Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination: An Exhibition for Us All

Met Gala themes of the past few years have often caused controversy, with subjects such as Orientalism being potential problems. We explain why instead of being controversial, this year's theme is part of history that should be shared by everyone. 

The first Monday in May. The most iconic night in the fashion fundraising calendar. Originally founded in 1948, the Met Gala is the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s annual fundraising event. Chaired since 1995 by American Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, the Met Gala is arguably the single biggest fashion event on the calendar. Each year a plethora of fantastical gowns created by the world’s leading designers line the red carpet while the flashbulbs of the world’s media capture the photographs that fill newspaper columns and social media platforms for the next several days, and indeed for years to come.


While raising money for the Costume Institute, the Gala also acts as the opening for the Met’s latest fashion exhibition. Past exhibits and themes have caused controversy, especially 2017’s China: Through the Looking Glass which received criticism for being Orientalist, especially with very few of the celebrities on the red carpet actually choosing Chinese designers. This year had the potential to cause just as much if not more controversy. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination focuses on religious artwork and the inspiration it has provided to fashion over the centuries.

Anna Wintour in Chanel (Getty Images) 

Anna Wintour in Chanel (Getty Images) 

It is easy to see how this exhibition might be criticised with one Twitter post reading ‘My culture is not your #MetGala dress.’ Religion can always be a sensitive topic with it being so close to the hearts and minds of individuals. However, Catholicism is not a culture; it is a worldwide religion with roots that go back two millennia. Arguably with an entity that goes back so far, there comes a point when its past becomes history, and history belongs to all of us.


Heavenly Bodies makes no comment on the validity of religion, not does it target, favourably or otherwise, any doctrinal issues. Its purpose is to highlight the rich history behind Catholicism and especially the inspiration it has given to generations of designers.


Religion and fashion have always intersected. Fabric has covered bodies to protect modesty; silhouettes have been cut in particular ways to hide female curves and to highlight male characteristics. Colours have been used in line with religious symbolism with white representing virginity, black being the colour of mourning and purple indicating penance.


Amal Clooney in Richard Quinn (Getty Images) 

Amal Clooney in Richard Quinn (Getty Images) 

Furthermore, the Vatican has undoubtedly produced some of the biggest fashion stimuli. Rich silk embroidered fabrics have been the material of vestments and jewels worth a king’s ransom have adorned fingers and necks. The universal nature of the Catholic Church has ensured that similar fabrics, patterns and cuts of vestment can be found in all corners of the earth. Naturally, these “fashions” have interacted with artwork, especially through portraiture. Images of popes, cardinals and even prioresses ensure that the foundations of Catholic fashion inspiration are preserved. Significantly, those who were painted would mostly have been drawn from the upper classes, and as such there was money behind these religious figures ensuring that the highest quality of fabrics were used and the most highly prized jewels were procured.


It may not be the case now, but traditionally the aristocracy of various European countries intermingled with the religious hierarchy and the most expensive and luxurious vestments could be a sign of power, prestige and familial pride. The truth is that religion and especially Catholicism has provided so much inspiration for designs over the centuries, and indeed is so beautifully depicted in art. Fashion is a form of art and it cleverly adopts qualities from Catholicism, be it iconography, patterns, cuts or fabrics.


While it is easy to see how this year’s Met Gala theme could offend certain people, it is also important to understand just how steeped in history it is, and thus arguably it is an entity that belongs to all of us. Catholicism, and its depiction in art, has given the fashion world such a treasure trove of inspiration and it is fitting that this should be recognised.