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Why Catholics should see the Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies’ exhibition

The Ensemble Autumn/Winter dress by Mugler is exhibited during the Press Preview for the annual fashion exhibition "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" at The Metropolitan Museum of art on May 7, 2018 in New York (KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Heavenly Bodies exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York still has a few weeks to run, and I was lucky enough to catch up with it last week. While I appreciate that American Catholics have a good deal to think about at present, the exhibition, subtitled ‘Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’, represents an interesting phenomenon.

Forget, for a moment, if you can, the Met Gala, the huge party where Manhattan’s great and good, and a few out-of-place clergy, converged on the Met to mark the beginning of the exhibition. That was a distraction. The exhibition itself is a rather more serious venture.

It is divided into three sections, spread over three areas of the vast museum. First of all, in the medieval and Byzantine galleries, there are a few dresses on display which are, the curators hope, ‘in conversation’ with the pieces of art around them. This of itself is rather a good idea: after all, the whole point of a museum is to collect objects that can be compared and contrasted with each other under the same roof.

I myself am not knowledgeable about haute couture, so it was hard for me to discern the connection between, for example, a dress by the Fendi sisters, and the wonderful medieval sculptures a few feet away. But I could appreciate the way the curators had aimed to create atmosphere.

The lighting was dim, and hidden speakers were pumping out rhythmic music by Michael Nyman. At least one visitor to whom I spoke, who works in the fashion industry, told me that she was ‘blown away’ by the combination of setting, lighting, music and exhibits. That is something that I could understand: fashion is essentially drama, and its backdrop, and indeed its backstory, contributes to its impact.

The second part of the show is downstairs in the Met in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre, where one is treated to a small display of things from the papal sacristies in Rome, including three or four Papal Tiaras, worn by the Blessed Pius IX and Leo XIII.

These are wonderful objects, as were the vestments, and the jewelled morses. They were accompanied by a recording of the anthem ‘Tu es Petrus’. The tiaras were a special treat, though the mainly nineteenth-century vestments were not any more impressive than many I have seen on display in Malta, for example, or the recent Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on opus anglicanum. These articles were seen on their own, and, curiously, there was very little explanation of their liturgical function; meanwhile, at some distance away, in the Cloisters, at the top of Manhattan, more haute couture dresses were being displayed against a medieval backdrop, with more Michael Nyman, as well as that famous aria from Catalani’s opera ‘La Wally’, and some cunning lighting.

In the end, this exhibition was one for the fashionistas. If you really love John Galliano, for example, then this was for you. But there was a sliver in it that might appeal to the wider less fashion-conscious public, and that was this: on the face of it there is little to relate the way modern women dress to matters of faith. And yet, and yet…. If we try to exclude religion from fashion, on the surely reasonable-seeming grounds that religion and fashion are unrelated, fashion would be impoverished.

Religion permeates culture and that even affects the way we dress. While our clothes may not tell us very much about religion (at least not in the West), they still should alert us to the folly and futility of trying to exclude religious references from contemporary culture. Fashion is secular, but there is no culturally rich secularity without religion.

It might be pushing it to point out that it was atheists who invented the hideous Mao suit, or that people in New York should be grateful for the way Catholics have always emphasised the way beauty is to be cultivated (which is not something common to all religions).

The Met should be applauded for its belief that religion influences art, all arts, including the ones that seem on the face of it to have nothing to do with religion; and that this influence has been positive for the most part. Religion is in the air we breathe as well as the clothes we wear.

In addition, the Vatican certainly made the right decision in lending those tiaras, which ought to be seen in public far more often than they are at present, and perhaps used for the purpose they were made, that is, adorning a Papal head.