"The Pope wears Prada," began head Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton on Monday as he delivered his remarks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The reference is from an old Newsweek headline that drew attention to the cherry red loafers Pope Benedict XVI became known for (in addition to a pair of Gucci shades) and painted him as Catholicism's premier fashion icon. It was a cheeky transition into the point of this year's Met Gala theme: how fashion and religion are connected.
Ahead of tonight's event, the 66-year old British curator had his work cut out for him. For years, the museum has revived the works of artists like Elsa Schiaparelli, Alexander McQueen, Paul Poiret, and more, and enlightened our interpretations of brands whose legacies may have lost their founders but never their appeal. If Anna Wintour is the right arm of the annual event (the museum's president Daniel H. Weiss being the left), it's Bolton who is the brain behind the operation.
For those who are invested in The Met's biggest show beyond what celebrities wear, here's what makes the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination expo so intriguing: The fact that it's the museum's largest fashion exhibition to date is half the story — that they pulled it off without getting political speaks volumes. ("No comment" is a comment, after all.)
But this year's Heavenly Bodies expo is its own separation of church and state. The show is split into two parts, between the Met Cloisters and the museum on Fifth Avenue, with most of the fashion representing monastic orders and sacraments on display at the medieval Upper Manhattan structure, and the liturgical and papal vestments from the Vatican being shown in the Anna Wintor Costume Center, the Medieval and Byzantine Art area, and the Robert Lehman Wing of the main museum. The Vatican's only request was that the 40-odd pieces they loaned were displayed separately from the fashion. It's here where Bolton found his hook: to hype up the imagination of Catholicism without using fashion to interpret all parts of the controversial religion, such as secrecy, rebellion, sexuality, and more.
"Fundamentally, the show is about beauty and creativity. As a curator, you're always fascinated by what propels an artist's vision but I never thought it was religion," Bolton tells Refinery29. "There are other factors that you'd think would do that, like identity, but I never really thought it'd be religion that'd generate one's creative impulses. The designers who are in the show grew up Catholic, so they have a very particular way of looking at the world and fashion." For those wondering where the darker sides to the exhibition are located, they'll be foiled to find that the point of this year's exhibit is less of a look at how fashion can smash its own mirrors, so to speak, but, as Bolton claims, to tell a story.
"The show is about storytelling," he begins, when asked if the current era that fashion is in — its pursuit of truth, its weakening connection to the real world, its identity crisis — will ever be reflected in the Costume Institute's halls. "As we know, there is a great amount of storytelling happening in the world. But this storytelling is actually based on something beautiful, honest, and truthful. Hopefully that's something people will take away from it."
Bolton adds that it's exhibitions like the ones at The Met that preserve fashion's history, and that as a curator, the possibility of reverting back to culture wars, circa 1980s, is a terrifying thought that, given the current administration, could soon be reality. If the past informs the present and the present enlightens the past, as Bolton believes, that makes the Met Gala the ultimate platform for proving that fashion, from any decade, holds contemporary relevance. So when it comes to the cataloguing and documentation of fashion nothing can touch the Met Gala's annual exhibition — especially not politics.
Where this year's Heavenly Bodies lacks in context, it certainly — with theatrical know-how and the support of the Catholic Church — makes up for in beauty. So, perhaps Bolton's story isn't finished.