Rihanna wears a daring Margiela ensemble
Rihanna wears a daring Margiela ensemble
Image: Getty

By and large, the world erroneously regards the annual Met Gala, which took place on Monday this week, as an isolated, autonomous evening of celebrity-driven spectacle. But while it’s unquestionably satisfying for us to survey Hollywood luminaries performing the duties of mannequins, this celebrated fete has gradually effaced the fact that the Met Gala is only a premiere: an opening ceremony that anticipates the launch of a meticulously curated exhibition, yearly orchestrated by the Met’s oft-slighted Costume Institute.

This year, Catholic-raised Lancashire native Andrew Bolton – the Costume Institute’s Curator-in-Chief – has successfully staged the Institute’s largest exhibition to date. “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is a complex visual narrative that describes the influence of Catholic imagery and infrastructure on designers’ aesthetic signatures.

The exhibition – which is divided across the Met’s famous 5th Avenue location and a converted monastery space (aptly) known as ‘the Cloisters’ –  places a selection of clothing and costume alongside artworks from the Met’s medieval and Byzantine collections. Additionally, Bolton has managed to procure more than 50 items from the Vatican’s collection of masterworks, most of which have never before been seen outside of their papal domain. As the lines between the secular and the sacred vestments begin to blur, the scope of Catholicism’s contribution to fashion emerges in clear relief.

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On the one hand, the collection is a sincere tribute to the “Catholic imagination” in its capacity as a fount of inspiration for designers such as Galliano and Versace, both of whom feature in the exhibition in the section that explores the impact of Byzantine mosaic on fashion. This element of the exhibition bespeaks the ongoing significance of the ornate, gilded facet of Catholicism; in many instances, contemporary fashion has appropriated the trappings of surplus and splendor that are endemic to Catholic ritualism, and which bespeak God’s boundless power. Another element explores the converse, the creative influence of the severe, self-effacing uniforms associated with monastic orders, and which actor/director Greta Gerwig’s conventual The Row gown in some ways exemplified.

On the other hand, though, there is something decidedly subversive about Bolton’s tour de force, in spite of the fact that the exhibition has clearly been endorsed by the Vatican. By placing religious paraphernalia in the superficial, materialistic context of the fashion industry, the curators have effectively destabilized their sacrosanctity.

Like Rihanna’s daring Margiela ensemble, the exhibition subtly invites spectators to critique the seemingly inviolable theatricality of Catholic ritualism, to which costume has always been integral, and which paradoxically translates divine omnipotence into the earthly language of scintillating opulence. Accordingly, one is compelled not only to consider religious vestments as the progenitors of couture, but also to construe items of couture in terms of religious vestments, in an age in which we worship acquisition and idealize wealth.

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