An El Greco painting of the spiffy Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara and a Balenciaga evening coat. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of art.

Communion Couture to Papal Athleisure: Why Catholicism is the Costume Institute's Muse

Taking inspiration from religion may sound like a provocative move for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, but a passion for fashion is intrinsic to the Catholic faith.

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Nov 8 2017, 1:55pm

An El Greco painting of the spiffy Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara and a Balenciaga evening coat. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of art.

Thanks be to God: the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute has announced its 2018 exhibition. "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" will open, as usual, in the spring of the coming year, with the standard party of the year, The Met Gala, on the first Monday in May, this year hosted by Amal Clooney, Rihanna, and Donatella Versace, whose house is also a sponsor of the exhibition.

Over in the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman voiced weariness over the Museum's provocative selection, writing, "juxtaposing the sacred and the profane at this particular moment in time, when the Catholic church is rived with internal disputes between conservatives and liberals, and religion around the world is being weaponized and politicized, is a risky move…. No matter how nuanced the actual curation, it could easily devolve into a popular cause célèbre."

But perhaps no religious group has a richer or stronger relationship with fashion than the Catholic Church, where clothing has been an integral part of the faith itself, with its nuanced hierarchy of garments signaling everything from rank to season to occasion, as well as the architecture of the religion's lavish and glorious image. In Italy, la bella figura—that obsession with a considered and elegant approach to one's appearance—is a doctrine that extends to, or even from, the Church itself, where a mandate of style and grace has been reflected in crisp linens, rich embroidery, and fur trimmings for centuries, as many Renaissance portraits will attest. As will more recent history: Pope Benedict XVI was celebrated (and at times, criticized) for his fashion sense: his Prada slippers, his striking red capes, his mozzetta embroidered in gold and trimmed in ermine. "For all the problems the Catholic Church faces in the 21st century, the pope emeritus has at least provided the Vatican with a strong sartorial voice," wrote The Guardian when he stepped down in 2013.

So ingrained to the Catholic faith is fashion that in contrast, Benedict's successor, Pope Francis, has been ribbed for his too-casual style by Vatican tailors, as the Catholic news site Crux noted earlier this year. His sartorial restraint led Esquire to name him "The Best Dressed Man of the Year," but that shift has been a struggle for the Vatican's cottage industry of tailors. "It's not as if before the clothes were more luxurious or pricey, maybe a bit more flashy and rich with details," Vatican tailor Raniero Mancinelli told Crux. "Today this has changed a bit. Now with Pope Francis's direction, people want things that are much lighter, simpler and more sober…. and consequently less expensive." Later in the interview, he suggested that the clothing has become plain—"Maybe too plain compared to how they were before"—and, sounding a bit like a wizened, chalk-bearing tailor in the dressing room at Brioni, recalls the era when "a crease could not be ignored."

The Met will have several papal vestments on display, in a separate part of the exhibition out of deference to their religious significance. But as for the exhibition items pulled from the world of high fashion, there is no lack of designers for whom the Catholic religion has been a major influence—sometimes joyous, as in the case of Dolce & Gabanna's deep faith and richly textured dresses, and others more fraught, as in Coco Chanel's 20s and 30s black dresses, which, corset-free and inspired by men's tailoring, claimed to liberate women—as long as they followed her dictates with the devoutness of nuns.

In this sense, Catholicism is an incredibly rich source for a fashion exhibition, more about the possibilities of inspiration and than it is about appropriation or provocation, although those questions will undoubtedly be raised by this exhibition, too. Whether you're a believer or not, religion has a psychic hold on the human mind that foreign cultures or technology (two other recent muses for the Costume Institute) do not. As Andrew Bolton explained in the Times, "the focus is on a shared hypothesis about what we call the Catholic imagination and the way it has engaged artists and designers and shaped their approach to creativity, as opposed to any kind of theology or sociology. Beauty has often been a bridge between believers and unbelievers."

You have to admit that for years now, Rihanna has been attending the Met Gala as an almighty deity.