Heavenly Bodies: A Review

By Nadine L. Stewart

HEAVENLY BODIES: FASHION AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION
MET CLOISTERS
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.

Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967)

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.

Madame Grès (Alix Barton) 1969
Jean Paul Gaultier (French, born 1952). “Guadalupe” Evening Ensemble, spring/summer 2007 haute couture.

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.

Valentino SpA, 2015–16, courtesy of Valentino, Italy, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

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[1] 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.

Philip Treacy hat in the Boppard Room at the Cloisters

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:

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ME

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!

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[1] Trey Taylor, “Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Reflects on His Past,” Interview, November 1, 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/jean-charles-de-castelbajac-1

 

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A critical eye falls on MOMA’s “Items: Is Fashion Modern”

Editors note: While it is always nice to have the recommendation of a ‘good’ fashion exhibit, it is also beneficial and important to explore exhibits that don’t work, have problems, or are otherwize not recommended. These kinds of reviews are few and far between in the blog world. Nonetheless, I asked Nadine to write this review, knowing that she had found problems with MOMA’s exhibition. I encourage you to read her assesment and leave your thoughts in the comments (questions are welcome as well!)

In 1944 a provocative exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art curated by Austrian-born architect Bernard Rudofsky which asked the question “Are Clothes Modern?” In his accompanying book for the exhibition, Rudofsky minced no words in his opinion of fashion. In his view fashion “is based on envy and the urge of imitating the envied. It presupposes the existence of an aristocratic minority—aristocratic in the sartorial sense—that sets the ‘style’ and the pace of style rotation.”[1] He felt fashion is undemocratic and “fits the totalitarian state perfectly,”[2] harsh words for a country emerging from a war against two totalitarian states to hear.

Rudofsky’s sculptures

He was particularly critical of the changing fashionable silhouette. The exhibit featured sculptures of distorted figures—a woman with a “bustle body” who looked like a centaur, another with a huge mono-bosom. He had particularly harsh words for women’s hats, pointing to their artificiality. “Alas, we do not think any more of adorning our heads with a wreath of flowers. Women’s heads are frequently garnished with the artificial kind. They are traditionally arranged on a platter which by common consent is spoken of as a woman’s hat.” [3] Rudofsky felt that all fashion was completely frivolous and had no place in the modern society he foresaw developing in post-war America.

On December 20, 1944, he told the New York Fashion Group, an association made up of the city’s most influential designers, fashion journalists and industry executives, that he was looking forward to “the day when fashion and fashion makers will be forgotten like a nightmare—on this day we shall have made one big step toward a more intelligent way of living.”[4] Vogue’s response was spirited. “‘Are Clothes Modern?’ Vogue answers, ‘Emphatically, yes!’ and wonders that the bright-eyed, up-to-the-next-minute Modern Museum could ask such a question seriously. Granted that men’s clothes have too many buttons, pockets, are tradition-bound. But women’s fashions? Whom has the Modern Museum been looking at? Have they been rummaging through the files of their historic film library?”[5]

American fashion was just emerging from the war years when most of the fashion world was restricted by the rationing laws. So, to Vogue’s editors, “fashion is first cousin to modern furniture, modern engineering, modern housing, modern transport.  If by modern we mean ‘characteristic of the present time’ …and that’s what Webster means.”[6]

Rudofsky’s predictions for the world of fashion did not come true, Indeed, he ended up working in the fashion world himself. He established Bernardo’s, a company that made elegant simple sandals what were the embodiment of his view that clothing should be simple and body-affirming. No stilettos for him.

Seventy years went by. Exhibits of fashion became more and more numerous and drew large crowds. These exhibits and increasing scholarship in the field established the fact that fashion was not simply about women’s clothes, but a design field that influenced men and women of all ethnicities. So, MOMA now has its own exhibit of 111 items that the curators have decided transcend fashion since they are deemed iconic, like the white t-shirt, that continue to be worn year after year.

