When I was in third grade, the nuns took our class on an outing to a John Wayne movie called The Horse Soldiers, about a group of Civil War officers charged with razing a Confederate railroad depot. Everything was fine until we came to a dinner-party scene with the soldiers and their Southern hostess, a beautiful blonde in a low-cut red dress. The blonde leaned over Wayne, spilling out of her bodice, and brandished a platter of chicken. “Now, what was your preference: the leg or the breast?” she drawled provocatively as Wayne squirmed. Without a word, the nuns stood up. They did not even look at us. We knew to get up and follow them, single file, out of the theater.
Growing up Catholic in America in the mid-century was a heady, paradoxical blend of excitement and repression, glamour and asceticism, mystery and cruelty, sensuality and sexism, beautiful lace mantillas and ugly saddle shoes. Previewing “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute was a Proustian experience for me, a remembrance of things past—some sweet, some scary.
I can still recall the thrill I felt when, another year, the nuns said we could wear our own clothes to school one day, rather than our dull forest-green uniforms. And I still remember the ensuing humiliation when the nuns deemed my pink polka-dot minidress inappropriate. They made me kneel, and when the dress did not hit the floor, they told the student who lived nearest the school to take me to her house and lend me a dress. Unfortunately, she was a beanstalk of a girl and I was a shrimp, so my borrowed frock dragged along the ground, a train of shame. (My older sister had to go to the nuns to get her prom dresses approved; they were determined to ward off any bold, brazen attempts at strapless.)
Our uniforms were meant to be so sexless that when they realized that our jumper style emphasized our developing breasts, the nuns redesigned the uniform with a high neckline. If Britney Spears had shown up with her sexy take on a Catholic-schoolgirl uniform, or if Madonna had sashayed in with her layers of crosses over a black bustier, she would have been spanked or expelled.
In the Catholic Church hierarchy, men were the peacocks and women were peahens. Our strict Franciscan nuns were blanketed in black wool floor-length habits and white bibs with starched white headpieces pressing around their faces. They topped it off with a long, heavy rosary hanging from the waist and black stockings with oxford lace-ups.
Yet at Easter and Christmas, we saw iridescent peacocks: priests and bishops cloaked in glistening white and red robes embellished with silver and gold thread, suffused in smoke from the swinging censer, with a hypnotic sound track of tinkling bells and soaring hymns. Watching the pope on TV, we saw a man sparkling with bejeweled miters and shimmering cloaks and elegant shoes. (Pope Benedict would later sport red loafers so rad they were falsely assumed to be Prada. The pope does not wear Prada.) It quickly became apparent that the men had taken all the good clothes. And shoes. And hats.
We may have been covered up, but when we looked up, we saw objects of beauty, an iconography that represented magic and miracles and mystery and power and classicism and drama. All of the glittery clothes and elaborate rituals and potent storytelling and golden sacred objects were meant to show the Church’s tribal power, then and now held by men who were clearly terrified of women. Male vestments, embroidered and ironed by legions of women, meant that power had been endowed; those clothes said, “Here is one of the aristocrats of the Church; here is royalty; here is a person to be noticed.’’
The rich tableaux of Catholic frescoes, mosaics, statues, paintings, music, fashion, and sacred rites inflamed our imaginations and became objects of desire. The iconography was not merely an accessory. It was our sartorial stigmata. The Church was like Hotel California: You could check out but you could never leave.
For many years, I covered the harrowing and unending sexual-abuse scandals in the Church. But my mom had taught me long ago to focus on God, rather than the men running the Church at any given time. I continued to wear crosses around my neck and have a mother-of-pearl crucifix on the bedroom wall in my house. I still yearn to wear the glittering gold and silver threads I first saw on the altar as a child. The magic is strong.
As the late priest and writer Andrew Greeley wrote in The Catholic Imagination, “Catholics live in God-haunted houses and an enchanted world. In a world where grace is everywhere, the haunting and enchanting go on constantly. Clearly, the world of the great Catholic artists and writers is enchanted . . . they see reality the way they do because they either grew up Catholic or were attracted to Catholicism as adults by virtue of its enchanting aspects.”
