Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and The Catholic Imagination
“Practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life.” ~ Andrew Greeley
I was intrigued when I found out the theme of this year’s Fashion Exhibit at the Met. And even more shocked when I found out it had the support of the Catholic Church. In fact New York’s Cardinal even spoke at the gala and was instrumental in bringing artifacts from the Vatican itself, to be part of the exhibit.
I was raised Catholic and despite growing up in a very open and tolerant household, the church I attended was not so modern in their philosophies and ‘tudes. While I hold the core values, and historical foundations of Catholicism closely, it seemed like there was a constant battle between staying with antiquated beliefs and moving into the twenty first century of more modern views and ultimately representing the core of Jesus’ teachings: Love and Acceptance of ALL people.
Fashion and Religion
While we should hold a certain appreciation for history and religious tradition, we can not stay stuck in it. History is a way for us (typically) to not make the same mistakes our fore-fathers and mothers made and religion is the principled beliefs that we follow dictated by God. While the core beliefs of religion identify who we are, we still need to have that room where we can move forward and grow in life. That also equates to religion AND fashion.
I have long held the view point that fashion is not only an art form, but also a political revolution albite a quieter one. It is a silent protest of sorts, but just as prolific a form of activism. Couture designers such as Alexander McQueen to even the demure Elizabeth Arden, have not shied away from using their clothes as a platform to give voice to a wide range of political and social issues. It is expressionism at its core. One that even New York’s Fall Fashion Week embraced the last few days.
It was one of the reasons I was excited to see this exhibit. The fashion world has not shied away from being a forceful leader in the feminist movement despite people’s views of the contrary. The strong reverberations of women owning who they are in fashion, contrast heavily with the often antiquated ones of the Catholic Church. Many of which can be seen as an attempt to silence women and keep them sheltered and subservient.
I ended up seeing this exhibit backwards. Separated into two parts, you are suppose to begin at the Met on Fifth Avenue and then travel up to The Cloisters in the Bronx. Instead I started at the Cloisters before going to the Met.
The Cloisters is one of my favorite places in the city, and really is the perfect place to host the exhibit. A museum with a heavy emphasis on medieval art and religious artifacts, the Heavenly Bodies Exhibit encompassed the whole museum, intertwining seamlessly and expertly the holy artworks with fashion.
The heavy influence of religion could be seen in the most overt of ways in the clothes, as well as more subtle odes to it. It toed the line between subservient and insubordinate, showing both the suppression of women as well as the celebration and freedom. It seemed like a stark contrast in dualities, but it worked oddly.
While the Met is originally suppose to be seen first, the saying of saving the best for last is so very true. Broken up into two wings of the Met, you began at the Anna Wintour Costume Institute before heading into the Medieval Wing on the main floor.
It was the exhibit in the Costume Institute that was jaw dropping and dazzling yet incredibly humbling. With a heavily enforced no pictures policy, much of the artifacts on display came from the Vatican itself. From vestments that Pope John Paul II wore, to papal tiaras and ferulas hundreds of years old, it was truly remarkable to witness such historical and holy artifacts.
Regardless of whether you are Catholic, Christian, or practice any religion of any kind, it was inspiring and chilling to be surrounded by such rarely seen pieces of history. As much as I yearned to reach for my camera, to document what I was seeing, it was one of those moments where no picture could ever do it justice. Being in the moment, being able to truly appreciate the magnitude of history that was before me was worth more then any picture ever could express.
After spending quite awhile in the Institute Hall, I made my way to the Medieval Wing where the rest of the exhibit was. Big designer names, influenced by religion were on display, ranging from literal translations of religion in the forms of angel dresses, to more subtle references, it was impressive and again inspiring to see what the minds had come up with.
Fashion and The Catholic Imagination
Going into the exhibit I had no idea WHAT to expect. Despite knowing that it had gotten support from the Vatican, with the sex abuse scandals, it has become popular to hate on Catholicism and even religion as a whole. The exhibit did not shy away from the controversial history of how women were expected to dress and ct, ut not did it demonize. Rather it portrayed the influence both positive and negative religion and on a bagger level history has had on fashion, especially that of the evolvement and freedom women have found, especially in the last decade.
In the era of Me Too, this exhibit shows the confines that women were put in, as well as the barriers they have broken through. This exhibit once again proves how political yet always artistic fashion is. It is not just about clothing yourself, but the choices, especially as women, we make when we don outfits. It is about whether we choose to be expressive, or demure, whether we decide to break down barriers or stay hidden.
Fashion much like religion is expression and while it might seem like an oxymoron, the two do rather compliment each other. As society has evolved, so must religion, so must fashion and so must all of us. It is the only way history can be moved forward and not stay stagnate. It is how, we as people, can truly live the teachings of Jesus to love and be love.
Have you seen the exhibit? What is your opinion of fashion as a religious and even political statement?
You can catch the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from now until October 8.