What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Catholic clothing?”
I am guessing that it’s likely not glamour or women’s high fashion. Personally, I picture nun’s habits and Catholic school uniforms with drab-colored plaid and enforced skirt lengths. While the conservative garments of priests and the Pope are sometimes more extravagant, the garments for women in the Catholic church are even less traditionally “fashionable.” They are definitely nowhere near what you’d see on a runway — or so I thought.
The latest Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination proved me wrong. This year, the exhibit focuses on religious garments and Catholic-inspired fashion, showcasing not just fashion’s beautiful visual qualities, but its ability to empower women rather than place restrictions on their bodies.
The exhibitions at the Met’s Fifth Avenue and the Cloisters locations feature multitudes of religious garments, like papal robes and crowns. Yet, the most visually striking pieces are not the overtly religious ones, but the modern fashions inspired by Catholicism. The extravagant looks weren’t just made for the men in power, but for secular women too. The exhibition provided an intriguing juxtaposition between the male-dominated realm of organized religion and an intense focus on women’s apparel.
Gold, glittering Versace gowns adorned with sequins and crosses perch atop high pedestals while one blood-red Valentino gown reveals a daring slit down to the bellybutton -- a far cry from your average Sunday best. Some of these pieces interpreted religiosity more loosely than others, but even the evolution of nun’s garments through the years looked like haute couture when put on mannequins and arranged in a striking display.
Nearly every figure in the exhibit had notes of femininity, from the angelic beings and starry-cloaked bodies suspended from the ceiling to the blank form wearing an extraordinary Valentino gown embroidered with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
We might even say that the titular “heavenly bodies” of the exhibit are specific women’s bodies—the body of Mary who carried Jesus, the bodies of the nuns who wear the habits, and the bodies of the women who wore or inspired the other creations. Even if women might not have as much freedom within the church than men—both in terms of what positions of power they hold and what kinds of outfits they might literally wear—the world of fashion is not so restricted by gender.
The costumes transformed the typical department store white mannequins into elegant, ethereal beings, and promise to do the same to any person who wears them. Despite that well-regarded fashion saying, “Wear the clothes, don’t let the clothes wear you,” the gaunt mannequins proved that, that does not apply here. A jeweled Versace leather jacket and Alexander McQueen crown of thorns headband might be a bit out of place at Mass, but some clothing is born to steal the show.
But beyond forcing me to reconsider religion as fashion, the exhibition’s idea of the “Catholic imagination” prompted me to contemplate my own Catholic upbringing and the way I often imagine religion as restrictive and confining.
I have so many memories of going to church on holidays, attending religious education classes, and buying fancy dresses for my Communion and Confirmation. To me, religion always felt so formal and dictated by tradition. I remember on the morning of my first Communion, I spilled a giant glass of milk on my white dress. Disrupting the pristine whiteness of the outfit—messing up the tradition—felt like the worst thing I could do, second to messing up prayers. My mother tried to comfort me by saying that it was just a dress, that the milk probably wouldn’t even stain, but that didn’t help in the moment. Maybe because it’s never just a dress or an outfit or accessory. These pieces of religious fashion come with the baggage of long histories, becoming symbols of outside expectations placed on the individual as well as the image the individual chooses to put forward.
That dress represented a step forward in my religious education and was something I wore as my whole family gathered together to watch this rite of passage—and I was afraid of ruining it. But the Met’s exhibition shows that we should not be afraid of these kinds of imperfections or alterations, even those that are accidental; there is no single path to religiosity nor any single way you must look.
The featured designers drew inspiration from religion, the Bible, and heritage without necessarily being literal. “Heavenly clothing” doesn’t have to be drab, all white, or innocent; it can be provocative and stimulating, adding new meaning to “the body and blood.”
Religious fashion always seemed limited to the elite few—for Mass and not the masses. But even if you don’t have the extreme wealth or a position of power in the church to wear lavish outfits, there is always room for your own interpretation. Beyond this exhibit and its accompanying gala, secular celebrities like Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and Britney Spears have invoked Catholic imagery in their outfits, and religious-inflected like pleated skirts to crucifixes have become mainstream.
While Heavenly Bodies’ sumptuous designs are still well outside the realm of feasibility for me to wear, the “Catholic imagination” idea comes back to scream at me that, with fashion, anything is possible for those who dare to imagine.
By Alexandra Davis
Photography by Lindsey Garretson