A Trinity of Opinions on the Met’s ‘Heavenly Bodies’

Posted May 20, 2018 4:44 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition about the influence of Roman Catholicism on high fashion, “Heavenly Bodies,” raises questions about dress and faith that go beyond an art critic’s skill set. And so, a week after my review, I invited two New York Times colleagues, with quite different specialties, to tour the show and debate it over lunch. Vanessa Friedman, The Times’ chief fashion critic, leads its global coverage. Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist, a Roman Catholic, as well as the author of a new book, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.”

We visited the Met Cloisters, where intricate gowns appear alongside statues of saints and medieval tapestries; the Costume Institute, which houses papal vestments on loan from the Vatican; and the medieval and Byzantine wings of the main museum, which display the wildest designer ensembles. Afterward, I asked them about the value of showing clothing with religious art; the place of both religion and fashion in an art museum; and the fine line between inspiration and blasphemy. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: Let me start by asking whether you think it’s appropriate for a museum to include secular clothing and holy vestments in a single show. Was the contrast illuminating?

Vanessa Friedman: There’s no simple answer to that. It’s always a challenge on some levels when contemporary fashion is juxtaposed against historic artifacts and art. Fashion tends to suffer by comparison, because its purpose is ultimately practical. Clothes are made to be worn.

When I was looking at the garments from the Vatican, I was struck by their incredible opulence. The handworked embroidery is even more extreme than the embroidery on couture. But at least theoretically, the opulence and beauty of the papal vestments were in the service of a higher, more eternal idea, while the fashion embroidery is in the service of — what? In the service of looking good?

Ross Douthat: Beauty itself?

Friedman: Or furthering the aspirations of the wearer? And that’s a pretty big conceptual gap, I think.

Douthat: The gap you’re describing is completely real. The pieces that bridged it most successfully for me were the clothes that were either obviously connected to Catholic ritual, such as the wedding dresses, or else ones that went for sheer religious excess, like the dress by Jean Paul Gaultier at the Met.

Q: The one that incorporates holograms of saints sewn into the fabric?

Douthat: Yes. That certainly is the piece that came closest to making that leap, to showing that you can appropriate from eternity to the more provisional purposes of fashion. And then there were places where the idea that this was all really related to the Catholic imagination just seemed to trail off. “Here’s another dress with a cross on it ...”

Friedman: For me, the least interesting fashions were the clothes with images of the Madonna or religious iconography just smacked on top. I was much more interested in the less literal connections, where designers seemed to wrestle with Catholicism and connect it to a modern condition. There’s one ensemble here by Alexander McQueen: A black corseted gown over motorcycle pants. There you see the designer addressing modern concerns — women need to walk, women need to work — and thinking about how to connect that to spirituality or religion or emotion. That seems to me much more resonant, and has its own integrity.

I felt that conceptual distillation when I looked at some of the very simple Valentino dresses, the earlier dresses by Madame Grès and the Balenciaga wedding gowns. The import is that the religious convictions can be expressed through austerity or rigor of line, rather than decoration.

Q: Many of the more abstemious outfits are at the Cloisters, which we all agreed is the strongest section of the show. Ross, were you convinced by the placement of these clothes in that ecclesiastical, or pseudo-ecclesiastical, setting?

Douthat: There’s something admirable about showing these clothes along with religious art, though it’s complicated. The Cloisters is this cobbled-together suite of religious buildings, and it feels like a religious space, but it’s meant to be experienced strictly aesthetically, with religious belief in the background. As a Catholic, you’re entering into this art-historical approach to your own religious faith. So I go into the Cloisters with a complex relationship to the experience to begin with.

But then you add the fashion, and this is something you said in your review, Jason: In several places, including the wedding dress [by the House of Balenciaga] facing an altar, there is a sacralizing effect. So it’s a strange double effect. You’re simultaneously distanced from the religious element, but you’re also thinking: Well, all it takes is a hint of a wedding for this nonsacred space to feel more imbued with sacred energy, if you will, than the architecture of some churches. Q: Only fashion, it seems, is eligible for this kind of theatrical, ahistoric museum display. The Met has a fantastic show of Mexican painting up right now, and all of that art has a Catholic derivation. But if you played “Ave Maria” in those painting galleries, it might be offensive.

Friedman: There’s an element of pop culture appreciation that happens with fashion exhibits. Institutions like the Met use them to pull people in, because we all feel as if fashion is accessible, no matter how extreme and crazy it gets. Everyone wears clothing, and therefore everyone is allowed to have an opinion on it. It encourages engagement in a different way than perhaps is usual in a museum.

What goes missing from the fashion side of this equation, is the historical context in which these clothes were made. You get the religious connections, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, but these clothes were also made in response to a moment in time, particularly as regards to women, whether it was to liberate them or to put them back in their place.

DOUTHAT: Speaking as someone with minimal knowledge of fashion history, the exhibit doesn’t supply any of that context.

Q: In terms of craft, is there a meaningful comparison to be made between the petites mains of the couture houses and the embroiderers of the Vatican?

