Ever since Adam and Eve decided to cover up, humans have made both functional and creative use of dress. Whether it is the everyday need to cover oneself up, wearing a uniform to identify our function or resorting to little more than a fig-leaf bathing costume, we think about what we wear. Whatever our budget and desires, we are buyers of fashion, be it at Primark or on Bond Street. The Church also concerns itself with modes of dress, offering detailed rules on the attire of everyone from priests to pontiffs.
The biggest religious criticism of fashion is that it appeals to people’s vanity. Think of the Puritans who railed against “superfluous and unnecessary fashions”.
Yet St Paul used the metaphor of dress when he advised us to wear the armour of God to stand against the schemes of the Devil. Jesus himself referred to clothing when he complained about the scribes: “They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Matthew 23:5). Jesus is often represented in art as wearing a flowing white robe, but He is also portrayed on the Cross as barely but symbolically clothed.
It is this Christian imagery that has inspired the forthcoming Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition’s focal point is some 40 ecclesiastical masterworks from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican. These works are showcased alongside 150 ensembles, primarily womenswear, from the biggest names in fashion, including Balenciaga, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, Lanvin, Valentino, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent.
Many of these designers were born into Catholic families, which is significant. They are connected to the Catholic imagination, having consciously and subconsciously drawn from the art and language of their childhood.
In the exhibition catalogue, the late Fr Andrew Greeley is quoted as saying that by inclination “Catholics see the holy lurking in creation.” Discussing Michelangelo, David Tracey explains that classical Catholic works assume a God who is present in the world.
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