowance of several religious garments from the Vatican to be displayed in New York, many for the first time outside of the world’s smallest country. But as logical as it may be, this paring down of the theme missed many opportunities to showcase both fashion history and the globalization and diversification of religion and culture.
Some other examples that come to mind include Jean-Paul Gaultier’s infamous “Chic Rabbis” collection from 1994, inspired by hasidic garments, or how brands are currently embracing and capitalizing on Muslim religious garb, like the Nike Pro Hijab. A more diverse approach could have drawn broader parallels between the cult of fashion and the exploration of a higher power. It would also be nice to let the eye rest from all the gold embroidery and crosses for a second.
Gallery view, Medieval Europe Gallery (image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Still, it’s resplendent to see a Virgin Mary-inspired, iridescent Lacroix wedding gown rendered in the most delicate silk with a gossamer-swathed mannequin hovering high above it, like the annunciation taking place on a Paris catwalk. The problem, however, is displays like these are spaced very far out throughout the building, with small clusters of mannequins housed meters away from other displays, easily missed, like a frustrating fashion Easter Egg hunt, and the entire Vatican collection several levels below the rest of the show.
Though likely a result of presenting these clothes outside of the Vatican for the first time and preserving their exclusivity, this choice ladders into the overall design of exhibition, which meanders and confuses patrons. Though curator Andrew Bolton describes navigating through it a “pilgrimage,” few may even journey to the Cloisters to see the entire show, and those at the Cloisters may be confused at the presence of a gothic McQueen concoction amidst medieval tapestries…………….