The majority of fashion designers on display in “Heavenly Bodies” were raised or educated Catholic. Cristóbal Balenciaga, for example, created choral gowns for a Spanish choir called Orfeón Donostiarra that was established in the late nineteenth century. He was the devout son of a seamstress in Spain (he designed the cassock worn by the priest who gave Christian Dior’s eulogy). In the mid-1980s, Yves Saint Laurent, also a Catholic, designed a gold dress and mantle for the sixteenth-century Virgin of El Rocío in a Parisian church.
“As a curator you’re always interested in what lies behind creativity and the creative impulse,” says Andrew Bolton, who dreamed up the exhibition. “And what struck me is how religion—Catholicism in particular—has really shaped the mind of these designers with a richness of imagery, a storytelling tradition, and seeing the world through metaphor. I hope, no matter what your faith, this will cause you to reflect on whether your religion has had an influence on your creative development.”
It’s hard to imagine my nuns being in a direct arc of inspiration to Chanel’s sleek black dresses, and on to Givenchy’s iconic black dress for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But, mirabile dictu, they seem to be. Many of the featured designers, such as Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, and John Galliano, are known for their flights of extraordinary fancy, virtuoso technique, and extravagant embellishment.
The show coordinates treasures borrowed from the Vatican and designer fashion—displayed on 150 specially made mannequins modeled in part on the somewhat androgynous statue of Joan of Arc at the Cathedral of Reims—with the Met’s own works of religious art. Intended as a pilgrimage and encompassing the Cloisters as well as the main museum, it explores both the sumptuous and the monastic sides of the Church’s imagery. It aims to steer clear of politics, pop culture, and debates about cultural appropriation and about whether the Met is romanticizing a luxe era in the Church that Pope Francis, with a more humble style fashioned on his namesake, has tried to move past.
Coco Chanel’s simple, pared-down aesthetic and black-and-white palette, often with white collars, grew from the nuns’ habits and convent girls’ uniforms that surrounded her as she was growing up as a charity case in a Catholic orphanage in France. She always carried a prayer card with an image of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in her purse. Her jewelry was directly inspired by the opulence of Catholic iconography. A friend gave her a Byzantine cross, which sparked the idea for a range of pendants, brooches, and cuffs that featured the symbol. The Sicilian duke Fulco di Verdura designed several of Chanel’s most famous pieces, including a standout white enameled cuff that is in the exhibition among several cases of Chanel jewelry, both fine and costume.
“It looks like a Maltese cross, but that was actually inspired by the cobblestone pavements within the nunneries and orphanage at the church at Aubazine,’’ Bolton says. “Chanel was spurned by the aristocrats as being a courtesan early on, but she was so chic that she made those aristocrats, who rejected her, dress like her. That was the ultimate revenge.’’
The Vatican has lent the Met more than 40 liturgical vestments and accessories, which will be displayed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. The treasures include an astonishing egg-shaped tiara composed of three crowns that was a gift from Queen Isabella II of Spain to Pope Pius IX, covered in some 19,000 precious stones, most of them diamonds. There is a very tall and heavy miter that was a gift to Pope Pius XI from Benito Mussolini to commemorate the signing of the Lateran Treaty on February 11, 1929, and a pair of red slippers by an Italian cobbler named Loredano Apolloni, worn by Saint John Paul II; the tradition of popes’ wearing red shoes goes back centuries.
Bolton consulted members of the Catholic community, including New York cardinal Timothy Dolan and the prominent Jesuit writer James Martin, SJ, who said they were not worried about anything being too controversial, except possibly the Shaun Leane silver crown of thorns, which the Met just purchased at auction. The exemption on controversy, of course, doesn’t extend to whatever outlandish and revealing getups the celebrities wear to the Met gala, themed “Sunday Best.” It is already being dubbed “The Church of Rihanna’’ in honor of the singer, who is cochairing with Wintour, Donatella Versace, and Amal Clooney. Bolton intends to wear a tuxedo made by his partner, Thom Browne, “with my ankles showing, so there’s a bit of carnality.”
