See the Divine Fashion From the Met’s Larger-Than-Life ‘Heavenly Bodies’ Show

Fashion and Catholicism prove a match made in heaven.

Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in
Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Robert Lehman Wing. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Center dress inspired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–52). Photo by Sarah Cascone.

The Costume Institute is never one to shy away from spectacle, but they have outdone themselves with “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” If the show, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s largest-ever exhibition by square footage, seems divinely inspired, that’s no accident. The heavenly fashion designs are each influenced by elements of the Roman Catholic Church, from stained glass windows and Medieval reliquaries to plain monastic garb and the splendor of the papal robes.

“In order to see this exhibition, one has to embark on a veritable pilgrimage,” Met CEO Daniel Weiss said at the exhibition preview, which took place Monday, mere hours before that evening’s star-studded Met Gala. He was only slightly exaggerating: The 60,000 square feet of exhibition space are spread across 25 galleries at both the Fifth Avenue flagship and uptown at the Cloisters.

Christian Lacroix, Wedding Enesemble, A/W 2007–08, courtesy of Lacroix. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Christian Lacroix, Wedding Enesemble, (2007–08) on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall, courtesy of Lacroix. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

“Whereas the focus of the Met Fifth Avenue is the pageantry of the Catholic church, the Cloisters addresses the more contemplative and reverential aspects of Catholicism,” Costume Institute head curator Andrew Bolton said at the preview.  Indeed the Cloisters’ reconstructed French monastery showcased more minimal garments, including many inspired by the austere garb of monastic orders.

“The exhibition situates costumes alongside religious artworks, to provide an interpretive context for fashion’s engagement with Catholicism,” Bolton added. Having garments from some of the world’s leading fashion designers—including Gianni Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, and Dolce & Gabbana—sit by side with devotional objects from the museum’s Medieval collection is an otherworldly pairing that illustrates clearly how the clothes have been inspired by the rituals of Catholicism.

Philip Treacy, "Madonna Rides Again" Hat, 1998. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Philip Treacy, “Madonna Rides Again” Hat (1998), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Bolton had originally conceived the exhibition to include all five major faiths but found that the multitude of Catholic-inspired fashions far outnumbers potential garments connected to Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. The exhibition takes its name from the writings of sociologist Andrew Greeley, who believes that the colorful trappings of Catholicism—such as stained glass, rosary beads, and votive candles—and the religion’s reliance on narrative offer a powerful fuel for the imagination.

Many of the designers included in the exhibition were raised Catholic but are no longer practicing. Although “their relationships to Catholicism vary considerably, most acknowledge its significant influence over their imaginations,” Bolton added. “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.”

If the premise seems to blend the sacred and the profane, the church is fully on board with the show: The Vatican has loaned more than 40 papal garments and accessories from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy to the exhibition, where they are on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Many of the works have never been displayed outside the Vatican before, and the exhibition marks the first loan from the papal states to the Met since “The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art” in 1983—which remains the third most-visited show in the museum’s history.

Henri Matisse, Chasuble (circa 1950), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri Matisse, Chasuble (circa 1950), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While Benedict the XVI’s infamous red shoes, which landed him on Esquire‘s best-dressed list in 2007, aren’t included, there are items from 15 different papacies. Their origins range from the mid-18th century to the 20th century; there’s even a hand-painted chasuble that Jean-Charles de Castelbajac designed for St. John Paul II for World Youth Day in 1997.

The most stunning pieces, however, might have belonged to Pope Pius IX: There’s the diamond-encrusted papal tiara Queen Isabella II of Spain gave him in 1854, covered with approximately 19,000 precious stones, and a suite of 12 papal vestments, including a massive gold metal-embroidered cope, commissioned by Empress Maria-Anna Carolina of Austria, that took 15 women more than 16 years to complete.

Detail of the Cope of Benedict XV, 1918. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Detail of the cope of Benedict XV (1918), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

“You might be asking what’s the church doing here?” His Eminence Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan said at the press preview. “It’s because the church and the Catholic imagination—the theme of this exhibition—are all about three things: truth, goodness, and beauty… In the Catholic imagination, the truth, beauty, and goodness of God is reflected all over the place—even in fashion. The world is shot through His glory and His presence. That’s why the church is here.”

See more works from the exhibition below.

Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Robert Lehman Wing. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Robert Lehman Wing. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Dalmatic of Pius IX, Italian, (1854–56) White silk gros de Tours embroidered with gold and silver metal thread, gold tinsel, gold studs, and gold paillettes. On loan from the Collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Dalmatic of Pius IX, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. White silk gros de Tours embroidered with gold and silver metal thread, gold tinsel, gold studs, and gold paillettes. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Viktor & Rolf, Viktor Horsting and Rold Snoeren, Ensemble (2018), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters, Romanesque Hall Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Viktor & Rolf, Viktor Horsting and Rold Snoeren, Ensemble (2018), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters, Romanesque Hall Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Thierry Mugler for Mugler, Evening Ensemble, A/W 1984–85, courtesy of Mugler. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Thierry Mugler for Mugler, Evening Ensemble, (1984–85), courtesy of Mugler, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Yves Saint Laurent, Statuary Vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, (circa 1985), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. On loan from Yves Saint Laurent. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Yves Saint Laurent, Statuary Vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, (circa 1985), courtesy of Yves Saint Laurent, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, European Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters, Early Gothic Hall. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters, Early Gothic Hall. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Galliano for House of Dior, Madonna Ensemble, courtesy of Dior, courtesy of Dior, on view at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

John Galliano for House of Dior, Madonna Ensemble, courtesy of Dior, courtesy of Dior, on view at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

John Galliano for House of Dior, Evening Ensemble (2000–01), courtesy of Dior, on view at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

John Galliano for House of Dior, Evening Ensemble (2000–01), courtesy of Dior, on view at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Alexander McQueen, Ensemble, (2010–11), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Alexander McQueen, Ensemble, (2010–11), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Wedding Ensemble, John Galliano for House of Dior (2005–06), courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris, on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Wedding Ensemble, John Galliano for House of Dior (2005–06), courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Valentino SpA, 2015–16, courtesy of Valentino, Italy, on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Valentino SpA, 2015–16, courtesy of Valentino, Italy, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

One of the dresses in a section inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Raf Simmons for House of Dior, Evening Dress (2015–16), courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris, on view in a section inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Gallery view, Cuxa Cloister. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gallery view of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters, Cuxa Cloister. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dress by Jun Takahashi for Undercover, S/S 2015, courtesy of Undercover. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Dress by Jun Takahashi for Undercover, S/S 2015, courtesy of Undercover, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. These dresses are in a section inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Wedding Ensemble, (1990–91), courtesy of Chanel, Paris, on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Wedding Ensemble, (1990–91), courtesy of Chanel, Paris, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Medieval Sculpture Hall. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gianni Versace, Evening Ensemble (1991–92), courtesy of Versace, on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by Sarah Cascone. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Gianni Versace, Evening Ensemble (1991–92), courtesy of Versace, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Yves Saint Laurent , Statuary Vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Yves Saint Laurent, Statuary Vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, (circa 1985), courtesy of Yves Saint Laurent, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, European Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met 5th Avenue, Glass Gallery. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Glass Gallery. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Robert Lehman Wing. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Robert Lehman Wing. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Robert Lehman Wing. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Evening Dresses by Rodarte (2011), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Robert Lehman Wing. Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Carl and Iris Apfel Gallery, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Carl and Iris Apfel Gallery, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view, featuring St. John Paul II's red shoes, of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view, featuring St. John Paul II’s red shoes, of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Riccardo Tisci, Statuary Vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Riccardo Tisci, Statuary Vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, European Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters, the Unicorn Tapestry Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Thom Browne, Wedding Ensemble (2018), courtesy of Thom Browne, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters, the Unicorn Tapestry Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters. On loan from the Balenciaga Archives. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Marc Bohan for House of Dior, “Hyméné” Wedding Dress, courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters, Langon Chapel Gallery. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967), on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters. On loan from the Balenciaga Archives. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. On loan from the Balenciaga Archives. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Jean Paul Gaultier, “Regina Maris” Evening Ensemble (2007), haute couture courtesy of Gaultier, Paris, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Cloisters. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Detail of the cope of Pius IX, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. On loan from the collection of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Installation view of “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Gianni Versace, Jacket (1991–92), courtesy of Gianni Versace Archives, on view in "Heavenly Bodies" at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Gianni Versace, Jacket (1991–92), courtesy of Gianni Versace Archives, on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, and the Met Cloisters, 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, May 10–October 8, 2018. 


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