Two weeks before the Met Gala was to fête the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2018 Costume Institute exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, I found myself in the middle of another gallery full of Catholic vestments. But instead of on mannequins, these long robes were worn by real people — priests, nuns, and other members of the Catholic clergy — standing under the Sistine Chapel, shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred other people. I was at the end of a whirlwind vacation through Europe with my mother, and underneath Michelangelo’s 16th century masterpiece, I felt myself on the verge of an anxiety attack.
A crush of people poured into the chapel, accidentally stumbling into each other as they unsuccessfully tried to keep from swaying into other people as they threw their heads backwards in amazement. The rules were explicit: No talking, no photos. But, whispers turned into exclamations turned into a crescendo of noise, and some brazenly flouted their cameras and selfie sticks. We were all here to see for ourselves what the tour guide had described as one of the few “universal beauties” in the world: commanding and awe-inspiring to anyone seeing it, regardless of education, nationality, or religion.
It was a good metaphor for Catholicism’s view of itself — that it is objectively good, magnificent, and splendid, and the source of creativity and inspiration. Originally intending to cover many religions, The Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton (who is also Catholic) told The New York Times in November that he found that the majority of Western designers engaged mostly with Catholicism. Even more narrowly, the exhibit focused nearly entirely on Western Catholicism; there are only three non-European or non-American names within the showcase (of which I was only able to locate one — Japan’s Jun Takahashi of Undercover — with a clutch of dresses printed with imagery from the Garden of Eden. In a day and age when most museums are engaging with the idea of plurality and abundance, the focus on such a small sliver of a religion is certainly a choice, especially when you consider that there are more Catholics living in Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines than in America or any European country. Certainly, the exclusion of everything but the most Roman version of the Catholic church helped in securing over 40 items from the Catholic church’s Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel Sacristy.
But its lack of diversity is not the biggest oversight of Catholic Imagination. I do not believe the central attraction of Catholicism for fashion designers and artistic dressers is something to run toward, but rather something to run from. “The exhibition explores how the Catholic imagination has shaped the creativity of designers and how it is conveyed through the narrative impulses,” the welcome placard reads. And within the exhibit, two dozen designers’ works are repeated to illustrate how they’ve drawn from the types of fundamental Catholic principles to create womenswear.
But it is the rejection of Catholicism — and the ideas of perpetual tradition, rigid hierarchy, and unquestioning duty it’s become to be associated with — that is the stronger font of fashion creativity. For the Met’s purposes, the Catholic imagination refers to sociologist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley’s definition that God’s grace is present in material objects, events, and people. But, to rely on your imagination to envision grace means to not literally see that grace in real life.
Strikingly, the exhibit does not mention some of the most iconic moments in fashion history that overtly use Catholic symbols: The priest’s robe that Madonna dons after simulating masturabation during her Blond Ambition tour, the rosaries and crucifixes that Billy Idol meant to “show what a human rip-off religion is,” or Lady Gaga’s stage costumes that took turned a nun’s habit into a see-through celebration of overt sexuality. These were not celebrations of the status quo, but the skewering of it.
It’s not just pop stars. Just look at how young women consider school uniforms — an invention of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. In Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism, author Sally Dwyer-McNulty argues that uniforms provided women with their experiences of restriction: “Uniforms gave female students, in particular, a taste of the routine and sacrifice that came with religious life.” Girls’ dress codes were designed to be more strict than boys’, because “girls are considered more prone to sins of vanity.” Small acts of subversion — rolling up the waistbands of pleated skirts, untucking blouses, wearing loud socks, adding buttons and pins — help young women assert their individuality, sexuality, and self-worth.
Which brings us to a conflict that the exhibit points to but does not wrestle with: That women have largely been left out of the most imaginative, fashionable parts of Catholicism. “Dress serves to reflect and reinforce divisions based on rank and gender,” reads a placard introducing modern fashion inspired by Catholic male clergy like priests, bishops, and cardinals. In bright purples, reds, and golds, these fashion renditions are further adorned in golden jewellery, sceptres, and crowns. But by contrast, the fashion inspired by its female clergy, nuns, is as joyful as a pebble collection. “Poverty, chastity, and obedience,” reads their characterisation, a stark contrast to the “truth, goodness, and beauty” the Archbishop of New York Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan described as being uniquely Catholic.
Women are asked to rely on their Catholic imaginations, but never given the ability to manifest them. Same goes for those who are not white, male, and Western. Despite the diverse city the Metropolitan Museum of Art claims to serve, the gender that this exhibit of womenswear purports to dress, and the huge diversity among Catholics in the world, those called upon to speak at the press preview on Monday morning were all white men — the CEO of The Met, the CEO of Blackstone, the curator of The Costume Institute, and the Archbishop of New York. The world may have changed, but within this cross-section of the upper echelons of religion, finance, and culture, things don’t appear much different.
Which brings up another worldview that these types of compare-and-contrast, then-and-now-style exhibits tend to promote. That when you see a modern-day Chanel bracelet that is strikingly similar to the 400 AD-era brooch next to it, there is suddenly an erasure of progress. The world has changed, but within these walls, they have not changed much. Though the clothing is beautiful and the fashions resplendent, the story that I left with wasn’t of the glory of the church and the creativity of fashion, but rather that the powerful and wealthy have always been able to create the same dazzling, real things for themselves that the rest of us can only dream of engaging with.
Back in Vatican City, underneath the Sistine chapel that day, pushed around by other tourists we were only staging their own rebellions of etiquette, I felt the weight of this prescribed beauty. It was magnificent. Glorious. Overwhelming. But what made my anxiety turn into awe was when the tour guide turned to me, and whispered to me while pointing up at the panel representing The Last Judgment. Michelangelo, he told me, had painted the figures in the nude, with their genitalia defiantly exposed. It caused a major uproar, and clergy called Michelangelo a pornographer, and his work immoral. After his death, a pupil was tasked with covering up the nudity with fabric and flora, earning the name “Il Braghettone,” or “the pants-maker.” Subsequent restorations kept the “pants” intact.
“But Michelangelo still did it,” the guide winked. “He defied. And that is amazing.”
That fact may not be objectively good, or even obvious when seen against the acres of treasures, gold filigree, and wealth housed within the church’s walls. But it would be the most inspiring thing I would encounter all day.