Friedman: There’s a Chanel dress in the Cloisters, with sheaves of wheat and flowers made of gold thread, that had very similar embroideries to one of the papal vestments in the Costume Institute. Looking at the vestments, the quality is incredible.

Douthat: And the excess, right? These are vestments that most people only see from a distance, during Mass. I’d certainly never been close to any like these. It’s an extraordinary level of detail for something that is designed essentially to be a show for God. And as someone who doesn’t see couture in my everyday life, putting it together with the papal vestments inevitably makes couture look shabbier than it really is.

Friedman: But couture isn’t eternal; it’s rooted in a season. No designer has the church’s luxury of time. They’ve got to get it done for July, and again for January.

Q: Clothing has been such a flashpoint for debates around Francis’ papacy.

Douthat: And there is an interesting generational divide within the church, where some younger priests are interested in reclaiming costume in various ways. Pope Francis, who of course belongs to the post-Vatican II generation, sometimes uses that interest in vestments to critique priestly vanity or traditionalism. He’ll point to a priest sporting a saturno [a clerical hat with a wide, circular brim], say, as an example of putting on airs, and he’ll contrast it with the humbler, earthier pastor that he aspires to be.

Friedman: One very legitimate connection that works in the exhibit’s favor is that you can see in Catholicism how the ritual of getting dressed, the pageantry of dress, is part of its identity and history. And I think that’s how we all dress. We tend to downplay it or not want to admit it, but we all go through similar pageants for our own identities. Overtly linking that is quite a good thing. Q: Do you feel that the designers, and the exhibition, were mostly respectful to Catholicism?

Friedman: There’s an implicit premise with all these garments that the designers are positively connected to Catholicism on some level, and I wonder about that. [Alexander] McQueen in particular was famous for hating patriarchy, rebelling against anything rule-bound. Certainly in a lot of his clothes, there’s an element of anger and a more combative, aggressive approach.

Douthat: There are smart, serious Catholics who’ve reacted to this show, and especially to the gala, as an act of folly by the Archdiocese of New York. They think that you don’t get anywhere as a religion by turning yourself over to secular fashionistas. I can see why they think that. On the other hand, my own reaction, walking through the show, is that you have to seek out the blasphemy to find it. There is a Rick Owens monk’s robe with the groin cut out in the Cloisters, and there’s the bondage mask in the Met — but it’s next to a Renaissance skull rosary. Nobody out-Goths the church, right?

And I think the show demonstrates the extent to which blasphemy only works when it’s parasitic on something that has a greater richness, a real belief. The optimistic Catholic case for this show is, you accept these hints of blasphemy because they’re in a context where people will come away impressed with the depth of a tradition that can be riffed on in so many ways.

Q: One topic I didn’t address in my review is that almost all the male designers here are both Catholic (at least by upbringing) and gay. Not that Catholic art lacks images of gay desire: Michelangelo, Caravaggio ...

Douthat: It’s safe to say that a substantial portion of the Catholic aesthetic heritage is the work of men who had attractions to the same sex. The church has gone through an interesting reversal: It was, relative to Protestantism, the more “feminine"-inflected form of Christianity, the form of Christian faith that had more room for female genius and also for gay people drawn to Christianity and Christ. It was where the decadents and Oscar Wilde ended up. And that flipped somewhat after the 1960s, when people began to see Catholicism just in terms of its prohibitions. That’s obviously an undercurrent of the show: These lapsed gay Catholics improvising on the church’s aesthetic heritage.

I read an excellent essay by Catherine Addington in “America,” the Jesuit magazine, and she noted that what was striking about the Met Gala was how uncreative the male outfits were. The female stars felt totally comfortable with the theme — again, to the point of blasphemy in some cases — and the men were mostly just in suits. I would have been interested to see more church-inspired menswear, especially now that we’ve had these back-to-back popes who took very different views of clothing.

Friedman: But you could also say that fashion has empowered women to take over what was traditionally considered male clerical dress, to assume its glamour and decoration for themselves. Which is subversive.

I was also struck by many of the clothes worn at the gala. A lot of the religious references were created through accessories — headgear, halos or wings. When the celebrities went inside and sat down and divested themselves of their more theatrical garments, would someone still see their clothes as religious? Once Cardi B took off her headgear, would you still think: Yes, she’s the Madonna? Or would you just think: Oh, a very decorative dress?

Douthat: I wish there had been more skulls at the Met gala overall. If you asked me to play a Catholic designer for a day, I think that more carnal and death-haunted aspect of Catholic aesthetics would be my focus.

Q: So when you return to your respective parishes, the world of fashion and the world of religion, what verdict would you deliver?

Douthat: I think the show should be an inspiration to the church. Whatever you think about the Catholic imagination as it manifests itself in the secular world, the church itself has been in the business of creating beauty for a long time. It’s fallen out of that business a little since the ‘60s. So whether or not it was wise for the archdiocese to give its blessing to the show, certainly it would be good if aesthetically minded Catholics attended it.

Friedman: I agree. Anything that acknowledges fashion as something more than just what you put on your body, and that asks about the reasons we wear things, and the ways we interpret what we see on each other, is a really important statement.