When the Met announced its spring exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, hardly any of the media frenzy focused on the art or designs that will be on show. Rather than what’s hanging on the mannequins or canvases, the fashion quandary instead revolved around another pressing question: what will Kim Kardashian wear to the Met Gala?
The ball marks the grand opening of the Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibition, and the celebration of how Catholicism and, by extension, Catholic art have inspired fashion design over the years. It couldn’t have come at a better time in the age of the celebrity Insta-cult.
Figures like Beyoncé and Mrs Kardashian West have been referencing Catholic imagery of the Virgin Mary ever since they first experienced motherhood. Fans have liked, commented and shared these images with the fervour once associated with worshippers and their relics in 14th-Century Europe.
A team that had already been highlighting celebrities’ fashion choices and how they echo Christian art is Tabloid Art History, an internet sensation turned zine that pairs photographs of famous people with historical art images. So what is it that makes Catholicism so visually appealing?
“Catholicism and Catholic art is up there when it comes to the sheer decadence, lavishness and all-out pomp of the Renaissance period,” says Elise Bell, one third of the TAH team. “The whole thing is a visual feast, a spectacle.
The bible is often macabre and gory and ignites in us the same morbid fascination we get when we read fairytales - Elise Bell
But I also think of [the musical artist] Madonna, and how it wasn’t just the visuals of Catholicism that inspired her but also the dark storytelling at the heart of the Bible. It’s often macabre and gory and ignites in us the same morbid fascination we get when we read fairytales.”
Madonna is the original and ultimate marriage of celebrity and the Catholic imagination. Named after one of the many titles for the Virgin Mary, she was the first major popstar to reference symbols that defined a Catholic upbringing. Receiving the stigmata and kissing a saint in her Like A Prayer video and singing while strapped onto a massive crucifix during her Confessions Tour propelled the universal symbol of Christ’s death into the mainstream world of popstar idol worship.
For a faith that has an instrument of Roman capital punishment as its global symbol, it’s not really surprising that Renaissance art – and especially the Counter Reformation art of the Netherlands, Spain and Italy – was responsible for some of humankind’s bloodiest and most corporeal cultural output. It will be interesting to see how the celebrities at the Met Gala deal with this. Expect a lot of skulls which are known in art history as memento mori – ‘reminders of death’; the arma Christi – visual references to Christ’s torture during his cruxifixion such as the hammer, nails or spear – could also appear, as well as the obvious abundance of crucifixes and rosaries. Cardinal red – synonymous with the shade of carnal red artists have long associated with Christ’s death – will be huge and has already had a nod from Donatella Versace, who is a host of this year’s gala, in her spring/summer 2018 collection.
Versace is just one designer brand in a long line of fashion houses that sees its Mediterranean identity inextricably linked to Roman Catholicism. The designs of Dolce & Gabbana echo the faith’s visual splendour. Every inspiration from Italian Catholic life is contemplated – the black, elegant lace of Sicilian widows and the big, crucifix bling that decks women like altar pieces. In their autumn/winter 2013 line, Dolce & Gabbana adventurously left the realms of their more traditionally Gothic Italianate designs to show off the Eastern Church’s influence in Venice with their Byzantine mosaic dresses.
But the stars at the gala can’t all just strut down the red carpet wearing Versace and D&G. Amy Martin is an art historian of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras, and she says that the stars might be informed by the Met’s permanent collection. “It would be interesting to see a dress inspired by Crivelli’s 1480 Madonna and Child,” she suggests. In it Mary is a vision in gold, somewhat throwing shade in her role as the Queen of Heaven.
The Madonna figure is a fashion staple. In art it refers to the iconic image or statue of the Virgin. In fashion it’s the pose that Beyoncé is known to adopt in her maternity photographs. Dita von Teese also adopted a vampish version of the Madonna for the cover of Russian Harpers Bazaar in 2009, looking as poised and porcelain as the polychrome-wood sculptures that are processed down Mediterranean streets to this day.
In art, though, the Madonna is just one of a dozen of different artistic forms that the Virgin Mary has taken over the centuries. One wonders if any of the celebrities gathered at the Met will be inspired by her earliest iteration as the Mary of the Annunciation; her long hair hanging loose as a symbol of her virginity and her one accessory, a Bible, to show her piety as she finds out she is to be with child. Some may even dress as the Mary of the Pieta; desolate and veiled in royal blue and the blood-red cloak of the Passion.
For some of the female Gala attendees, dressing like Mary might seem a bit too clichéd. They could instead draw from Christianity’s vast retinue of female saints. The Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán was famous for his interpretations of what feminine sanctity meant and looked like during the Counter Reformation, and his chiaroscuro portraits have inspired designers from Balenciaga to Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.
In an era of political correctness, it’s a little surprising that Catholic regalia can be so easily donned
Chloe Esslemont, another member of Tabloid Art History, thinks that celebrities may look to more recent examples of pop culture for inspiration. “One is Kanye’s Rolling Stone cover of him as Jesus,” she says, citing his nickname Yeezus and his track I Am a God in which he raps the line “I just talked to Jesus
/He said, ‘What up Yeezus?’” She equally recommends “Blair’s confession outfit from Gossip Girl – an iconic scene which humorously juxtaposes her ignorance of religion with her desire to embrace it for her own means.”
Amy Martin also thinks that modern Catholic attire – what the Pope or cardinals wear today in the Vatican – might also be referenced, and even given a modern makeover. “Perhaps more colour is used, more embellishments added, or cuts are made so clothes like the cassock become less modest.”
Will anything the celebrities wear be offensive to today’s Catholics? Italian stars and designer labels have long made it acceptable to wear rosaries and crucifixes outside of the realms of Sunday Mass, and even outside the realm of belief itself – but some believers around the world may get offended, as many were by Lady Gaga’s Judas music video, for example. In an era of political correctness, it’s a little surprising that Catholic regalia can be so easily donned; it would be deemed culturally inappropriate, if not racist, to pick Hinduism or Islam as a theme (in fact there was some criticism over how the stars interpreted the China theme last year).
This, of course, didn’t stop Jean Paul Gaultier from creating a ‘Chic Rabbis’ line in autumn/winter 1993, where he was inspired by the traditional dress of Hasidic Jews. One model from the show said “I didn’t hear anybody booing, but I certainly heard afterwards ‘Oh my God, Gaultier’s gone too far.’”
Amy Martin hopes the clothes won’t be too controversial. “I will be watching the red carpet for striking, innovative or beautiful outfits that complement the exhibit.”
Let’s wait and see. Just as many of the finest examples of religious art were commissioned by the Catholic Church to demonstrate the wealth and power of God, so too will the men and women who strut down the Met Gala’s red carpet be expected to sport fashion statements that befit their own celestial status in a very different age of idolatry.
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