‘Heavenly Bodies’ Vestments inspire designers

Evening ensemble, John Galliano for House of Dior. Courtesy of Dior Heritage Collection, Paris. Photos/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reviewed by Pamela A. Lewis

“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, features the work of 55 renowned and predominantly European designers. Inspired by the Roman Catholic Church’s sumptuous vestments and ecclesiastical accessories, they have created imaginative high-fashion regalia displayed in more than 150 ensembles. Included in the show are exceptional loans of vestments from the Vatican’s sacristy, some of which have never before left Rome. The largest exhibit in the history of the museum’s Costume Institute, “Heavenly Bodies” is on view in various galleries, as well as at the Met Cloisters, a separate museum that specializes in medieval art.

“Gold-Gotha” ensemble, Christian Lacroix. Courtesy of Maison Christian Lacroix, Paris.

“Heavenly Bodies” sets out to explain how deeply the “Catholic imagination,” as writer and scholar Andrew Greeley called it, is embedded in ecclesiastical and (in this show) secular dress. Most, if not all, of the featured designers (such as Versace, Balenciaga and Dolce & Gabbana) are — or were — raised Roman Catholic. Yet, while their relationship to Catholicism has changed, the church’s sartorial language remains an indelible presence in these designers’ work.

The exhibition is spread over the main museum’s lower hall up to the Byzantine and medieval galleries and into the varied art of the Lehman Wing, continuing at the Cloisters. These deliberate placements establish a conversation between the sewn creations and artwork in the galleries, crossing boundaries of era and style.

For example, there is a solemn-faced female mannequin attired in Demna Gvsalia’s (House of Balenciaga) jet-black wool ensemble (called “Il Pretiro” or “The Little Priest”) inspired by the cassock known as a “soutane.” Dior’s John Galliano evokes the bishop’s grandeur in his silk-and-crystals-studded “Evening Ensemble” (complete with mitre). An enormous and bejeweled pectoral cross adorns the totally black “Gold-Gotha Ensemble” by Christian Lacroix.

Chasuble from the Vatican, Henri Matisse.

Years in the making, “Heavenly Bodies” combines faith and fashion but without compromising or nullifying either one. Some outfits are daring, but never disrespectful of their inspirational source. In all instances, the designer works motivate visitors to take a closer look at the Met’s splendid collection. A lot of imagination went into this show, and you don’t have to be Roman Catholic to appreciate it.

“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Met Cloisters through Oct. 8.

Pamela A. Lewis, who is based in New York, writes on topics of faith.

Designers for ensembles inspired by the soutane, or cassock, from left, are: Raf Simons; Dolce & Gabbana; Jean-Paul Gaultier; Sorelle, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna Fontana; Stefano Pilati for Yves Saint Laurent; A.F. Vandevorst, An Vandevorst and Filip Arickx; and Demna Gvasalia for House of Balenciaga.