There’s been a lot written already about that killer fashion show in New York last week that mixed Catholicism and celebrities with couture designed by people who grew up in the faith but no longer attend church.
There were no hair shirts to be seen, but everything else that could be linked to Catholic practice or devotion was on display on peoples' bodies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Benefit on May 7. The annual event is a high holy day of fashion where guests vie to see who can have the most outrageous get-up.
Catholic traditions range from guardian angels to Guadalupe icons; all of them infinitely easier to cast into film and culture (has anyone done a movie about Protestants like Martin Scorcese's "The Silence" about Jesuits in 17th-century Japan?). The Met, in the biggest show it's ever staged, tried to draw them all in.
So we read first, from the Associated Press:
NEW YORK -- Delicate veils, jeweled crowns and elaborate trains made up the holy trinity of haute couture at Monday’s religion-themed Met Gala.
Bella Hadid held court as a gothic priestess (is that a thing?), as her gold-embroidered headpiece fanned out over a simple black corset and skirt. The dramatic look was topped off with a structured, embossed leather jacket, emblazoned with a gold cross.
Kate Bosworth’s pearl-encrusted veil draped over a shimmering tulle gown by Oscar de la Renta, while Mindy Kaling donned a regal, blue-jeweled crown with a feminine silver gown and navy gloves. Kaling stars in the upcoming “Ocean’s 8,” a jewelry heist romp set at the Met Gala.
If anyone can make a mitre modern, it’s Rihanna. The Grammy-winning artist arrived dripping in pearls and crystals in a Maison Margiela Artisanal minidress and ornate robe.
This AP piece (two writers were apparently assigned to the occasion) did include a reference to the actual Catholic prelate in attendance:
Pretty much everyone in the room was famous, some hugely so, but one guest seemed to be getting a little more attention than most: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York.
“Cardinal, have you met Huma?” someone asked, leading him over to Huma Abedin, the longtime Hillary Clinton aide. Others waited their turn to speak to him. It seemed fitting, on a night when all the stars were trying to channel the theme of Catholicism, that the real-life cardinal in attendance was a star among stars.
Dolan, as it turned out, was far more effusive about the actual Vatican treasures at the exhibit than the fashion get-up. The piece wasn’t as fetchingly written as some others, but it did try to connect fashion with religion as it's actually practiced.
“There is definitely fashion in the church, and in religion,” said (Broadway star Cynthia Erivo). “Look at the craftsmanship.” The Tony winner was dressed to the nines in a velvet gown of deep purple -- one of the colors of Catholicism -- a bejeweled brow and nose ring, and most incredibly, fingernails nails adorned with detailed religious imagery.
Erivo explained that she grew up in a Roman Catholic family in London, attended a Catholic school, and had deeply etched memories of attending Mass with her mother as a child. “It definitely has an effect on the way you see things,” she said. For her gala attire, she said she had wanted to pay homage to the richness of church imagery, not by dressing as a nun or priest, but by channeling some of the ornate religious objects.
The exhibit’s curator, Andrew Bolton, has said that he initially wanted to make a multi-religion show, including Islam and Judaism, but decided to focus on Catholicism for now because there was such a wealth of material to choose from.
A few questions arise. Where are the protests about cultural appropriation at this event? Oh, it doesn’t apply here? Why not?
Did Bolton even think seriously of including Protestants, Orthodox and other varieties of Christian in this or was Catholicism the only brand deemed colorful enough?
A Religion News Service commentary by a University of Notre Dame professor gave hint to the ironies herein.
(RNS) -- Rihanna came as a burlesque pope. Cardi B was a vaguely medieval madonna. Madonna, meanwhile, as a queen draped in black, was strikingly sedate. At Monday’s (May 7) Met Gala, Catholicism was beyond chic. … For practicing Roman Catholics, watching the red carpet coverage was at once thrilling and troubling.
On the one hand, a proud Catholic could see the festivities and the accompanying exhibit, which had the cooperation of the Vatican’s Department of Culture, as a welcome way for the church to engage with one of the most intensively followed and creative sectors of popular culture…
For those disposed to object to the Met’s Catholic moment, the primary critique is sacrilege. The gala and exhibit align the church’s treasury of beauty too closely with a trend-obsessed culture. For Catholics, images of the Blessed Virgin Mary are not merely objets d’art, and the sight of rosary beads adorning a bondage mask has a spiritual cost.
