A visit to The Met’s glorious exhibition ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’
The Met Gala on May 7 certainly grabbed America’s (if not the world’s) attention, but the premise of the glamorous evening was to open The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute exhibition — “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
I changed my flight tickets for my return trip to Hong Kong just to stay and see the show in New York, as I genuinely believed this show would be one of The Met’s most successful exhibitions. Here are some photos that I took on my visits (I went twice) to share this fabulous exhibition.
This year’s exhibition theme is as glorious as contentious, a visual feast that features Catholic faith – inspired couture or garments by fashion designers who have more or less a Catholic upbringing. It also focuses on creating dialogues between fashion and the artworks that inspired them by placing, let’s say, Dolce and Gabbana’s glittery dresses from the design house’s Fall 2013 ready-to-wear collection next to the Byzantine Mosaics.
Some people worried about how the show’s legendary curator Andrew Bolton, who spearheaded blockbuster exhibitions like 2011’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” exhibition and 2015’s “China: Through the Looking Glass,” would deal with the very real tension between the Catholic faith that preached modesty, and the fashion, which dived into luxury, excess and wealth. But worried or not, the Vatican actually teamed up with Bolton and the show’s other coordinator, Anna Wintour, and lent more than 40 liturgical pieces to The Met. The church certainly approved the show.
The exhibition spreads out in two locations: The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters. In a video produced and released by The Met, Bolton explained the Fifth Avenue exhibition was meant to be approached in a form of procession. It has a route that begins in the Byzantine galleries into the Medieval hall, with clothes that illustrate the earthly realm — hierarchy of positions in the Catholic church (Clerks, Bishops, Pope), and the heavenly realm, the Virgin cult and angels. In the Cloisters, there are more clothes dedicated to the Virgin cult as well as fashion pieces inspired by the monastic life, plants cited in the Bible, the holy sacraments and more.
Although I have heard of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Raf Simon and of course Coco Chanel, I did not know they all grew up with a Catholic background. Coco Chanel was raised in an orphanage run by nuns, and Raf Simon went to a strict, all boys Catholic school.
The exhibition did not disappoint and I was impressed with a variety of designs and craftsmanship that went into all the garments, not to mention how the show took a comprehensive approach to cover all aspects related to the Catholic faith. Taking an extra trip to the Cloister (which is an hour of public transportation or a 20-minute car ride from The Met) was a bit tiring and costly since I went with Lyft, but as Bolton mentioned, the “pilgrimage” to it was worth it.
If you have a chance to visit New York this summer, I strongly recommend you take a trip to The Met and enjoy this rich and layered exhibition.
Check out The Met’s three-part video series on Heavenly Bodies, which is narrated by Andrew Bolton and shows selected pieces from the exhibition. Check out the gallery view of The Met Fifth Avenue here, the Anna Wintour Costume Center (which shows the Vatican collection) here, and the gallery view of The Met Cloisters here.