The goals of this exhibit are ambitious:

Items: Is Fashion Modern? explores the present, past—and sometimes the future—of 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries—and continue to hold currency today. …. Driven first and foremost by objects, not designers, the exhibition considers the many relationships between fashion and functionality, culture, aesthetics, politics, labor, identity, economy, and technology.[7]

That’s a tall order. The wall text at the entrance explains this exploration will be done by linking each item with three-part explanation composed of “archetype,” “stereotype.” and “prototype.” These leaves one wondering what those words mean. In an accompanying video Curator Paola Antonelli explained: “The stereotype is . . . close your eyes, and if you think of that item, what do you see?” That didn’t clear it up for me, but I was able to figure out that “archetype” meant the history of the garment which was covered in voluminous wall text. Many of the garments on display can probably be purchased at a big-box store, which is a good thing since MOMA has exactly four dresses, one coat, one shirt, and 4 head coverings in its collection.

The “prototypes” were works of art MOMA commissioned specifically to show how artists are inspired by the “iconic” pieces on display. According to the exhibit’s thesis statement they were intended “to respond to some of these indispensable items with pioneering materials, approaches, and techniques—extending this conversation into the near and distant futures, and connecting the history of these garments with their present recombination and use.”[8]

Spanx by Lucy Jones

You find yourself wondering why this was necessary. Often the pieces were confusing. Artist Lucy Jones created a version of Spanx for a wheelchair-bound woman. The seated figure was on a stool, not a wheelchair, so it took a while for me to figure out the meaning of what the side zippers on the Spanx were for. If I had any “conversation” after viewing this, it was to ask why the figure couldn’t have been mounted in a wheelchair, or, at the very least, with some suggestion of wheels.

Pia Interlandi, Little Black (Death) Dress, 2017. Photo by Sarah Dotson

Another piece veered in the direction of science fiction. Mounted at the end of a long platform on the little black dress, it was the recumbent figure of a woman in an embroidered black body bag. Artist Pia Interlandi, who specializes in designing garments for the deceased, dyed the shroud with thermochomatic ink. As one watched, it slowly lit up showing blue hands of mourners on the last garment. I found myself wondering how these pieces connected to the “stereotype.” The whole process was tiring.

The exhibit is mounted in the enormous gallery on the sixth floor, which has the effect of diminishing the “items” on display [see opening photo]. There are few pictures to show how these garments are worn, so the gallery looks like it is full of items that a large group of people simply left there. It diminishes the meaning of each item too. A red hoodie, which is supposed to evoke Trayvon Martin and his tragic death, simply looks like it was randomly hung there by the installation staff. To be successful, an exhibit has to blend the text, the objects, and images. It is difficult to connect the research and theory displayed on the walls with the objects themselves. There are voluminous labels with each piece, but they are often close to the floor and printed in very tiny type.

At the end of the exhibit is a huge wall chart that aims to show the interconnectedness of the pieces on display. One would need binoculars to read it since the text is small and high on the wall.

I was happy to see Rudofsky’s sculptures on display. It was like seeing some old friends, but it was hard to figure out how they fit into this exhibit.

Since Rudofsky was so interested in the concept of the fashionable body, he probably would have liked a smaller exhibit that just opened at The Museum @ FIT. The Body: Fashion and Physique examines how the fashionable “ideal” body has changed over time, using garments from the eighteenth century to the present day. The show is focused and thought-provoking.

The curators should have kept Rudofsky’s original title since this exhibit is not about “fashion,” which is a phenomenon of change spurred by the zeitgeist of the time. It about “clothes,” what we wear—a different subject.

After I trudged through Items: Is Fashion Modern? I found myself wondering how long it will be before MOMA examines fashion again. Seventy years?

[1] Bernard Rudofsky, Are Clothes Modern?: an Essay on Contemporary Attire (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1947), 232.

[2] Ibid., 236.

[3] Ibid. 94.

[4] Bernard Rudofsky, speech to meeting of the Fashion Group International, New York, NY, December 20, 1944.

[5] Vogue, February 1, 1945, 121.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638?_ga=2.19712240.970171872.1514665663-1731633683.1514665663

[8] https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638?_ga=2.19712240.970171872.1514665663-1731633683.1514665663

 

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