Art Review: The Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies, Fashion and Catholic Imagination’

WORDS: Charlie Newman
FEATURE IMAGE: Francisco Gutierrez Jr

The Met Gala, the holy grail of fashion parties. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the holy grail of art destinations. A match made in heaven – pardon the pun.

It’s easy to see why Andrew Bolton, curator of fashion at the Met, drew parallels and thus created the exhibition ‘Heavenly Bodies, Fashion and Catholic Imagination.’ At first it sounds all too obvious, too cliche, but aligning fashion and religion treads not so steady waters, especially considering todays cynical and sometimes tempestuous religious climate. Bolton was extremely brave to put this on creating a “wonderful tension when you juxtapose art from the different mediums. Fashion enlivens the more historical pieces, and the historical pieces give context and embolden the fashion.” Bolton defies all critics, arguing that he does not wish to portray Catholicism as driven by capitalism or consumerism (note: please separate the Gala from the exhibition), but instead highlights the aesthetic beauty which undoubtedly lies at the core of both Catholic and fashions values.

Bolton’s curational journey was not so smooth. Originally he desired to include all the major religions to be involved including: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Catholicism, but he could not ignore the wealth of “Western tradition’s imagistic history and story telling tradition.” A Catholic himself, Bolton met with the Vatican and was granted their holy consent. Bolton gathered 150 outfits with a mixture of the museums artefacts, which at times felt a bit jumbled and disorganised. The exhibition was separated into two locations, at the Met itself where it was divided over two floors and at the Met Cloisters, probably the most apt location for the exhibition, but sadly I didn’t have time venture that far uptown Manhattan to reach the Cloisters.

Nevertheless Bolton did a fantastic job of creating a church like atmosphere within a Museum. The heart of the exhibition lay in the Medieval hall: an enormous, cold, dimly lit, high ceilinged room with ideal acoustics for the classical music that played relentlessly. The combination of the models eyes cast down with the quiet shuffling and whispering of the visitors as they observed in awe, created a highly charged atmosphere. Whether you’re religious or not, it was impossible to ignore the beauty on show. As the Swiss Theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar preaches, “we first perceive the mystery of God through Beauty”, in agreement with Pope Benedict XV1, “being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction.”

Indeed I was overcome by the many designers on show. Chanel’s original jewellery designs, up until now by Karl Lagerfeld himself, are deeply rooted in religious motifs. Crosses laden with precious jewels and shimmering stones adorned the body, as the Pope does too. Versace too led a glitsy tribe in a variety of chain mail dresses, reminiscent of religious wars fought throughout history. Similarly, Jean Paul Gaultier took a more historic approach directly referencing his designs from the resplendent Joan of Arc. A wave of patriotism hit me with Alexander McQueen’s stunning design juxtaposition of feather light, angelic wings, made of wood.

Perhaps the strongest parallels with religion and clothing lay in Balenciaga’s ‘Choral Robes’ 1895-1972, and the various designers who were inspired by the Soutane or Cassock. This attire is an essential garment for the clergy consisting of a long sleeved, floor length gown, primarily in black with a white clerical collar, adorned with 33 buttons, representing the years of Christ. Balenciaga’s white silk crepe, long, loose fitting dresses, stood side by side on the balcony, ghost like and uniform, a spine tingling image.

The exhibition also brought to light the way fashion has mirrored the Catholic tradition of ceremony. Just like the services, the catwalk runway consists of a nave and aisle, with models acting as the clergymen and guests as the Lairy. Before we get lost in the divinity of it all, (surely these spectacular creations are made by angels not by the human hand?) the exhibition highlights the role of the “petite mains” in the Haute Couturier. In Baroque tradition, grandeur is a symbolic pronouncement of divine transcendence, proving that there is a difference between sacred worship and day to day life.

“I left the museum full of many a more intense emotion than you would expect from an exhibition essentially based on dresses.”

I left the museum full of many a more intense emotion than you would expect from an exhibition essentially based on dresses. As far fetched as this may seem from a non-religious person like me, I left with what I could only imagine to be with a sense of the infamous ‘Catholic guilt.’ The building crescendo of music bouncing off the clothes, the destabilising feeling of being small and insignificant, the dignity of it all, making me stand a little taller, and keeping my opinions at bay to maintain peace was a wonderful experience for me. I might not have had a religious experience but nonetheless I worshipped at a different altar.