Heavenly Bodies

Evening dresses by Versace and by Dolce & Gabbana with imagery of Catholic saints and the Madonna and Child are some of the many surprises at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Exhibition. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination [May 10–October 8, 2018] features 150 ensembles by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, and Gianni Versace. Current designers include Donatella Versace, John Galliano, Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, Jean Paul Gaultier, Thom Browne, and Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino. Many designers featured in the show are Catholic.

Exhibition organizers suggest visitors begin their journey on Fifth Avenue in the Byzantine and medieval art galleries, move to the Robert Lehman Collection, then to the Anna Wintour Costume Center, with a final stop at the Met Cloisters, all of which is worth the trip. Placing the designs amid precious tapestries, paintings, sculpture, and reliquaries provides important context for the designers’ inspirations.

The exhibition also includes elaborate ensembles commissioned for life-size statues of the Madonna: one, created by Saint Laurent’s studio around 1985, made of gold silk brocade and pearls; another, by Riccardo Tisci, in Virgin Mary blue with gold embroidery and an accompanying crown.

There are provocative takes on Catholic symbolism. Gaultier’s long black velvet coat dress, derived from a priest’s soutane, has 33 buttons symbolizing the years of Christ’s life, and curved gold embroidery and beading at breast level. His “Communion” dress (at the Cloisters) is designed with a gold chalice and bowl over the torso to cup the breasts. Clips of the 1972 Fellini movie, Roma, play on a nearby screen. The scene is a satire of an ecumenical fashion show and inspiration for Dolce & Gabbana’s 1997–1998 collection.

Sly references include an incense holder hidden in the back folds of John Galliano’s 2000–2001 House of Dior evening ensemble (Met Gala cohost Rihanna’s outfit, an Instagram hit, was created by Galliano for his current house, Maison Margiela). Thom Browne’s take on a nun’s habit, a caped black and white wool outfit from his 2014–2015 collection, was also inspired by Roma. A truncated cross is sewn into the garment and added to a rosary strung around the waist.

In the same gallery, a series of mannequins is displayed aloft in loose-fitting, floor-length robes made by Cristóbal Balenciaga for a Spanish choir. A wedding dress by Saint Laurent shrouds face and body, as if the bride were surrendering herself to Christ, the way nuns do when taking vows.

formal gown depicting an illustration of Adam and Eve, deer, a tree, and flowers on the fabric against a gray background

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, Evening Dress, spring/summer 2014 haute couture [digital composite scan: Katerina Jebb; courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Thierry Mugler’s “Madonna,” a light blue and ecru chiffon dress dotted with crystals from his 1985–1986 collection, adorns a mannequin suspended above a doorway, an angel on high. A capsule collection of Rodarte designs was inspired by Fra Angelico’s frescoes, and Roberto Capucci’s gold pleated gown includes wings. Jeanne Lanvin’s elegant silk long-sleeved dresses, in ivory and light blue, conjure the purity of the Virgin Mary.

40 vestments on loan from the Sistine Chapel sacristy are on display in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. The collection includes ornate copes/mantles and chasubles (one designed by Matisse), along with jeweled tiaras and miters once worn by popes for various ceremonies and processions.

At the Cloisters, costumes appear amid alters, paintings, tapestries, and sculpture of the Middle Ages. These stunning selections, themed to religious orders and the sacraments, stimulate the imagination as one wanders the galleries and gardens. Who is getting married in the 1967 Balenciaga gown shaped to evoke a pope’s mantle? Did the woman laid to rest in the Gothic chapel, in the Galliano dress made partially of armor, die in battle? Is Victor & Rolf’s 2018 Russian Doll dress, made of crystals and jute, with rosaries entwined around the wrists, an ensemble befitting a female pope?

In an airy gallery, Valentino silk tulle gowns have images of Adam and Eve woven onto the skirt of one and sheaves of wheat onto another. Claire McCardell’s 1949 “monastic” dress references the simple garb of monks and nuns. In a gallery with the Annunciation triptych, a deeply cut Valentino velvet gown from the 2015 collection evokes Mary wearing red as the Angel Gabriel appeared to her.

McQueen’s “Crown of Thorns” headpiece from his 1996–1997 Dante collection is a symbol of Christ’s suffering. Given that McQueen’s life was cut short by suicide, one wonders about his personal demons. Other items hint at the church’s role in centuries of war and strife, e.g., the dramatic Galliano dress with a Machiavellian image, partially obscured by a wooden door.

Although women’s designs are dominant, female roles in the Catholic Church are limited to the laity. Perhaps this exhibition will provoke a dialogue. The achievement of Heavenly Bodies is in aligning beauty and ritual, but underneath is a long and complicated history, worthy of exploration.