The Cloths of Heaven: A Theological Guide to the Met Gala 2018
The 2018 Met Gala theme - ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ - is fascinating for me.
As a Papist, the imagery of the Met Gala is far more familiar to me than perhaps it is to most of you reading this. I was born into it and brought up in it. It has haunted awkward questions and difficult debates about the existence of God and the role of the Church. And it has uplifted my soul, consoled me in distress and given me more than just a taste of the numinous, whether anything lies beyond it or not.
I think it is fascinating that these issues and needs continue to dominate the human mind and spirit. I would bet my mortgage - if I had one - that almost nobody who attended the Met Gala from the most dazzling celebrities to the lowliest fashion hacks had much positive to say about the Church. And yet Catholicism has clearly maintained, after two millennia, a great deal of cultural pervasiveness, if not potency.
A few of the outfits which best demonstrate this fact will be my focus in this piece. But before I begin I think it best to beg forgiveness before the fact: I know a lot about Catholicism, but very little about fashion. Bless me, Father, for I will sin...
I wouldn’t be justified in starting anywhere but with Rihanna’s crazy ensemble by Maison Margiela. It was, of course, a staggeringly glitzy, but artistically impressive, take on the Papal regalia, including a jewel-studded mitre. The wealth poured into the creation of this collection of fabric gives it a gold star for authenticity. The Borgias would approve. And yet no Pope to my knowledge, not even the devious Alexander VI, has ever strutted down the nave of St Peter’s Basilica in heels that could be measured in feet, and a bust-enhancing corset. But then again, if the legend of Pope Joan is true…
Stella Maxwell and the folks at Moschino took a different approach. Instead of paying homage to Catholic dress in their piece they decided to incorporate one of its most important devotional images, and indeed one of the most enduring cultural tropes in history. Maxwell’s dress was constituted of a series of images of the Virgin Mary - the Immaculate, the Star of the Sea, the Queen of Heaven - paying homage to the most visually depicted woman in history. I can’t quite make up my mind as to whether or not I think it’s beautiful. It’s certainly dazzling: an extraordinarily intricate interweaving of colours and shapes and angles, and seeing a compendium of very beautiful images woven together to create an unbroken tapestry has a profound effect. Quite what that is I’m not too sure. There is certainly something pitiable about seeing all those Madonnas - not her! - clamouring for attention, overpopulating the single piece of cloth that they form. This competition for primacy seems to rob them of something of their individual beauty and dignity.
Anne Hathaway’s dress is redolent of the haute couture of the upper echelons of the Catholic clergy: the Cardinals - the Princes of the Church. Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli wrapped Hathaway up in the blood-red silk of the cappa magna, the ceremonial robe of Church royalty still sported by reactionary prelates to this day. Piccioli and Hathaway should be congratulated on recognising the aesthetic merit of this relic of bygone days, and for reclaiming for secular purposes an aspect of its history that a post-Vatican II Church would rather forget. Not least because the result is a stunning work of art.
A different sort of homage to Catholic capes can be seen in Lena Waithe’s tribute to the LGBTQ+ community. She pinned a flowing cape printed with the LGBTQ+ rainbow to a smart Carolina Herrera tuxedo using two lovely mosaic brooches in the style of Catholic military orders. The flag’s brown and black stripes made a statement of inclusivity for people of colour in the pride movement. What I find so admirable about this Met Gala theme is that it looks for the best of human history: it searches out and celebrates the beauty of our past in order to redeem the wickedness and barbarity of it. Waithe’s technicolour dreamcoat flowing from her proud, confident shoulders is a remarkable example of this, championing through the use of Catholic material culture the rights of a community which has suffered so much at the hands of the Church. There is some poetic justice in this.
Finally, I would like to dwell a little on my two favourite outfits of the Met Gala, those worn by Greta Gerwig, from The Row, and Janelle Monaé, designed by Marc Jacobs. What I find so fascinating about these pieces is the particular way in which they have made due homage not just to the Catholic imagination, but also to its historic influence on fashion. Attired in the sinister black and white of the Dominican Order - the order of mendicant friars which produced geniuses like Aquinas and sadists like Torquemada - the aesthetic of Catholicism is very strongly felt in these dresses. Although they both achieve this, the designers of these outfits have gone about it in very different ways: Gerwig’s most closely resembles the shape of the Dominican habit while Monae’s stylist canonises her subject by adding a golden hat which forms a halo over her. She could be Catherine of Siena or Rose of Lima.
Like all of the outfits discussed above, these works celebrate the beauty of the Catholic tradition without ignoring its problems. And let us not forget that the tradition does not just include garments designed for and worn by religious authorities. These dresses also pay homage to a secular designer who relied much upon her own very fertile Catholic imagination: the great couturière Coco Chanel. Chanel’s passion for the art was born when creating dresses for dolls out of the scraps of black and white cloth left over by the nuns at her Dominican convent school. She learned about the power of uniting those apparently unremarkable colours from the Catholic Church, and went on to revolutionise women’s fashion. It is to this important and oft-forgotten Catholic heritage that these dresses also pay tribute. And it is thus for the completeness of their response to the theme of 2018’s met gala that these works are my favourites. They’re also utterly exquisite.