Type ‘heavenly bodies’ into Google, and the first result is in fact a bridal shop in Beckenham. Which led us to think, is there a better analogy for the MET’s latest exhibition, ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imaginiation’ than this slightly sad looking matrimonial outpost in suburban south London? Almost certainly, but bear with us. Because just as in Beckenham, on the border of Croydon and Bromley, people indulge in fantasy, status and belief in a love that cannot be proven, so too does the Catholic Church specialise as gatekeepers of fantasy, celebrating a similar, unprovable belief with flamboyant and beautiful clothing that also denotes a kind of status. And while in Beckenham, people crave an escape from the monotony of their surroundings (sorry Beckenham), even if for one day in a puffy dress, so too does the Catholic Church seek a higher ground with garments that are believed to hold divine properties in special rites of passage. Freaky coincidence, non?
Welcome then, to the largest MET exhibition ever put together. Beginning at The Met Fifth Avenue, continuing in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre and culminating at The Met Cloisters, the show is a pilgrimage in itself. Comprising 150 garments, including 40 shipped over from the Vatican’s own collection and papal accessories spanning 15 reigns, it’s an epic exploration of the shared space between clothing and religion. Considering this relationship was described by curator Andrew Bolton as one of “underlying nervousness”, the exhibition shows little cause for concern. It is instead a celebration of beauty and cross pollinating influence. From haute relics christened in the Cathedrals of couture; Chanel, Versace, Balenciaga, Alaïa, Galliano et al. to the contemporary silhouettes of Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh, and Craig Green, the exhibition traces an ever changing influence from religion. Featuring the works of designers brought up within the Catholic church, the religious iconography and liturgical references throughout their designs are presented as the basis of their creativity and a testament to the enduring influence of a Catholic upbringing.
On one papal vestment for example, a gold embellished crucifix resembles the Body of Christ, while on another from Versace, its meaning seems less obvious. The show forces us to consider that they are in fact cut from the same metaphorical cloth. They are both expressions of beauty and opulence – transportive garments that belong to the same narrative of Catholic imagination, where, in the words of sociologist Andrew Greeley, “Catholics see the Holy lurking in creation”. Regardless of meaning or function, they share a common pursuit of beauty and enchantment that transcends the gap between believer and non-believer. Beyond the ‘underlying nervousness’ that accompanies any conversation on religion, there is a wealth of skill, creativity and story telling that deserves to be celebrated, and this exhibition is the perfect stage.
‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imaginiation’ is on at the MET Museum from May 10th to October 8th 2018