The point was lost on at other media outlets, like this BBC piece that included a close-up on actress Blake Lively’s gold and red satin Versace dress that took more than 600 hours to create. One does wonder about the morality of ANY dress that requires such handiwork but will only be worn once or twice. If Melania Trump had appeared in a similar get-up, we'd be listening to weeks of media handwringing about the poor and homeless left in the dust by her costume. But Lively got no such critique.
Then there’s the Vera Wang dress that features a painting Michelangelo's The Last Judgment in pastels; an actress who wore a Nativity scene on her head; a rapper dressed in devil-red and –- my favorite -- Gigi Hadad’s beautifully hung Versace dress designed with stained-glass window panels.
The New York Times said that party goers seemed to really relish the religion theme, although I find it hard to imagine Anna Wintour with a cross. But there she was.
The dress code was “Sunday Best,” and never, even in the annals of Met Galas past, have boldfaced names raced so wholeheartedly toward a theme.
When even Anna Wintour, the longtime co-host of the event who generally presides over the evening in neutral Chanel couture, added a cross and a high collar to her ensemble, it was clear something new was going on.
There were cardinals! There were priests! There were Madonnas (and Madonna, who seemed to have gone from like a virgin to like a Sicilian widow in black Jean Paul Gaultier)! There were angels, and crusaders and icons-dressed-as-icons. There was impossible-to-resist word play.
The looks were generally extreme. Occasionally absurd. Open to charges of sacrilege, though interestingly the digital watchdogs of this world seemed too busy picking their collective jaws up off the floor in amazement to get het up about it.
The Times had three sidebars (more features to come, perhaps) on the event, one of which pointed out:
There were trains by the yard obstructing traffic, and a full complement of halos, wimples, tiaras and crowns. And those were just on guests. …
There were veiled princesses, like Kate Bosworth in Oscar de la Renta, who seemed delivered straight from the Renaissance, and tougher emissaries from Middle Ages, like Olivia Munn, in a gold chain mail H&M dress inspired by the Crusades. “It’s actually very comfortable,” she said.
Also, there was this piece on all the halo-themed headgear. I think Madonna with her veil and headband of crosses, looked like what the Inquisition would appear if it was rendered into black satin.
More seriously, I wish the Times would devote a main piece with three sidebars on other religious happenings that have more eternal significance than a fashion show for the ultra-rich. Instead, readers are given this tidal wave of elite click bait.
The New Yorker tried to sum up why the event would not be offending anyone.
Although some true believers may have expressed displeasure on social media about this year’s conflation of Church and high fashion, the Catholic Church itself is a partner in the Met’s exhibition, lending more than forty papal vestments from the Vatican (a first for the notoriously secretive archive). Cardinal Timothy Dolan agreed not only to sanction the gala but to attend it; the entire event had the feel of the officially anointed. And so many celebrities felt free to experiment, knowing that the only heresy they’d be convicted of would be crimes against fashion.
Actually, the magazine opined, the purpose of the event was to exhibit the beauty of Catholicism.
Other than the cardinal, who refrained from saying anything about the bizarre fashions, few other outlets talked with actual Catholics about how they perceived the show. One that did was Racked.com, which interviewed a Fordham University theologian on the Vatican exhibit. One of the interviewers, Tara Burton of Vox, said:
For this exhibit, many of the designers featured were raised Catholic -- and in particular, like Gianni and Donatella Versace or Dolce & Gabbana, they were Italian Catholic; it wasn’t really an American Catholic context. Like John said, there was a playfulness to it, but this was childhood nostalgia playfulness rather than outright subversion. There were very few fashion equivalents of “Piss Christ.”
Well, no, there weren't. But is that the only standard to which cultural elites might bow?
Maybe the Tablet is right: The gala was not religious, but fabulously Catholic. And maybe Jimmy Kimmel was right, too. In the clip (shown below), he reminds us that true Catholic wear is closer to the J.C. Penney-esque garb the local nuns used to wear than the excess at the Met.
So yes, in a way it's fun and in another way, it's pathetic. I'm waiting for the exhibition that touts and twists Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu wear. Maybe a fashion show offering sexy versions of Medieval Islamic apparel? We're waiting for the reviews on that one.