Religion, in fashion

There was more than a hint as to the reception the next exhibition at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art might receive when its topic – “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” – was announced in early November.

Vanessa Friedman’s in-depth piece in The New York Times carried the Nov. 8 online headline, “The Costume Institute Takes on Catholicism.”

The following day, Artnet News proclaimed that, “The Vatican and Rihanna Will Collide at the Metropolitan Museum’s Next Costume Institute Extravaganza.”

And the Nov. 13-26 edition of New York magazine placed the theme in the “Brilliant Lowbrow” section of “The Approval Matrix,” quipping, “That’ll be ten Hail Marys for that dress.”

Clearly, the worlds of fashion, art and pop culture are already taking note of the show that will open to the public May 10, a sweeping exhibition to be presented in the medieval galleries and the Anna Wintour Costume Center at The Met Fifth Avenue and continue in The Met Cloisters, both in Manhattan. 

While the reactions to this high-profile show itself remain to be seen, eyes will train on The Met starting May 7. That’s the date of The Costume Institute Benefit, better known as The Met Gala. This year’s edition of the annual star-studded event – where fashions traditionally reflect the exhibition theme – will be co-chaired by Amal Clooney, Rihanna, Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour, with Christine and Stephen A. Schwarzman serving as honorary chairs.

Advance materials shy away from the provocative, instead depicting the exhibition’s scope as a thoughtful exploration.

“The thematic exhibition will feature a dialogue between fashion and masterworks of religious art in The Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism,” the initial announcement detailed.

Daniel H. Weiss, president and CEO of The Met, added at the time, “The Catholic imagination is rooted in and sustained by artistic practice, and fashion’s embrace of sacred images, objects, and customs continues the ever-evolving relationship between art and religion. The Museum’s collection of religious art, in combination with the architecture of the medieval galleries and The Cloisters, provides the perfect context for these remarkable fashions.”

Added Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of The Costume Institute, “Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another. Although this relationship has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion.”

The exhibition will feature some 50 ecclesiastical masterworks from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican. Showcased in the Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries, the loaned items will include vestments and accessories representing more than 15 papacies. There will also be some 150 ensembles – primarily womenswear, dating from the early 20th century through contemporary designs – that will be shown in the medieval galleries and The Met Cloisters alongside religious art from The Met collection. It’s designed to provide, we’re told, an “interpretative context for fashion’s engagement with Catholicism.”

Designers in the exhibition will range from Azzedine Alaïa to Christian Lacroix, Jeanne Lanvin to Cristobal Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana to Elsa Schiaparelli, Vivienne Westwood to John Galliano for House of Dior and dozens more.

Mark your calendars for what promises to be one of New York’s most talked-about exhibitions in years, one that will continue through Oct. 8.

For more, visit metmuseum.org/heavenlybodies.

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