Ever since Adam and Eve decided to cover up, humans have made both functional and creative use of dress. Whether it is the everyday need to cover oneself up, wearing a uniform to identify our function or resorting to little more than a fig-leaf bathing costume, we think about what we wear. Whatever our budget and desires, we are buyers of fashion, be it at Primark or on Bond Street. The Church also concerns itself with modes of dress, offering detailed rules on the attire of everyone from priests to pontiffs.
The biggest religious criticism of fashion is that it appeals to people’s vanity. Think of the Puritans who railed against “superfluous and unnecessary fashions”.
Yet St Paul used the metaphor of dress when he advised us to wear the armour of God to stand against the schemes of the Devil. Jesus himself referred to clothing when he complained about the scribes: “They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Matthew 23:5). Jesus is often represented in art as wearing a flowing white robe, but He is also portrayed on the Cross as barely but symbolically clothed.
It is this Christian imagery that has inspired the forthcoming Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition’s focal point is some 40 ecclesiastical masterworks from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican. These works are showcased alongside 150 ensembles, primarily womenswear, from the biggest names in fashion, including Balenciaga, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, Lanvin, Valentino, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent.
Many of these designers were born into Catholic families, which is significant. They are connected to the Catholic imagination, having consciously and subconsciously drawn from the art and language of their childhood.
In the exhibition catalogue, the late Fr Andrew Greeley is quoted as saying that by inclination “Catholics see the holy lurking in creation.” Discussing Michelangelo, David Tracey explains that classical Catholic works assume a God who is present in the world.
But can we really view fashion as we do fine art? It is easy to dismiss the industry as disposable – a gaudy part of modern capitalism. A dress costing thousands of pounds can be eyed with consumer cynicism as people scoff at haute couture catwalk creations, many of which seem unwearable. However, the best designs celebrate beauty, and as such they are art. They each represent a single unique creation, involving tremendous investment of emotion and talent by the creator.
The unique becomes democratised as the design ultimately finds its way through the fashion food chain from the catwalks to the high street to please, if not appease, the mass consumer.
Honoré de Balzac wrote that in fashionable Paris “clothes are the expression of society”. Garments have always been used to indicate identity, wealth, power and gender, and thus are unavoidably political. The length of dresses rose and fell with the stockmarkets, and Hugo Boss transformed itself from being a manufacturer of Nazi uniforms to a leading a player in 1980s fashion. The political protesters in our capitalist society are as conscious of the brands they wear as they are of the causes they rally for.
The featured designers’ relationships with religion might best be described as “complicated”. But the Met offers a reverent public display of religious fashion as art. All too often such exhibitions seek to subvert religion, but in this case we can see how strong the connection is between the works of creators and the Creator, from the simple lines and colours of monastic dress to colourful Byzantine creations. Colour is central to fashion, representing “the season”, as styles and colour necessarily come in and then fade out of fashion. Colour connects us to our imagination, just as surely as it does in liturgical use.
This brings us back to the idea that religious art and imagination tie beauty to faith, not just with the stroke of a brush or the sound of a musical note, but also in the designs that people wear. There is the old saw that if we hang on to our clothes long enough they will come back into fashion. Perhaps this is an idea for the Church to take to heart when we worry about relevance today. Catholicism may be out of fashion for now, but the Met demonstrates that it hasn’t gone away – and never will.
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from May 10 to October 8
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.