Divine inspiration - ‘Jean Paul Gaultier fashioned dresses that evoked stained glass’
As the Met Gala takes on Catholicism, Rose Mary Roche examines the relationship between faith and fashion - and why the theme could prove most controversial
When God clothed Adam and Eve's nakedness after expelling them from the Garden of Eden, he initiated a complicated relationship between religion and dress that has endured for millennia. News that the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York will this year present 'Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination' raises questions about the influence of faith on fashion and how A-list celebrities may interpret the theme on the Met Gala's red carpet.
Couture and Catholicism may seem like an odd marriage when you examine their intertwined narratives. The Catholic church has policed female modesty for centuries, endeavouring to curtail sexual arousal by forbidding "excessive" displays of female flesh and condemning immodest fashions, such as the mini skirt, from the pulpit. In 1957, Pope Pius stated: "The problem of fashion consists of the harmonious reconciliation of a person's exterior ornamentation with the interior of a quiet and modest spirit."
Superficially, being a good Catholic and a fashion plate may seem irreconcilable, but when you scrutinise the sumptuous trappings of bishops, popes and cardinals - their brocades, embroideries, ermine-trimmed robes and jewellery - the appraisal reveals that the Catholic hierarchy is as devoted an advocate of La Bella Figura as any front row fashionista. The sin of vanity, it seems, afflicts not only the laity, but also the clerical hierarchy, who historically were often robed like royalty.
The irony that some of the most luxurious garments in the show aren't those created by designers, but those fashioned by vestment makers for the Catholic Church, won't be lost on attendees. Ornate and elaborately embellished clerical vestments in the show display a degree of luxury and decoration to rival the most elaborate haute couture gown.
It seems apt then that these garments have been used as a source of inspiration for designers including Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier and Versace, who is sponsoring the exhibition.
The Met exhibit will stretch over three galleries and feature 50 ecclesiastical garments, multiple items from the Met's own collection of religious art works and 150 designer garments inspired by Catholic iconography or style. The roll call of designer names includes Catholic creatives such as Elsa Schiaparelli, John Galliano, Roberto Tisci, Christian Lacroix, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Norman Norell and Thom Browne.
Andrew Bolton, the curator, has noted: "Fashion and religion have long been intertwined, mutually inspiring and informing one another. Although this relationship has been complex and sometimes contested, it has produced some of the most inventive and innovative creations in the history of fashion."
The influence of Catholic iconography on fashion has produced two very distinctive schools of design. There are the minimalists, such as Coco Chanel, whose signature monochromatic palette, crosses and spare style were said to have been inspired by the Catholic Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary, who raised her (and taught her to sew), and the maximalists such as Dolce & Gabbana whose opulent beaded evening dresses are inspired by icons, mosaics and baroque religious art. Both schools have drawn on religious imagery and clerical garb but have channelled those influences in divergent directions.
The disparate strands have combined to produce some startlingly beautiful pieces. The potent combination of provocation, nostalgia and beauty in the garments on display demonstrates the Catholic Church's complicated relationship with beauty and femininity. While Valentino's elegant couture gowns, inspired by monk's habits, or Cristobal Balenciaga's austere but beautiful dresses, based on priest's robes, might be considered modest by a clerical eye, Gianni Versace's sinuously draped gold column dress embellished with a striking cross or John Galliano's camp Papal ensemble produced for Dior couture might not be blessed with similar approval.
As in Chanel's case, it was often Catholic nuns who taught poorer women the skills of sewing and lace-making which then translated to the fashion industry. In Ireland, nuns promoted ventures such as Kenmare lace (started by the Poor Clares) and Foxford Woollen Mills (founded by the Irish Sisters of Charity) to alleviate poverty and create employment. This experience has been replicated in Catholic countries globally, with many designers acknowledging that seamstresses taught by nuns were once the best in the business.
As Jasper Conran explained in Nicholas Coleridge's book The Fashion Conspiracy: "Catholic girls from the year dot are taught how to sew so beautifully. That is the strength of the Italians and the French."
In contemporary society, Catholic-educated artists including Madonna and Lady Gaga, who have explored Catholic imagery in their work and costumes, have been condemned for melding religion with sexuality. Madonna's 'Like A Prayer' video which featured a weeping black saint, Martin de Porres, stigmata and burning crosses, caused an uproar in the 1980s.
And more recently, Lady Gaga's 'Alejandro' and 'Judas' videos, which saw her dressed in the former as a latex-wearing nun swallowing her rosary beads, and in the latter as a contemporary Mary Magdalene, courted similar controversy.
Madonna has said of her faith: "Catholicism feels like my alma mater. It's the school that I used to go to, and I can go back any time I want and take whatever I want from it, because I suffered all the oppression and all the abuse - and also enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance, the drama and the confusion and the hypocrisy and the craziness."
Madonna's description of her complicated relationship with Catholicism reflects many creatives' fascination with the Church's imagery and sense of theatre. Even designers who didn't grow up as Catholics or have lost their faith, have displayed an appreciation for its rich visual heritage: Alexander McQueen was inspired by Joan of Arc, Jean Paul Gaultier fashioned dresses that evoked stained glass and religious symbols in his 2007 couture show, while Chinese designer Guo Pei has created divine gowns in ethereal gold, of which she has said: "I think it is the colour of our souls."
If dress asserts religious allegiances, it can just as equally assert differences. However, Andrew Bolton of the Met believes that an appreciation of beauty, the common link between Catholicism and fashion, can be a unifying force.
He has said: "Beauty has often been a bridge between believers and unbelievers."
The show will draw attendees from both spheres, but all who attend will experience a stimulating dialogue between fashion, art and faith. Whether ornamentation and modesty, or divinity and desire, can ever be reconciled is an ongoing debate, but it is evident that Catholicism has inspired extraordinary creativity in both art and design. Deo Gratias.
'Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination' is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the Medieval Galleries, the Anna Wintour Costume Centre and the Met Cloisters from May 10 to October 8, 2018.
The most controversial looks
1. Cher, 1974: The Queen of the 'naked' dress, Cher wore a Bob Mackie-designed, sheer, feather-trimmed gown to the 1974 Met Gala and later wore it again on the cover of Time magazine. Shocking and original at the time.
2. Donatella Versace, 1996: Gianni's little sister opted for a bondage-themed dress for the event. Tame by modern standards, it was one of the designer's most prominent designs, and gained widespread media coverage.
3. Kim Kardashian, 2015: A pregnant Kim Kardashian wore her Riccardo Tisci floral gown proudly alongside husband Kanye for her Met debut in 2015. She loved it - the public thought she resembled a sofa. Memorable but not for the right reasons.
4. Madonna, 2016: Words fail to capture the horror that was this bum-and boob-flashing lace Givenchy dress, which left most speechless.
5. Kendall Jenner, 2017: The Kardashian clan are no strangers to controversy, but Jenner's slashed, crystal-strewn slip dress eclipsed all her sisters' shocking style statements. The gown, by lingerie brand La Perla, left nothing to the imagination and nowhere to hide.