The Costume Institute Takes On Catholicism

The Costume Institute Takes On Catholicism


The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is stepping into the religious fray.

The title of the department’s blockbuster 2018 fashion exhibition will be “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Stretching across three galleries — the Anna Wintour Costume Center, the medieval rooms in the Met on Fifth Avenue and the Cloisters — and approximately 58,600 square feet, it will feature 50 or so ecclesiastical garments and accessories on loan from the Vatican, multiple works from the Met’s own collection of religious art and 150 designer garments that have been inspired by Catholic iconography or style.

These range from the obvious (Versace and Dolce & Gabbana icons) to the more unexpected (a Chanel wedding gown inspired by a communion dress, Valentino couture gowns inspired by Francisco di Zurbarán’s paintings of monk’s robes). It will be the department’s largest show to date. It may also be the most provocative. And not just because of all the eye-rolling wordplay the title invites.

“Every show we do at the Costume Institute has that potential,” said Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge. “This one perhaps more than any other. But the focus is on a shared hypothesis about what we call the Catholic imagination and the way it has engaged artists and designers and shaped their approach to creativity, as opposed to any kind of theology or sociology. Beauty has often been a bridge between believers and unbelievers.”

Left: Follower of Lippo Memmi, Saint Peter, mid–14th-century. Right: Elsa Schiaparelli evening dress, summer 1939.CreditMetropolitan Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art/digital composite by Katerina Jebb

So a Balenciaga one-seam wedding dress will be displayed in a chapel in the Cloisters dominated by an enormous crucifix; a Dolce & Gabbana mosaic piece from fall 2013, inspired by mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily, will be set against the Byzantine mosaics of the Met’s collection. The point is to connect the dots between material expression and sourcing.

Yet juxtaposing the sacred and the profane at this particular moment in time, when the Catholic church is rived with internal disputes between conservatives and liberals, and religion around the world is being weaponized and politicized, is a risky move. Especially in a city that is home to a significant Catholic population. Especially at a museum that recently underwent its own kind of crisis of faith, after the former director Thomas P. Campbell resigned under pressure in February for not being able to control a ballooning budget deficit, and his president, Daniel H. Weiss, was promoted to president and chief executive — the next director answerable to him. No matter how nuanced the actual curation, it could easily devolve into a popular cause célèbre.

You have to wonder: What will those who hew to a more conservative, absolutist line think?

Or, for that matter, other supporters of the pope, who has overtly rejected the sumptuous trappings and, indeed, fetishization of clothing within the church in favor of a simpler, humbler lifestyle? In many ways the Met itself, the imposing Beaux-Arts palace with its sweeping stair, as well as very high-end fashion — not to mention the Met Gala, the opening night party for the Costume Institute’s exhibition, which is famous both for being impossible to get into and for the amount of money it raises — stands for everything he has turned away from.

“We have confidence that the exhibition will inspire understanding, creativity and, along the way, constructive dialogue, which is precisely a museum’s role in our civil society,” Mr. Weiss said.

Left: Byzantine processional cross, ca. 1000-1050. Right: Gianni Versace evening dress, fall 1997–98.CreditMetropolitan Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art/digital composite by Katerina Jebb

“We know it could be controversial for right wing or conservative Catholics and for liberal Catholics,” said Mr. Bolton, who noted he had consulted with representatives from different Catholic groups, including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, to identify garments that could be incendiary. “There will always be viewers who want to reduce it to a political polemic.” But Mr. Bolton said he had not removed a single garment from the exhibition because it had been flagged as a potential lightning rod.

Still, the show may be the biggest gamble of Mr. Bolton’s career, and an early test for Mr. Weiss. And it is increasingly characteristic of Mr. Bolton’s tenure at the Costume Institute, where he seems to be pushing the department into the popular conversation. (By contrast his predecessor, Harold Koda, tended to more traditional shows like “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.”)

“It’s important to have ideas that are a reflection of contemporary interests,” Mr. Bolton said. “That strike a chord or are synergistic with the collective consciousness.”

Mr. Bolton had been thinking about doing a show on the connections between fashion and religion for years — since “the culture wars of the 1980s,” he said — but only became serious about it at the Met around two years ago. At that point, he had conceived it as an examination of the five world religions represented in the museum’s collections (Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam).

