HEAVENLY BODIES: FASHION AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION
THROUGH OCTOBER 8, 2018
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is a title that seems simple on the surface. Its stated purpose is to show the influence of the Roman Catholic faith on designers of fashionable dress. However, the question arises—what IS “the Catholic Imagination?” Why is its influence so compelling that even designers who have left the faith or who are scarred by it are inspired by its power?
It is a broad topic to be sure, one that encompasses memory, history, and emotion. To answer this question, the Costume Institute, under the patient direction of Curator Andrew Bolton, has mounted its largest exhibit and in two locations: the Met Fifth Avenue building and the Cloisters, its branch in the upper reaches of Manhattan devoted to the art of the Middle Ages. Because I feel much of the mystery and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church evolved in the Middle Ages, I chose to approach this exhibit in two parts and explore the Cloisters’ portion of the exhibit first.
I get a sense of mystery every time I visit the Cloisters. It is an intimate space, so it is a good place to feel the intense faith and singular focus of the medieval world when the Church was all-powerful. There were no other doors to the divine then. The worldview and the view of time were entwined with Biblical time. It seems the right place to start to try to comprehend the mystery of the Catholic imagination.
The first sight of fashion comes right at the entrance to the museum in the Romanesque hallway. One sees the glittering of crystals which cover a heavy floor-length jute gown with shoulders built up above the ears and long sleeves like tubes that hang below the hands. Jeweled rosaries can be seen twisted around both of the mannequin’s arms that peek from the sleeves. The austere piece by Victor and Rolf from 1999-2000 is more like a religious statute than a garment. That impression is reinforced by the two wooden statues of the Madonna from twelfth-century France on each side.
A turn to the left takes one into the Fuentiduena Chapel, another Romanesque space dominated by a giant crucifix. This chapel is devoted to showing the influence of the sacraments of the Church—marriage, communion, and baptism. Some of the simplest dresses on display are here, including a simple white cotton poplin shirtwaist subtly decorated with inserts of sheer crosses designed by Azzedine Alaia in 1992. However, the eye is inevitably drawn to one of the most iconic creations in couture history—Balenciaga’s wedding dress and coif-like headdress from 1967. The restraint and simplicity of this garment show a creative strength that can only be drawn from great craft and imagination. It’s a far cry from the glitz and glitter recently on display at the Met’s Gala and gives a sense of the strength of belief that sustained Balenciaga, a man raised in the very traditional Spanish Church.
Next door two long black capes by Valentino stand on high pedestals amid the arches of a smaller Romanesque cloister. The mounting of these robes is one of the unique features of this exhibit since it requires visitors to look at them in a new way. One is covered with black velvet appliques that echo the arches surrounding it. Like the Victor and Rolf garment at the entrance, these figures look like religious statues.
Bolton has chosen to place part of this exhibit around the outdoor garden of The Cuxa Cloister The garments here are influenced by the religious orders. Each is simple, depending only on cut for its effect. Two of the eight garments on the west side are by an American, Claire McCardell, whose black Monastic Dress of wool jersey set new standards in American style in 1938. Its simple pleated lines secured by a belt made it a garment that could be worn by many women with many different body types. Monastic robes must be adaptable to many different bodies too. They render them the same before God. There’s another lesser known McCardell here, the “Cloister Dress” of cream colored wool jersey with dolman sleeves and a slightly dropped waistline. Designed as a wedding dress during the 1940s, it too can flatter many figure types due to its simplicity.
The monastic line-up includes dresses by Madame Gres, including two stunning taffeta Gres gowns with enormous sleeves like exaggerated choir robes from 1969. Along the south wall are more Valentino’s with severely simple lines interspersed with two Rick Owens’ menswear from 2015-16. These sweatshirt-like robes are distinguished by “peephole crotches,” a witty touch that was influenced by the bawdy monastic figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Owens’ garments are a good reminder that the range of fashion inspired by the Catholic Church are not always ethereal, otherworldly garb.
The Early Gothic Chapel is devoted to another important Catholic influence—Mary, the mother of Christ, who is venerated above all women. All three of the dresses here are by John Paul Gaultier, two stunning silk jersey pieces in the color blue, the color associated with Mary the Virgin. One features a red heart on the chest pierced with a dagger. Stained glass inspires a third gown with fractured images of the Virgin and Child much like the window behind it.
