Sacred Threads? fashion's religious imagination

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Beginning in May of this year, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York will present Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, an exhibit that will include numerous vestments and other forms of religious dress loaned by the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of them never seen outside of the Vatican. Included in the items loaned is a papal tiara given to Pius IX, by Queen Isabella II of Spain that contains 19,000 precious stones, 18,000 of them diamonds.

Curator Andrew Bolton said of the forthcoming exhibit that, “Some might consider fashion to be an unfitting or unseemly medium by which to engage with ideas about the sacred or the divine. But dress is central to any discussion about religion; it affirms religious allegiances and, by extension, it asserts religious differences.” The exhibit will explore the manner in which many fashion designers have been shaped by the 'catholic imagination.'  Gianni Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Jean-Paul De Castelbajac, Christian Lacroix, and Jean Paul Gaultier, are a few of famous designers whose creations have been directly inspired by both catholicism and liturgical dress. Bolton also said, “In ‘Heavenly Bodies’ it is the narrative impulses of the designers that are the deepest and most profound expressions of their Catholic imaginations. While the fashions that are featured in the exhibition might seem far-removed from the sanctity of the Catholic Church, they should not be dismissed lightly, for they embody the storytelling traditions of Catholicism. Taken together, the fashions and artworks in ‘Heavenly Bodies’ sing with enchanted, and enchanting, voices.

The relationship between material christianity and the forming of a catholic imagination is what is really being explored here. It is about the intersection of faith and fashion, the sacred and profane, and how in this contested space fashion innovation was, and is, made. As Balzac once wrote, "a person who sees only fashion in fashion is a fool," something this exhibit seeks to avoid.

It was Roland Barthes who undertook perhaps the first serious examination of fashion in the 1960s. In his oft-cited book, The Fashion System, he declared that fashion is a language, a communication tool, by which we make ourselves known and are known. Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is an exploration of the dialogue, the conversation between Catholicism and fashion.

Interestingly, the religious items loaned by the Vatican will be kept separate from the 'secular' creations, which will be shown in the Byzantine and Medieval galleries. in a sense the religious clothing is there to act as a foil to demonstrate the influence they have made on the world of fashion. I find this a somewhat strange move given the goal of the exhibit. Perhaps there are constraints placed upon the loaned items, a desire to preserve a distance between what are viewed as components of the religious rites and traditions of the church rather than items of clothing or fashion. Afterall, religious clothing has its own terminologies such as chasuble, dalmatic, cassocks, surplice, etc. but also has it's own communication goal, which differ greatly from street fashion. Fashion would seem to invite us to fantasize and experiment with identity, whereas religious clothing speaks of a very fixed notion of humanity, particularly in its relation to the divine, herein lies the tension between fashion and religion.

The annual Met Gala, hosted by Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue magazine, is held just a few days before the exhibit opens to the general public. Guests, who comprise much of the world's fashion elite, are asked to dress to the theme of the exhibition, which means that this year they will be interpreting religious iconography into red carpet wear--something that will no doubt prove provocative and perhaps even blasphemous to some, but will surely be worth a viewing,.