Contemporary couture and Medieval art on view at “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at The Met
Come October, The Met will probably declare “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition their most visited ever. Those who have seen it in person, battled the phone-wielding crowds for that mandatory photograph will certainly agree that it will not be an exaggeration. The expansive installation of more than 150 ensembles ranges from elaborate wedding gowns, gem-encrusted capes and bolero jackets, to an armor dress Jeanne d’Arc would have on her wish board.
List of designers featured in this show reads like the “Who is Who” of haute couture: Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Christian Lacroix, Dolce and Gabbana, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Lanvin, Chanel, House of Dior, Rodarte, Versace, Philip Treacy, and others. What unites them is the shared Catholic upbringing. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Lagerfeld, Gaultier or Galliano as pious church going folk, but for the sake of this gorgeous show, let’s pretend they are the confession-types.
The exhibition extends across two of the Metropolitan Museum’s three buildings. It starts at the main building on 5th Avenue and continues in The Cloisters, the tucked away medieval structure in Fort Tryon Park in Uptown Manhattan. What makes this a worthwhile exploration is not just the colorful visual journey (think of the surreal Comme des Garçons or the lusciously seductive Alexander McQueen shows). What makes this exhibition worth seeing several times is that Andrew Bolton and his curatorial staff installed each dress (or a grouping) in a dialogue with the religious work that inspired its creation. So as you meander from gown to gown, pay close attention to the statues, altars, draperies, and paintings near the mannequins. Signs around the gowns will point you to the relevant work of art .
While you’re in the main building make sure to visit the Costume Institute’s lower level galleries where the “real jewels” are. Bolton and his team not only saved us a trip to The Vatican, but managed to bring to New York several exquisite Papal vestments (robes and accessories) that have never before left The Vatican. The workmanship on these pieces is breathtaking. In the hands of the craftsmen each thread comes to life, each object gains dimension.
Embroidered Papal dresses and coats shimmer and glow with unparalleled beauty. You can’t help but think, how is it possible to create something so beautiful with something so simple as a silk thread and a needle? Of course, we’ve all seen exquisite embroidery but trust me when I tell you that this is on a …. “celestial” level.
Unfortunately, by choosing to replace hi-resolution photographs of these gowns with scanned composites, the exhibition catalogue fails to capture the true beauty and dimension of each piece. You’re better off skipping the book and spending more time at the show.
From the Met: “Heavenly Bodies features the work of designers who for the most part were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. While their current relationships to Catholicism vary, most acknowledge its enduring influence on their imaginations. On the surface, this influence is expressed through explicit Catholic imagery and symbolism as well as references to specific garments worn by the clergy and religious orders. On a deeper level, it manifests as a reliance on storytelling, and specifically on metaphor—which the sociologist Andrew Greeley describes as the essential characteristic of a particular sensibility he defines as “the Catholic imagination.”
This exhibition explores how the Catholic imagination has shaped the creativity of designers and how it is conveyed through their narrative impulses. These impulses are reflected in the organization of the exhibition, which unfolds as a series of short stories told through conversations between religious artworks in The Met collection and fashions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Catholic imagination also operates on an experiential level, and, accordingly, the show’s configuration evokes the concept and practice of a pilgrimage.”
The exhibition is on view until October 8, 2018 and if you pay full price admission on your first trip you can use your ticket for the next 3 days to visit the other Met locations!
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