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Beneath The Met’s Dazzling Vatican Fashion Show, A Complex History Lurks

As a Jew who spent her formative years receiving a Jewish education, studying Jewish history in depth, my relationship with Catholicism is complicated.

Jewish history is a trail of bloody tears — dotted with atrocities committed during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the countless pogroms instigated by the Catholic Church — marking the Jewish experience like a deeply incised, well-worn scar.

So when I walked through the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit on Catholicism and fashion, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, it was hard to put aside my personal history, and the associations I had with the Church’s vestments: namely, that of fear. I couldn’t help but think of my ancestors, persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition. And while the Church did institute Vatican II in 1959, ushering in a new era in Jewish-Catholic relations — the history, the weight of centuries of Catholic-Jewish tension, still lives on in our memory.

My great-grandfather, Henry Cooperman, an artist, commemorated that historic event, of Vatican II, with a painting of a bearded rabbi clad in a red cloak and white yarmulke, his eyes downcast; in the background, the colors swirling, the image barely discernible, was the pope in all his priestly vestments standing in front of the stained glass windows of a church. He was, to say the least, unimpressed, and forever suspicious.

And sixty years later, as I explored the ‘Heavenly Bodies,’ admiring the glittering papal garments and gilded rosaries, those same ingrained suspicions returned.

Every year, in the beginning of May, the Costume Institute at the Met puts on a major fashion exhibition. Unlike previous exhibitions, which have focused on the achievements of designers (like last year’s Comme des Garçons exhibition) or tackled a contradiction in design (Manus x Machina the year before), this year’s exhibition, titled Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, takes on a weighty subject: religion.

The subject is unsurprising, especially considering how clothing figures so strongly in Catholicism. “A lot of it was about conveying power and authority,” said exhibit curator Andrew Bolton. There’s the uniformity in monastic robes, the extravagance of the papal miter and mantle, the rosaries and the cross accessories, the pomp and circumstance inscribed in nearly every life event, from birth (baptism) to death.

When I heard the Vatican had not only lent some papal garments, but had, quite literally given the key to curator Andrew Bolton, allowing him free reign in the depths of the secretive Vatican holdings, I grew increasingly skeptical: How could this exhibition truly grapple with the complexities of Catholicism if the Vatican — an institution whose loyalties remained with keeping the “beauty” of Catholicism at the forefront, burying its more complex history — was involved?

The exhibition was staggeringly large, spread across three galleries at the Metropolitan’s 5th Avenue location and at the Cloisters in Fort Tryon park. And although Daniel Weiss, the President and CEO of the Met, tried to package the largesse as some sort of “pilgrimage,” it is an experience to be undertaken by only the most dedicated fashion pilgrims. I found myself criss-crossing the exhibition’s various halls exhausted and annoyed. And not just because I didn’t have my morning coffee yet.

The exhibition begins in the Medieval Wing, underneath the stairs of the Great Hall. There, a row of mannequins wear golden, glittery frocks, festooned with pious crosses, hovering above the crowd. This leads into the atrium, where the Catholic-inspired fashion, including many over-the-top bridal creations from Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix, are framed by the iconic grille of the choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladolid.

Byzantine Gallery view Image by Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yet the juxtaposition is jarring; the fashion felt out of place in the Metropolitan’s Medieval Wing. The sculptures of the Virgin Mary and Child looked like strangers in this room, their home. The extravagant fashion — like the Dior “Madonna” tulle wedding ensemble, angel wings embroidered in hearts, a gold sunburst halo headpieces — hogged the spotlight, dimming the beauty of the historic objects around them.

Evening ensemble, by John Galliano for Dior, Autumn/Winter 2005-2006. Image by Metropolitan Museum of Art

The papal garments were displayed separately from the fashion, in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. The garments were beautiful, extravagant, yet there was no conversation about the “Catholic Imagination” beyond the opulence of the papacy. It was as if the papal garments were beyond reproach, presented without critique.

Tiara of Pius IX, 1854. Image by Metropolitan Museum of Art

The description of the Tiara of Pius IX, a particularly glittery miter, or papal crown, explained the 19,000 precious gems and diamonds that went into it, but nowhere was there a discussion of how that excess affected the faithful. It felt as if greed tried to take cover beneath the opulence of the diamonds.

Yet to really appreciate the greatness of this exhibition, skip the Upper East Side bit and head north to the bucolic beauty of the Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park. At the Cloisters, a museum modeled after a medieval church, incorporating chapel ruins found throughout Western Europe, the exhibition evolves into more than a narrative. It’s a probing, explicatory conversation, where the clothes don’t just relate to the architecture and Christian theological art and objects around them, but insert themselves into the core ideas transcribed in each room and chapel and cloister and garden.

This was a story not of the pomp and circumstance that is the papacy — as with the items on display in the Metropolitan Museum or the clothes celebrities wore to the Met Gala. Rather, the story told at the Cloisters was a deeply nuanced one, because it was the story of the lived Catholic experience.