In the Byzantine section, two collections inspired by the more excessive manifestations of the High Church, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, drew from the mosaics in Byzantine churches. Lacroix’s black silk wool–gabardine jacket embroidered with polychrome crystals in the shape of a Byzantine cross, a crux gemmata, is famous for being on Anna Wintour’s first high-low cover for American Vogue in 1988, paired with Guess jeans.
It may read as sacrilegious to some—putting a woman in a dress printed with an image like the Madonna and Child taken from a religious painting, or a stained-glass window, or hanging jeweled crosses around her neck. But it makes sense that— just as Federico Fellini fetishized the Church’s style in the fabulous, satirical Vatican fashion show in his 1972 movie Roma—designers would find inspiration in the over-the-top carnivalesque style of Catholic art and fashion.
“You’re in church, and what you’re looking at is a perfect male body on the crucifix,” says Bolton, who wore gray shorts, a gray sweater, and a black blazer to his Catholic school in Blackburn, Lancashire, where, he says, he was a choirboy because he was too shy to be an altar boy. “There’s an inherent eroticism within Catholic imagery, particularly from the Renaissance onward,” he observes. “From Bernini’s Saint Teresa in orgasmic ecstasy to Robert Mapplethorpe, artists have dealt with the Catholic imagination through the carnality of the body. And I think that the body is central to its doctrines—Christ is a three-in-one—as well as its images. The theologian and Catholic priest David Tracy”—a contributor to the show’s catalog—“talks about how the Protestant imagination is more analytical and the Catholic imagination is more sensual, because it’s based in the visual and because all the senses are engaged during Mass.’’
The Met’s Cloisters present the more monastic designers, such as Madame Grès, Claire McCardell, Balenciaga, and Geoffrey Beene, who were inspired by the various Catholic orders. “They were architects of fashion who used cloth in a way that was about technical ingenuity,” says Bolton. “Some of the garments we’ve selected relate directly to the artwork within the galleries, so through juxtapositions, we create conversations between fashion and religious artworks from the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries to the Renaissance.’’
McCardell grew up Presbyterian but was clearly inspired to make her very austere wrap shifts by the simplicity of the Catholic orders. Valentina Schlee saw the nuns in a convent when she was young and was so struck by their beauty that the image influenced almost everything that she ever designed, including a black shift with a leather belt and matching hood. Describing herself as a gothic Greta Garbo, Valentina was known for her understated, monastic, simplified tones.
One of the most dramatic pieces in the show is the so-called one-seam wedding dress made by Balenciaga in 1967 with phantom threads near the end of his career. It’s hard to imagine any bride wearing the unembellished ivory silk gazar dress, reminiscent of a pope’s robe, except perhaps if she’s Tilda Swinton. But it has a lovely purity about it. “It’s one of my favorites,’’ Bolton says. “And there’s a great mythology that goes around the dress. It actually has five seams and it’s made from three pieces of fabric, but it’s still an extraordinary feat of engineering. I love the idea that the one-seam wedding dress will echo the description of Christ’s garment, when he was crucified, being made from one length of fabric.’’
The mix of sacred and profane may be controversial—even though the Met has taken care to keep the Vatican collection pristine and separate from the fashion displays. But even if it is, Bolton doesn’t mind a little polemic. And it will be the least controversial thing that has happened to the Church in some time. Besides, as the erudite Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s de facto culture minister, noted at a press conference in Rome this past winter, where he talked about “the bond between beauty and faith,’’ the inspiration for this exhibition comes from the top.
“From the first pages of the Bible, God enters the scene certainly as a creator, but also as a tailor,’’ the cardinal said, offering a passage from Genesis about God fashioning garments of skin for Adam and Eve. “God Himself worries about clothing His creatures, and this represents the genesis of the significance of clothing.’’
In this story: Fashion Editor: Phyllis Posnick. Hair and hairpieces created by Julien d’Ys for Julien d’Ys; Makeup: Diane Kendal; Manicure: Jin Soon Choi. Set Design: Andrea Stanley. Produced by PRODn at Art + Commerce. Photographed at The National Academy of Design and The Dominick Hotel.