Press Preview for “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”

Thierry Mugler Collection Autumn/Winter 1984-1985
Photo: Marilyn Kirschner
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Oy Vey! What’s a nice Jewish girl like me, doing in a place like this?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist, having attended this morning’s press preview for “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” (others in attendance were Anna Wintour, Donatella Versace, Caroline Kennedy, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, Thom Browne, Hamish Bowles). Of course, Steven Schwarzman, who has underwritten the exhibition along with Versace with support from Conde Nast, is also Jewish. His wife, Christine, is Catholic, which also explains why, in the words of a friend, Jimmy Lee, “Mr. Schwarzman has given more money to the archdiocese than any Jew in New York.”

Heavenly Bodies Cloisters 2018
Photo: Randy Brooke

The exhibition, which opens on May 10th and runs through October 8th, is a dialogue between fashion and medieval art seeks to examine the impact Catholic imagery has had on fashion designers creative process; the way the Catholic Church has served as an inspiration to designers through the centuries. To get myself in the mood, I put on a few dabs of Comme des Garcons Series 3 Incense Avignon. It was perfect given the church like ambiance throughout the galleries, down to the fabulous stained glass windows. I must say, I felt right at home.

John Galliano for Dior Autumn/Winter 2006
Photo: Laurel Marcus

I consider myself to be an ‘honorary’ Catholic since I majored in art history in college (with a particular interest in Byzantine, Medieval, and Renaissance art) AND am an avowed Italophile. So, this exhibit, with its display of fashions from the early twentieth century to the present, shown in the Byzantine and medieval galleries, (part of the Robert Lehman Wing, and at The Met Cloisters), is right up my alley. As are clothes that are modest and covered up rather than bare and sexy. I happen to love the formal correctness (and severity) of clerical garments.

Christian Lacroix ensemble autumn winter 1988-89
Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

FYI, Daniel Weiss, President, and CEO, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a fellow graduate of The George Washington University where he also majored in art history (I graduated a little before him). He made welcoming comments during a press conference held at the Temple of Dendur along with His Eminence Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, Stephen A. Schwarzman, Chairman, CEO and Founder of Blackstone, and Andrew Bolton, who title is Wendy Yu Curator in Charge, The Costume Institute. Here are some highlights:

Heavenly Bodies Cloisters_Gaultier Couture spring/summer 2007
Photo: Randy Brooke

Cardinal Dolan: “You may be asking, what’s the church doing here?  Why is the Church part of this? You might be asking what the Archbishop of New York is doing here. I asked that when first invited some months ago. But think about it. It’s because the church and the Catholic imagination, the theme of the exhibit, are all about three things: truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why we are into things such as art, music, poetry, liturgy, and yes, even fashion. To thank God for the gift of beauty; I guess that’s why Christine and Stephen Schwarzman (who are so generous), and I are here. Because of the truth, the good and the beautiful. In the Catholic imagination, the true, the good and the beautiful are so personal, so real that they have a name: Jesus Christ. In the Catholic imagination, the truth, goodness, and beauty of God are reflected all over the place. Even in fashion. The world is shot through with his glory and his presence. That is why I am here. That is why the Church is here. So I want to thank the Metropolitan Museum of Art for arranging this radiant exhibition. Thanks, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Bolton, Anna Wintour and Stephen and Christine Schwarzman for your leadership and I thank the head office, the Vatican, for its historical cooperation. I am honored to be here”.

Stephen Schwarzman: “There are two reasons we are here. We are proud to support what is the greatest museum in the world. While my wife Christine is the Catholic in the family, we have both found inspiration in the work of His Holiness, Pope Francis as well as his Eminence Cardinal Dolan here in New York. We are thrilled to help share the beauty of the Vatican with a global audience through this exhibition. We are also so grateful to the Vatican for their generous loans to the exhibition featuring such rare and beautiful pieces from its private collection. This brings me to the second reason. Our fascination with and respect for the influence of fashion and its history. Christine is obviously more the expert, but we both have the pleasure of familiarizing ourselves with the house of Versace which has been a dominant creative force in the fashion world for decades. In 2014, my company Blackstone joined forces with Versace making a significant investment. It’s been a privilege to work with Donatella, a unique icon in the fashion world and she graciously joined us in supporting this project. And we are honored to see both Donatella and brother Gianni’s designs included among the truly spectacular works in this unprecedented exhibition. We see this exhibition as a way to show the world the complex ongoing dialogue between religion and fashion. This show is a monumental endeavor and we are proud to play a role and congratulations to all who are part of it. We hope people around the world, from all walks of life and all systems of belief, will be inspired by it”.

