What’s So Fashionable About Catholicism?

This year’s Met Gala theme is about fashion in the Catholic imagination—but it’s not as stoic as you might think.


The Met Gala is always full of extravagance. The annual first Monday in May affair sees the most glam of glamorous celebs, and costs a cool $30,000 to per ticket, or $275,000 if you’re looking to purchase a table. And that’s only assuming the Met Gala co-chair and museum trustee Anna Wintour gives her seal of approval. This year, Wintour’s A-list of co-hosts include Rihanna, Donatella Versace, and Amal Clooney.

But not everyone pays to attend. It’s free for the young designers and celebrities that Anna handpicks to sit and mingle throughout the event. The party and exhibit are all sponsored by brands, and those brands pay to invite celebrities of their choice to sit at their respective tables, and dress them in their designs. All of the proceeds from the sales go towards the Costume Institute, which, according to the New York Time’s Vanessa Friedman, is the only curatorial department that has to fund itself—fashion has had an image problem in the art world, where many people argue that it lacks real depth.

Yet depth is the name of the game with this year’s Costume Institute theme: papal fashion. More specifically, the theme is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

Unbeknownst to most, fashion has played a pivotal role in Catholicism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of the designers featured in the exhibition were unsurprisingly raised Catholic. Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Schiaparelli are among some those designers showcasing their iconic designs alongside 41 pieces borrowed from the Vatican.

In past years, the Met’s summer exhibitions have covered themes from exploring the influence of punk subculture on high fashion, to fashion in the age of technology, and even how ahead of her time Elsa Schiaparelli was in the early 20th century. On the surface, the religious subject matter of this year’s theme seems somewhat out of place.

Yet the exhibit’s curator, Andrew Bolton, shows that there is a deeper level to Catholicism’s imagination of fashion. The Met Ball’s Costume Institute and Cloister exhibits aim to explore the cross-section between the holy and the profane. This is starting to sound a lot like 2013’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibit, isn’t it?

“The Catholic imagination in all its many manifestations . . . tends to emphasize the metaphorical nature of creation. . . Everything in creation, from the exploding cosmos to the whirling, dancing, and utterly mysterious quantum particles, discloses something about God and, in so doing, brings God among us,” said Bolton.

Bolton asserts the exhibition is meant to, “raise deeper—and even more provocative—contemplations about the role dress plays within the Roman Catholic Church and the role the Roman Catholic Church plays within the fashionable imagination.” And it has certainly has.

Throughout history, fashion has served as a means of status in the Catholic church. It was, and still remains, a way of distinguishing oneself through the ranks. Gilded robes and elaborately embellished rosaries are reserved for popes, bishops and other high-up religious figureheads. 

Meanwhile, women in the clergy are reserved to wearing modest robes and coifs, meant to protect them from vanity and lust. These restrictive pieces, especially when compared to the way women dress in our modern society, are highly outdated in nature.

Most women no longer adhere to dress codes. Those who are subjected to dress codes can often be found rebelling against them. Shortening hemlines, rolling down stockings, wearing “too much” makeup. These small acts of defiance are a means of expressing individuality under stifling boundaries. 

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