In the Gothic Chapel, the influence is “Goth” dress which started in England in the late twentieth century. Religious symbols are an important component of Goth dress along with the color black. The centerpiece of the Gothic Chapel is a gown and headdress by John Galliano for Dior in 2006-7 influenced by the Crusaders and Joan of Arc. The mannequin is lying down like a tomb sculpture wearing a gown encrusted with black paillettes, silver metallic embroidery with a section of silver armor on the left shoulder. It is topped with a fantastical headdress of silver wire and cascading crystals. Goth designs by Gareth Pugh and Oscar Theyskens flank Galliano’s showy piece—all in black, of course!
Downstairs in the Glass Gallery, the fashions are inspired by the Garden of Eden. At each end of this gallery are 2014 Valentino ball gowns, both exquisitely embroidered. One has the figures of Adam and Eve in the Garden based on a painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder. The other is covered with gold wheat. Wheat symbolizes the bread of the Eucharist which becomes the body of Christ. Also, in the hall are witty creations by Junko Takahashi from 2011. They are mini-dresses and platform shoes covered with images taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, painted in the early 16th Century. The inclusion of these pieces is interesting because Takahashi is Japanese and raised outside the Catholic Church, unlike the other designers in the exhibit who were exposed to the Church when they were young. I’m guessing that Takahashi, who is drawn to dramatic images, was inspired by the weird images in Bosch’s painting which are unique in the history of Western art.
At the end of the gallery hiding behind a door to a confessional is another Galliano, a red gown of linen twill coated in rubber inspired by Machiavelli’s The Prince, a work condemned by the church. It’s a reminder of the dark side of the Catholic imagination that periodically condemned works that challenged its dogma.
The Treasury contains the most precious artifacts of the Cloisters. First on view is a striking silver crown of thorns made for Alexander McQueen. Its stark simplicity is powerful. The crown of thorns is one of the most revered symbols of the Christian faith, so McQueen’s decision to recreate it for his “Dante” collection in 1996-7 was a bold one. It raises the question—does use of such a symbol on the fashion runway diminish it?
Behind another set of glass doors, we find works used in religious sacraments, such as chalices and reliquaries. There are also two chasubles, poncho-like robes worn during Mass. These are more recent creations, one made for John Paul II in 1997 is of cream silk covered in multicolored crosses. The other was designed by French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac for World Youth Day also in 1997. This one struck me as curious. It too is cream with rainbow stripes that run vertically down the middle of the front and back. The official reason for the stripes was that they were a tribute to nature, but the rainbow stripes are also on the flag of the Gay Pride Movement. An article in Interview from 2016 states that Castelbajac told John-Paul about this connection, but the Pope replied, “But Jean-Charles, there is no copyright on the rainbow.” So, the Pope, 500 bishops, and 5,000 priests wore the rainbow colors that day. This is the only mention, thought very tangential, of the Church’s teaching on theological teaching against homosexuality. Many of the designers in the exhibit are gay, but we get no hint about how this doctrine of the Church affected their psyches and imaginations.
Upstairs in the Boppard Room, three straw hats by Philip Treacy are mounted in front of an altar featuring three Netherlandish busts of female saints. The hats are based on headdresses for the Virgin and are reminiscent of nun’s headdresses with wings that encircle the head. They seem to soar about the head glittering slightly from a dusting of gold.
The last gallery contains another bride. This one by Dolce and Gabanna is all gold lace and trims. The figure is really like a religious statue of the Virgin that might be carried through the streets in a saint’s day celebration. The figure with its very Italian influence shares the gallery with work the evokes Northern Europe from McQueen’s “Angels and Demons” collection of 1997-8. The labels tell us that McQueen’s favorite period in art history was fifteenth-century Flanders. Though he references the period with its color and imagery, it is worth remembering that this was a time when the Church was being challenged there.
Heavenly Bodies took on a huge, difficult subject. The exhibit aims to show us how religious faith of the Roman Catholic Church affected fashion and its creators. It isn’t always easy to understand the spirituality behind what can be seen as just clothes—fine, beautifully crafted clothes, but still, clothes for the very wealthy. However, in the intimate chapels of the Cloisters, it is possible to sense the spiritual undergirding of religious inspiration. Not all the garments convey the power of the religious inspiration, but a few, like the pure lines of Balenciaga wedding gown, can take one to another place. It’s worth a trip to the Cloisters to touch that feeling if only fleetingly.
Note: There’s another benefit of making the trip to The Cloisters. It’s situated in the midst of one of New York City’s most beautiful public parks, Fort Tyron. You can walk through gardens with a beautiful view of the Hudson River as you go to and from the exhibit. It’s truly a lovely day trip.
A 5-minute overview of the Cloisters exhibit for some additional visuals and details:
Nadine Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT!
 Trey Taylor, “Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Reflects on His Past,” Interview, November 1, 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/jean-charles-de-castelbajac-1