Catholic taste: What will the Kardashians do?
This week, the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that 2018’s fashion exhibition will tackle religion. More specifically, Catholicism. Its title? Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.
This is not just intriguing but bold. It’s one thing for Andrew Bolton, the museum’s seasoned curator, to steer the theme in a learned, enriching direction (and enlist the help of Cardinal Timothy M Dolan, Archbishop of New York, to ensure that none of the 50 or so ecclesiastical garments upsets Catholics).
But what’s to stop guests at May’s lavish and documented Met Gala – the fashion Oscars which traditionally kick off the exhibitions – from going wildly, kitsch-ly, not to say offensively, off-message?
While Anna Wintour, the Met Gala’s pre-eminent host, famously likes to vet the outfits of her most VIP guests beforehand, she surely won’t have time to preview all 600.
The exhibition itself could be one of the institute’s best and most thoughtprovoking. Catholicism has inspired many designers, particularly the Italians, which might be expected, but in unpredictable ways. Gianni Versace liked to say that the prostitutes as well as the nuns who congregate around cathedrals were an early influence that stoked his talent for extremes. Armani claims that prim
Church ladies were a formative force on his minimalist taste. Meanwhile, Dolce and Gabbana have consistently mined the exuberant mosaics, stained glass and filigree crucifixes of Italy’s lavish churches and cathedrals for three decades, applying all manner of religious iconography onto mini dresses and corsets or turning it into jewellery. Under the creative directorship of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, Valentino practically owned that archetype of beauty that has come to be associated with the renaissance that flourished in 16thcentury Italy, much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the Catholic Church. Generally it’s Jesus and Mary at their most film starry that Milan’s designers find appealing. But Jean Paul Gaultier typically explored a
darker side with bondage clad sadomasochist nuns in the Eighties. Catholicism offers something for everyone then.
Going back further, Balenciaga’s profoundly Spanish early work – black or red, rigorously simple, severe – also took note of the restrained but devastating drama of the religious sisters. Nuns, if they did but realise it, have been major fashion influences, rivalled only by the Queen. I even flirted with taking orders. I was five and had just seen my first glimpse of Jil Sander-esque pared-back chic courtesy of Mother Superior in The Sound of Music.
Presumably there will be much more in the exhibition. Papal purples, cherubic drapes, Madonna (Ciccone) videos, and it will be a sight to behold. With any luck, we may even see some of the stupendously wide-brimmed leather hats that gave all that gore a run for its money in the BBC’S recent Gunpowder.
But still, what about that gala? For all the institute’s success (attendees for the most popular exhibitions regularly top 780,00), the gala has by far the biggest reach. What’s to stop Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian turning up in full Mother-of-christ regalia, or Kanye bigging up his persecution complex with some stigmata tattoos and a #metoo hashtag? Perhaps Anna should get Cardinal Dolan to have a quiet word.
Holy inspiration: Dolce and Gabbana, far left; Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, left; Balenciaga 1954 evening coat, above