“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic imagination” — Converting millions to the religion of fashion

Showcasing the influence of religious art on innovative fashion and exploring the role of spirituality in contemporary culture, the inevitably majestic “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic imagination” (exhibiting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY until October 8th) has already been seen by over 1 million people — a record breaking number of “pilgrims”. Here’s why you need to become one of them.


By Diana Colcer

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s evening assemble for Valentino, 2015-2016, in a Romanesque chapel at the Cloisters.

Ever since it kicked off this past May, beginning with the preciously divine MET gala that saw celebrities in their own highly elaborated celestial garments (who can really forget Rihanna’s papal vestments or Katie Perry’s angel wings?), the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic imagination” has rapidly turned into a worldwide sensation — worshiped by thousands, pilgrimed by even more. Up to until recently, the immensely popular exhibition, which is organised by the Costume Institute in New York, was already the third most visited in the MET’s 148-year history, topping “The Vatican Collections” (1983) and landing just behind “Mona Lisa” (1963). But now it seems like all their secret prayers have been answered — just a few days ago, the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition welcomed its 1 millionth visitor, thus becoming the Costume Institute’s most attended show ever.

Statuary vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie, 2015, by Riccardo Tisci. Original design, 1950, by the Poor Benedettine Cassinesi Nuns of Lecce. Blue silk jacquard and gold metal passementerie, embroidered Swarovski crystals and gold metal thread and beads, ivory silk faille, embroidered polychrome crystals, gold paillettes, and metal studs.

Evening ensemble, Autumn/Winter 2005–2006, Haute Couture, House of Dior by John Galliano. White silk tulle, embroidered white silk, and metal thread.

Kind of makes you wanna grab the first flight to New York and catch this jaw dropping show before it closes on October 8th, right? So what is it about “Heavenly Bodies” that makes it so memorable, timeless, spectacular, grandiose and utterly unforgettable? We’ll tell you this much: it certainly isn’t divine intervention.

Ensembles by Rodarte, in 2011. Gold metallic silk satin trimmed with beige feathers, embroidered gold metal paillettes, wire, beads, and gold metallic ribbon.

Ensemble, Autumn/Winter 1984–1985, by Mugler. Ivory silk taffeta and gold-painted feathers.

Organised by Andrew Bolton and Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, Wendy Yu, “Heavenly Bodies” features a dialogue between fashion and medieval art from The Met collection to examine “fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism” — which is, in itself, one of the most ambitious undertakings yet. And it was years in the making. It covers 60,000 square feet in 25 galleries on the Fifth Avenue headquarters (as well as the Cloisters, the museum’s medieval art wing in northern Manhattan), thus being the largest exhibition that either the Costume Institute or the MET has ever mounted. It certainly feels like MET’s CEO Daniel Weiss put it: “In order to see this exhibition, one has to embark on a veritable pilgrimage”.

But once you’re there, what will your eyes feast on? A luscious blend of high fashion works of art and amazing Catholic artefacts, which at first may seem simply divine, but in the end you’ll find both gorgeous and unsettling.

Wedding ensemble, Autumn/Winter 2007–2008, Haute Couture by Christian Lacroix. Polychrome silk brocade, white silk tulle, embroidered gold silk and metal thread, polychrome crystals, and silver beads.

Statuary vestment for the Virgin of El Rocío, circa 1985, by Yves Saint Laurent. Gold silk brocade and pearls.

The exhibition features the works of 55 designers who, for the most part, were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition (including historical figures Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent, and active designers Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Maria Grazia Chiuri) and explores how the Catholic imagination has shaped their creativity and how it is conveyed through their art. The show also includes papal robes and artefacts form the Vatican, as well as more than 40 ecclesiastical works from the Sinstine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been outside the Vatican before. The result is both opulent and humbling — much like being inside a gothic cathedral and feeling ambivalent as to whether to bow your head and pray in silence or raise it and just gaze in awe. Columns of mannequins in golden dresses hanging suspended from the MET’s high ceilings. Opulent gowns and accessories cleverly interacting with statuary, architectural fragments. Ritual objects from the museum’s Byzantine and Medieval collections serving as fashion vessels. And a very great deal more.

An evening ensemble by John Galliano for House of Dior, 2000-2001.

Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Guadalupe” evening ensemble (2007), at the Cloisters.

For many of the designers taking part in the exhibition Catholicism is both a public spectacle and a private conviction, so balancing this delicate duality could have turned “Heavenly Bodies” into a bit of a sacrilege. Or, at least, this is what many feared. But — Lord, have mercy — the show is deeply respectful with religious values, at times even reverential, and all together moving and worthy of serious attention. That being said, fashion lovers are already aware of the cultural, historical and even mystical powers of fashion — but this show should definitely convert everyone else. Amen to that.