Saint Guilhem Cloister Gallery view Image by Metropolitan Museum of Art

There, a series of Garden of Eden-related dresses are mounted on a platform filled with abundant foliage in a corridor that opens to a garden. It’s a literal relationship, but one that brings the theoretical and conceptual elements of the Cloisters alive: The mannequins provide a human context to the Catholic experience.

By John Galliano for Dior. Image by Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Like the way a red John Galliano for Dior cotton-linen twill blend gown — the skirt draped and gathered like louche panniers; a crude, bordering on barbaric, oversized cross necklace with a tip that appeared as sharp as a knife; the mannequin’s long blonde hair peeking out of a wide turtleneck, like a stringy Merlin’s beard — sits in a late Middle Ages-era doorway and staircase enclosure. This was a domestic structure, whose elaborate craftsmanship and motifs was derived from the Gothic architecture of nearby churches. It looks vaguely like a confessional box, as if the mannequin had come to confess her sins, which is unsurprising considering the subversive qualities of the dress: The embroidery on the dress features the words of the title page of Machiavelli’s controversial treatise, The Prince, which was once placed on the Catholic Church’s index of prohibited books.

But the greatness of the Cloisters exhibit goes further than telling the story of Catholicism — it tells the story of how easily fashion can be incorporated into the permanent holdings of a museum. It makes the case for the importance of fashion in cultural history — a stronger case, even, than the MOMA’s recent exhibition on “Is Fashion Modern?” whose headline questions fashion’s worthiness as an art altogether. There was an ease to the exhibition display, a narrative that was simple, direct and transparent. It was as if the Cloisters was built for this very moment.

About 95% of the exhibition’s designers were raised Catholic, according to Bolton. Which makes sense. Growing up in a religion, regardless of how religious or irreligious you are or become later on, has a distinct effect on a person’s psyche. Even when does one abandon religion — its effects will always stay with you, become a part of everything you do or don’t do.

As an Orthodox Jew, I cannot relate to the totality of the “Catholic Imagination” in quite the same way, but I can understand the way religion permeates daily life, how faith’s symbolism and visual vivacity can come to define one’s aesthetic experiences, the lens through which one views the world.

And that’s why the Cloisters exhibition feels so authentic — because designers could look deeply inside their personal backgrounds for inspiration.

Only a Catholic could look at the monastic, drab garb of the medieval monk and think to subvert that monastic ideal into an ensemble with an open tube at the crotch, poking fun at the “lecherous” medieval monk, most famously satirized by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. This ensemble is displayed in glass vitrines overlooking the garden of the south arcade of the Cuxa Cloister, whose balustrades ape the Benedictine monastery of Saint Michel, the capitals decorated with demonic figure violently grabbing primate-like figures, wild animals and lions in the act of tearing apart men.

Only Cristobel Balenciaga — a devoted Catholic — could create a wedding dress with a conical headdress that resembles a nun’s habit. The dress sat in the Fuentidueña Chapel, bathed in a single spotlight; the hoodlike headdress draped across the mannequin’s shoulders served to make it look penitent, reverent, standing beneath an attenuated figure of Jesus on the cross, framed by the the fresco of the Virgin and Child in the chapel’s curved apse.

Only Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazi could create a Valentino cape with velvet “archway” appliques. The cape towers over courtyard of the Saint-Guilhelm Cloister, the appliques a repetitive architectonic, seemingly reflecting and refracting, the archways that surround it. The mannequin is propped on a tall stick, like an angel, or, more fittingly, a saint, watching over. And unlike the row of fashions displayed on similar mannequins-on-a-stick in the Medieval wing, where it felt like some sort of disembodied parade that refused to engage with the plebeians below, in the Cloisters the effect is benedictine and ethereal, where a critic of Catholicism could feel, as it were, touched by an angel.

What makes the Church so fascinating a subject is its duality, even paradoxical nature. “On one side is spectacle and opulence being a manifestation of one’s faith in beauty,” explained Bolton. “On the other side is the same approach, but with the idea of simplicity. So it’s sort of this Janus head.”

That imagery serves as a potent metaphor, too — on one hand, the corruption that is inevitable when a religion becomes too powerful, and on the other, an institution responsible for so much good, where charitable works and piety reign supreme.

When it comes to exhibitions, more isn’t always more. Had this exhibition remained in the Cloisters, doing away with the museum part entirely, it would have been the best fashion exhibition put on by the Met in recent memory. By far.

Because it is only at the Cloisters that the “Catholic Imagination” truly comes to life, in its natural habitat, where the aesthetic vitality of Catholicism is pulsing, the heavenly and the corporeal becoming one, like the ascension of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary.

It was there, at the Cloisters, that I finally understood the Catholic experience.

Like my grandfather’s painting, the rabbi expressing his quiet disapproval over Catholic regret for anti-Semitism, my ambivalence toward the Church as an institution remains. But seeing how Catholic (or lapsed Catholic) designers interpreted the symbolism of their lives, reminded me that I too am affected by my religious experience. And that ability to come to understand the other is, beyond the beauty and conceptual excellence, what makes this exhibition truly heavenly.

Michelle Honig is a style writer for the Forward. Email her at [email protected]


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