– By Natasha Doran –
Every year, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a Gala to fund the museum’s fashion exhibit. Invited guests donate money for their tickets (starting at around $30,000) to be the first to see that year’s exhibit before it opens to the public. The exhibit showcases the work of famous and up-and-coming fashion designers alongside the objects of their inspiration joined together in a theme. This year the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” was chosen as an artistic interpretation of the incredible influence Catholic culture, beliefs, and art has on society and fashion.
In comment on this theme, the Metropolitan Museum of Art released the following statement on social media: “#MetHeavenlyBodies features a dialogue between fashion and masterworks of medieval art in The Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.”
Andrew Bolton, the museum curator, began the process of seeking permission to display pieces from the Vatican’s collection back in 2015, with the pieces coming from the Sistine Chapel sacristy Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, as opposed to the Vatican Museums, since some of the garments on display are still in use. The borrowed garments were separated from the fashion pieces in the exhibit, out of respect. Bolton consulted several Catholic authorities, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, to tour the exhibit before the Gala to see if any of the garments on display were controversial, and no pieces were removed. “It’s because the Church and the Catholic imagination—the theme of this exhibit—are all about three things: truth, goodness and beauty. That’s why we’re into things such as art, culture, music, literature and, yes, even fashion,” says Cardinal Dolan.
At the Gala, attending fashion brands and designers use this opportunity to create pieces for celebrities to wear and it is common for the outfits to reflect the theme of the year (this year’s dress code was advertised as “your Sunday best”). Designers seek to push boundaries to gain public recognition, with a several outfits this year crossing the line and becoming offensive. These outfits were not interpretations but recognizable as religious clothing – except with plunging necklines and hip-high slits in the skirts. It is common knowledge that priests, monks, friars, and nuns make a vow of chastity and these several outfits were in bad taste, mocking Catholic “prudishness” and “sexual frustration”. Additional outfits included specific clerical items, such as stoles, chasubles, and miters, which are reserved for ordained male deacon, priests, and bishops, not for celebrity wear, and especially not women. This crossed the line of artistic expression into appropriation of items that are supposed to be held with reverence.
The outfits worn by the attendees of the Gala were not screened or preapproved by the museum and, honestly, it was to be expected that there would be designers exploiting this opportunity. There is no denying that there were some openly offensive outfits but considering the hundreds of outfits worn by attendees, most were done in good taste, with some being not only beautiful, but incredibly respectful interpretations of the beauty in Catholic art.
I say this not to try and justify the few bad eggs, but painting the whole event as “blasphemy” loses the point of the exhibition. Secular artists cannot help but admit that the beauty and excellence of Catholic art withstands the test of time and has influenced all forms of artistic expression. Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “The test of the artist does not lie in the will with which he goes to work, but in the excellence of the work he produces.” The Gala event is one day, but this whole year people will be able to attend the exhibit in New York and see how Catholic culture, tradition, and teaching inspires the fashion muses of today.
About the Author
Natasha Doran is a costume designer with a special interest in historical fashion. She earned a BS in Communications Media from JPCatholic in 2016.