Left: Fragment of a Floor Mosaic with a Personification of Ktisis, Byzantine, 500-550, with modern restoration, marble and glass. Right: Ensemble, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana for Dolce & Gabbana, fall 2013–14.CreditMetropolitan Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art/digital composite by Katerina Jebb

But after the designer Rei Kawakubo announced that she was ready for her retrospective last year, he postponed the project, and later decided to more narrowly define his topic, in part because he found that the majority of Western designers (and there are only three non-European or American-based names in the exhibition) were engaged in a dialogue with Catholicism. Perhaps because, as Mr. Bolton noted, so many Western designers were raised Catholic, including Elsa Schiaparelli, John Galliano, Riccardo Tisci, Christian Lacroix, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Norman Norell, Thom Browne and Roberto Capucci, among others. (Mr. Bolton is also Catholic.)

He began conversations with the Vatican in 2015; the loan came from the Sistine Chapel sacristy Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, as opposed to the Vatican Museums, since it involves garments still in active use. (They date from the mid-18th-century to the papacy of John Paul II.) Mr. Bolton said the church was immediately receptive to the idea of working together, though he had to make eight visits to Rome to discuss the show. And because of concerns about display and security, the loan contract was not signed until last week.

Asked if he had met the pope or knew whether he had approved the show, Mr. Bolton said he had had no contact with him, and did not have any idea if he was involved.

Greg Burke, the director of the Holy See press office, said: “The Roman Catholic Church has been producing and promoting beautiful works of art for centuries. Most people have experienced that through religious paintings and architecture. This is another way of sharing some of that beauty that rarely gets seen.”

The Vatican garments will be separated from the rest of the fashion in the exhibition, out of respect for the fact that they are still working garments and, presumably, to defray criticisms that could incur if a visitor were to see, for example, a sacristy robe next to a Jean Paul Gaultier dress with a chalice embroidered over the breasts.

Less has been done, seemingly, to defray the idea that Mr. Bolton’s definition of “fashion” is definitively Western. Save Isabel Toledo, who is Cuban-American, there are no South American or Latin American designers in the show, for example, though it is hard to imagine that no one else from that continent engaged with Catholic iconography. Challenged on the subject, he said he hoped to expand his purview in a future exhibition.

In any case, Mr. Bolton has been here before: In 2015, his show, “China Through the Looking Glass,” became the fifth-most-visited exhibition, despite accusations of skating over the surface of the issues it raised, underscoring for him the importance of tapping into the broader conversation. He followed it up with “Manus x Machina,” which examined the role of technology in fashion (and which became the Met’s seventh-most-visited show); and then “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” the Costume Institute’s first retrospective of a living designer since 1983. Though it was widely praised, Ms. Kawakubo is a less obviously buzzy choice, and the show and the attendance were smaller.

Which may partly explain why the museum decided to roll the dice with this show. The last time this many Vatican garments made their way across the ocean, in 1983 for “The Vatican Collections,” the exhibition became the third-most-visited in museum history, with 896,743 attendees.

Left: Manuscript leaf with scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, circa 1320-42. Right: Madame Grès evening dress, 1969.CreditMetropolitan Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art/digital composite by Katerina Jebb

“Heavenly Bodies” is being sponsored by Versace, which makes sense given the brand’s incorporation of Catholic iconography into its vernacular, as well as by Christine and Stephen A. Schwarzman (and also, as usual, by Condé Nast). Mr. Schwarzman is chairman of Blackstone, the private equity group that bought 20 percent of Versace in 2014.

Two years ago, Mr. Schwarzman and his wife donated $40 million to the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, an initiative from the archdiocese of New York to provide financial support for underprivileged children attending Catholic schools. The former J.P. Morgan banker Jimmy Lee once told The New Yorker that Mr. Schwarzman had raised more money for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York than any other Jew.

Mr. and Mrs. Schwarzman will be honorary chairs of the opening night gala, along with Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and a museum trustee; Ms. Versace; Amal Clooney; and Rihanna. The last two are not exactly known for their religious bent, unlike pop stars who have made their Catholicism a subtext of their work and look, like Lady Gaga and Madonna, though they are both recognized for their fashion influence. (Rihanna is, by the by, a star of “Ocean’s 8,” the coming movie with a heist scene that takes place at the Met Gala.)

An invitation will be extended to Cardinal Dolan. Everyone is hoping he will attend.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article misstated a former title of Daniel H. Weiss, now president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Thomas P. Campbell resigned as the museum’s director in February, Mr. Weiss was its president, not its chief financial officer.

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