07 May 2018, The Tablet

'Heavenly Bodies' and the Catholic imagination at the Met Gala tonight

Evening Ensemble by John Galliano for Dior, Autumn-Winter 2005/6

'Heavenly Bodies' and the Catholic imagination at the Met Gala tonight

Rihanna, Amal Clooney and Donatella Versace will tonight host the year's top fashion event in New York, with other celebrities expected to attend including Madonna, Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian, Uma Thurmann, John Legend and Nicki Minaj.

The Met Gala, officially the Costume Institute Gala, a fundraiser for the Met, this year has a Catholic fashion theme in line with the new exhibition at the museum, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. First held in 1948, and now celebrating its 70th anniversary, the ball is chaired by Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue's US edition. With tickets reported to have gone for more than $25,000 and tables for $275,000, it is expected to raise millions of dollars for the Costume Institute. In 2015, it raised more than $12 million.

It includes about 40 pieces from the Sacristy museum at St Peter's, including 12 vestments commissioned by Empress Maria Anna Carolina of Austria for Pope Pius IX, a gold-embroidered silk cape worn by Pope Benedict XV, a mitre worn by Pope Leo XIII, a ring given by Isabella II of Spain to Pope Pius IX, a mantle worn by Pope Benedict XIV and a pair of red shoes worn by Pope Saint John Paul II.

Illustrating through fashion the aesthetic appeal and visual beauty of Catholicism, the exhibition comes at a time when the Church has one of its most popular Popes ever in Francis but is also struggling with the legacy of the scandals around child sex abuse, as well grappling with internal reform around finances in particular. 

This is not the first time the Met Museum has had an exhibition with a Catholic theme. In 1983 its Vatican Collections became one of its most successful ever. Judging by the interest in Heavenly Bodies, this one could be on course to do even better.

Former Tablet editor Catherine Pepinster, author of "The Keys and the Kingdom: the British and the papacy from John Paul to Francis", speaking on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, said the guests might well turn up in dresses and suits influenced by the style of priests’ vestments, with jewellery referencing rosary beads.

"The exhibition explores the impact of devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism on designers, especially those brought up in it. Catholicism is certainly a very visual version of Christianity, deliberately so, for it emerged at a time when most people were illiterate and often too poor to go on pilgrimage. Instead they learnt about Christianity not only through hearing the Gospels read but through statues, stained glass, and frescoes," she said.

"The Catholic imagination then, does not just see God in creation but in what humanity also creates. It sees God in all things, in every day, rather than as a divine being ignored until Sunday. Or, as some people have said of Catholic faith, it is a seamless robe, a belief that should impact on every part of life. That’s certainly a metaphor that should make sense to fashion designers."

Heavenly Bodies


Evening ensemble, John Galliano for Dior, autumn-winter 2000/2001 

Heavenly Bodies

Wedding ensemble, Balenciaga, 1967

Heavenly Bodies

Lumière evening ensemble, Jean Paul Gaultier, spring-summer 2007

Heavenly Bodies

Wedding ensemble, Christian Lacroix, autumn-winter 2009/10




Pix: Images from Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Top pic: Evening Ensemble, John Galliano for Dior, Autumn-Winter 2005/6

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