The Met’s Heavenly Bodies is a dramatic turn in the museum’s history, a scene where fashion’s indulgence and religious gravity meet in resemblance. In the Costume Institute’s largest exhibition, set in three locations across the museum’s medieval wing, the Anna Wintour Costume Center and the Met Cloisters, darkly lit in stone austerity against opulent detail, walls and figures are adorned in iconic couture and religious relics. Placing modern design amid the Met’s collection of medieval and Byzantine reliquaries creates a variegation of sensory response. The resulting display is a prismatic concoction of the religious, the secular, and all of their conflictions and resonations.
The weight of diplomatic regality is harbored at the lowest level of the exhibition’s space. Borrowed from the Vatican’s private collection, historic ornaments of the church and papal dress are kept with minimal light, strictly overseen by security in tightly controlled viewing, making known we are present with the sacred. The institutional power of the Vatican’s authority rings with the essence of surveillance; an aura of discipline cuffing around. 18thCentury gems and jeweled reliquaries are encased against blackness. The Catholic church’s history of hierarchy, papal reign and pervasive cultural influence presents itself plainly in this display – fear and awe encompassing.
With just over fifty designers, the majority of whom come from Catholic descent, the exhibition features adulation and nostalgia of European religious and political history. With many Italian designers at the forefront, signifiers of the faith seep in to the more inconspicuous details of the costume highlights. Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci’s designs are beyond the wearable, made as costume for statues of the Virgin Mary. The Madonna, womb of divinity, material vessel of the ethereal is used as the unofficial model in this exhibition – her figure in this case is a fitting icon, aligned to fashion’s association with the precious and the female. In each case of the Virgin represented, the figure is displayed with an air of compliance and submission. The show utilizes several roles for the female form: the virgin, bride, angel, disciple, and each role of the body presented recalls a condition of obeisance, each figure subdued.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s gothic couture of transparencies of saints, embalmed within jeweled encasing show iconic portraits as the visual currency of religious severity, and corporal suppression. Gaultier’s examples play with the brutal and pull at the body, carefully attending to every suture. With all black gowns placed in a row like church officiates, one center gown holds a triptych of the Madonna, polychromed with gold thread, protruding from the abdomen. Perhaps a signifier of the Madonna’s core as the vessel of conception, this work uses the body in tandem with associations of the iconographic. Set behind the garment’s display is a wall sized tapestry of archetypal biblical scenes, delivering the Gaultier piece with a contrast between contemporary stark blackness and old-age ethereal signification.
With the use of the body uniform, these garments still exist within their own separate spheres. An evening gown made in 2017 by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, is the most minimal and but nonetheless striking. The dress, in carmine red cloaked to the floor is deeply cut, open chested. The body underneath is mild; and the material somehow visceral. This piece acts differently than its counterparts, costumes made for the virgin’s figure. An emblem of the vivid, this work signifies the semblance between historic regalia and modern decadence. Furthermore, the presence of works by Jean Paul Gautier and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, each icons of darker associations among the group, begs the question as to whatthis display echoes of notions like desire and envy, of corporal tendencies. Resonating with carnal instinct, each of these works harbor not just a mere attention to the populous desire for beauty, but for an obsession with it. Furthermore, within Catholic conceptions of the material body exists the contradiction of desire and discipline, “for the flesh craves what is contrary to the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17). The body in the Roman-Catholic rite is conceived as an operative of the sacrosanct, a vessel of practice and of consecration. This exhibition’s corporeal approach to the Catholic imagination does not offer an entirely analytic view of the history of art works, but rather it positions the audience to focus on the body as a device in religious rehearsal, in all its capacity and limitations.
The height of cinematic drama culminates with Balenciaga’s 1960s choir robes, worn on a platoon of mannequins standing in an assembly formation at the highest level of the room. The choir of twenty-one figures are dressed uniformly in white, operatically lit from below casting figurative shadows against the wall behind. The wedding ensembles, Christian Lacroix’s gold gown, embellished in lace with a reliquary-like crown, and a Spring 2013 piece by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, are two examples of couture engorged in ceremonial sanctity and incomprehensible intricacy. Embroidered with mathematic precision, embellished with ultimate delicacy, technicality alone distinguishes these works from anything recognizably civilian. This is altar culture; and the juncture at which the spectacle of modern fashion and the practice of devotion resemble one another.
The gowns evoking sacrament shown at the Met Cloisters are another realm, removed from the main exhibit’s machine. The experience is refined with a viewing more private. Delicate piety is set against the truly austere. Monastic isolation and severity of the liturgic ring through authentic grounds. This leads to the show’s most memorable scene, taking place in the Spanish Chapel where the 1967 Balenciaga wedding ensemble, in stone white silk with a haloed hood is held together with one seam. The work marks the iconic period of Balenciaga and a beginning of the brand’s cult following. Revered for simplicity, structure and a reimagination of the traditional, Balenciaga positioned his designs against institutional convention. The structured hood, reminiscent of an officiates head veil, gives the ensemble and essence of piety and imbues the room with a sense of weight. This scene, the figure situated with its backs to the viewers, positioned to pray at the chapel’s apse is a final moment, which allows the exhibition’s sprawling sensory course to be absorbed.
Angelica Villa is New York City Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Villa is also an Appraisals Assistant at Christie’s and currently a Master’s student at New York University.