It may seem a little strange at first to consider the question of fashion and the Catholic Church. Religion, after all, is predicated on ideas like faith, love, and acceptance that seem discordant with the glamor and materialism splashed across the pages of Vogue.
But Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is hoping to change that. In the latest blockbuster exhibition for the fashion wing of the museum, Bolton is shining a light on the ways in which the Vatican-led church and the fashion industry have influenced one another for over three centuries.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination opens on May 10 and will be the Costume Institute’s largest show to date. Spreading from the dedicated halls of the fashion gallery into the Byzantine and medieval galleries of the main museum, then making a jump uptown to the Met Cloisters in Fort Tyron Park, the show will lead visitors on something of an artistic pilgrimage. Forty pieces on loan from the Vatican will be on display, including papal vestments and accessories, 150 ensembles from couture designers, and religious masterpieces from the Met’s art collection.
“Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another,” Bolton said in a press release for the show. “Although this relationship has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion.”
Noting that “dress is central to any discussion about religion,” Bolton has secured items from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy that span over 15 papacies. Many of these have never been seen outside the Vatican before. Visitors will be able to view a cope entirely embroidered in gold thread that was given to Benedict XV by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pope John Paul II’s iconic red Italian shoes will be on display, as will a gorgeous, three-tiered tiara decked out in 19,000 diamonds and stones that was a gift from Queen Isabella II of Spain to Pope Pius IX.
On the high fashion side of things, the exhibition will explore the Roman Catholic influence of many couture designers. These include selections from Dolce & Gabbana’s 2013 collection adorned with bejeweled prints of saints inspired by the Byzantine mosaics found in Sicily. There will be a 1939 gown by Elsa Schiaparelli that is embroidered with St. Peter’s “Keys of Heaven,” and Moschino ensembles inspired by the white-winged hats of the famous Daughters of Charity (or the “Flying Nuns”). On the more monastic end is one of Bolton’s favorite garments, a 1967 Balenciaga wedding dress that is fabled to have only one seam (in reality, it has three).
When the theme of the spring exhibition was announced, there was some concern that pairing Catholicism with fashion would be a recipe for controversy. But those fears seem, at least for now, unfounded. The show has been carefully considered, down to displaying the papal vestments and high couture in separate galleries, and the Vatican has given the exhibition its support. As Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, said at a February press preview in Rome, “God himself was concerned with dressing his creatures.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely home free. On May 7, celebrity A-listers including co-chairs Rihanna, Amal Clooney, and Donatella Versace will take to the red carpet for the Met Gala, the annual event that kicks off the spring exhibition and has been called “the Oscars of fashion.” Whether the attendees of the event overseen by the High Priestess of Fashion herself, Anna Wintour, will choose to be sartorial sinners or saints is yet to be seen.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 10 until October 8.