Back in November of 2017, Vogue announced a surprising theme for the annual Met Gala: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Naturally, the ears of Catholics everywhere perked up, followed by a twinge of skepticism.
But first things first, if you haven’t heard of the Met Gala, it’s the annual fundraising gala that benefits the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City.
It’s essentially the Super Bowl of the fashion world, complete with an extravagant red carpet full of couture gowns worn by pop culture’s most prominent figures.
You may recall photos of the massive yellow train on Rihanna’s 2015 gala gown. The gala party serves as a kickoff to the Costume Institute’s annual exhibit, in which they display the chosen theme of the year through couture garments for roughly six months at the Metropolitan Museum.
This year, the event is hosted by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and co-hosted with Donatella Versace, Amal Clooney, and Rihanna.
The theme is said to been designed to create “a dialogue between fashion and the masterworks of religious art in the museum’s holdings,” — focusing on papal garb which will be on loan from the Sistine Chapel sacristy. In fact, the Vatican is loaning 40 ecclesiastical pieces including a papal tiara which is said to be worn by Pope Benedict XIV in the 1600s.
This isn’t the first time the fashion industry has been influenced by the ornateness of clerical garb; numerous designers like Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior, Christopher Kane, and Versace will also be contributing Catholic-influenced couture pieces to the exhibit.
As Catholics, we know that influence can quickly turn offensive and the line between art and blasphemy is distinct. From Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” to Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” and Nicki Minaj’s “papal” red carpet date, Catholics are (unfortunately) very used to celebrities crossing the line of influence into offensiveness.
But what about couture fashion, which has always been regarded as artwork rather than typical, everyday items for clothing? Did Dior cross the line in 2000 when the show opened with a model dressed as a pope and incense thurible? Or Alexander McQueen’s fiery Joan of Arc influenced collection in 1998? Or perhaps Versace’s recent 2018 show that displayed pants covered in icons of Mary?
Head Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, addressed the elephant in the room: “Some might consider fashion to be an unfitting or unseemly medium by which to engage with ideas about the sacred or the divine. But dress is central to any discussion about religion. It affirms religious allegiances and, by extension, it asserts religious differences.”
Anna Wintour similarly addressed the apparent disparity: “Part of the power of the church has been how they look, and how they dress. They have this extraordinary presence.”
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, recently met with Anna Wintour and Donatella Versace in Rome, Italy. He addressed the crowd at Palazzo Colonna, stating, “God himself was concerned with dressing his creatures,” further explaining that clothing is not just a material necessity, but a deeply spiritual act.
With a nod of approval from the Vatican, surely the key will be in the respectful intentionality of those organizing the exhibit and the celebrities dressing to match the theme at the Gala. The overall response from everyday Catholics is not one of vehement disapproval, but one of caution and an openness to being proven wrong.