Andrew Bolton: “ ‘The Pope Wears Prada.’ That was the headline for an article in Newsweek in November 2005, described Benedict the sixteenth’s sartorial predilections. The article went on to assert: ‘He may never make the best-dressed lists, but Pope Benedict the sixteenth is nothing short of a religious fashion icon, riding in the Popemobile and wearing red Prada loafers and Gucci shades.’ Two years later, the pontiff did appear on a best-dressed list- Esquire named him ‘Accessorizer of the Year’ on account of his red shoes they were not really Prada but were made by a cobbler from Novara in Northern Italy. They belong to a papal tradition that dates back centuries. The writer of the article raised deeper and more profound considerations, namely, the role that dress plays within the Catholic Church; and the role that the Catholic Church represents within the fashionable imagination.

These subjects form the basis of this exhibition, the collaboration between The Costume Institute and The Department of Medieval Art. Costumes are situated alongside religious artworks to provide an interpretive context for fashion’s engagement with Catholicism. Spanning 25 galleries and 60,000 square feet, its organization is intended to evoke the concept and the experience of a religious pilgrimage.

Most designers featured in the exhibition are raised Catholic. While many of them no longer practice and their relationship to Catholics may vary, most acknowledge its significant influence over their imaginations.

According to Father Andrew Greeley, a metaphor is the essential characteristic of a distinctly Catholic sensibility that he defines as the Catholic imagination. In his book of the same title, Greely asserts: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But this Catholic paraphernalia is mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.” Greeley’s observations reverberate through this exhibition which unfolds as a series of short stories told through a succession of conversations between fashion and religious artworks. Ostensibly, these stories explore how designers have engaged with Catholic symbolism and iconography.

In ‘Heavenly Bodies’ it’s the narrative impulses of the designers that are the deepest and most profound expressions of their Catholic imaginations. While the fashions that are featured might seem far-removed from the sanctity of the Catholic Church, they shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, for they embody the storytelling traditions of Catholicism. Taken together, the fashions and the artworks in “Heavenly Bodies” sing in unison with enchanted and enchanting voices.”

Designs by Thom Browne and Dolce & Gabbana
Photo: Laurel Marcus

Among the designers whose works are featured: Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Rodarte, Viktor & Rolf, Givenchy, Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Valentino, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Versace, and Thom Browne who is, of course, Andrew Bolton’s partner. Mr. Browne, a middle child of seven from a strict Roman Catholic household, has been continually influenced by his religious upbringing and in February 2014, he staged his fall ready-to-wear show in a Chelsea art gallery which transformed into a gigantic church. Andrew is also Catholic (he was Jesuit schooled), so the subject of this exhibition should probably not be too surprising. While he first proposed his idea to the Vatican in 2015,  he had been thinking about doing this exhibition for much longer.

Heavenly Bodies Cloisters House of Dior by Galliano couture spring/summer 2006
Photo: Randy Brooke

When news first broke about the subject of this upcoming Costume Institute exhibit, WWD had reported that the theme would be “the relationship between designers, devotion, and divinity.” It was to include the major world religions. Andrew Bolton explained that it was changed it to Catholicism this past June when it was apparent there was not enough fashion-related material with regards to the other religions.

Heavenly Bodies Cloisters
Photo: Randy Brooke

Indeed, it was hard not to notice how ornate much of it was. There is so much embellishment, and so much gold, I assume tonight’s Met Gala’s red carpet, with the dress code as “Sunday best” will resemble Fort Knox! Notwithstanding Pope Francis’s predilection for dressing down and his favoring of simple clothes, some popes have been known for their more ornate vestments (Mr. Bolton referred to Pope Pius ix as “quite the dandy”).

Among the 40 papal robes and accessories on view, none of which have ever been outside of the Vatican, are a towering ovoid tiara given from Queen Isabella of Spain to Pope Paul Pius ix. And a papal tiara with 19,000 precious stones, including 18,000 diamonds which flew to New York with its bodyguard.

– by Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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