The Met’s new fashion exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, opens this week. I haven’t been this excited about a Met exhibition since the Alexander McQueen show in 2011, which makes sense given I love both themes for the same reason: decadence. This year’s show is an exploration of the Catholic influence on fashion. Over 40 objects from the Sistine Chapel sacristy are on display along with the clothing they’ve inspired, made by designers like John Galliano, Dolce and Gabbana, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent.
Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to historical artifacts that represent power and status — at first because they were the sparkliest, and now because I like learning the anthropological significance of it all — like why royals wear purple, for instance. (Because it used to be the most expensive dye color.) I grew up in Ireland, land of Guinness, very green grass and extreme Catholic revery. I also grew up in a family of architects, so every vacation was a thinly veiled excuse for a pilgrimage to examine the details of 16th-century cathedrals and liturgical design. My unconscionably expensive taste was bred in the wombs of gilded domes with their marble statues. So exploring the overlap between fashion and the Catholic imagination by way of an art exhibit is thrilling to me.
Whether or not you agree with the ideology of the Catholic church, the impact it’s had on the worlds of art and fashion is undeniable. Heavenly Bodies is a historical exploration of how dressing and spirituality collide. In the exhibition overview, a quote stood out to me: “While the fashions that comprise this journey might seem fanciful, they should not be dismissed lightly, for they not only embody the imaginative tradition of Catholicism but also exemplify its propensities for storytelling.”
According to Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, “The majority of the designers featured in Heavenly Bodies were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. While many of them no longer practice Catholicism and their relationships to it vary considerably, most acknowledge its significant influence over their imaginations.” Consider the rather explicit example of the “pope” that John Galliano sent down his Fall 2000 runway for Dior. To me, that wasn’t imitation so much as an attempt to understand something through his creative medium. The point, of course, isn’t wearability (though I’d definitely don that whole look, including the thurible), it’s inspiration and exploration.
That being said, I’m here to see how I can fit gilded magnificence into my daily life, so I’ve styled four looks below inspired by the Heavenly Bodies exhibit.
1. All White (Almost)
According to Andrew Bolton, the pope’s red shoes signify Christ’s blood, Catholic martyrs and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Heavy imagery.
If you are not the pope, red shoes add an ornamental element to a monochromatic look. The Pope’s cassock is his everyday uniform. I too, could wear this white dress every day because it’s wildly comfortable. When worn over pants, the outfit becomes much more considered.
2. All Red (Almost)
It’s the perfect outfit for a dinner party — especially one where marinara is being served.
3. Floral Brocade Pants
The brocade pants are a tribute to the ornate nature of the Heavenly Bodies exhibit. Couture construction that’s heavy with gold, metal and intricate detailing is beautiful…and super expensive. Brocade pants are fancy but more affordable by comparison!
4. A Long Black Slip
Last but not least, this look is very Renaissance faire, and I like it. Gold and pearls will make many appearances at the Met show, adorning everything from crosses to reliquaries to this tiara of Pius IX.
Photos by Chloé Horseman.