Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

The Met’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” Keeps the Faith

In What's New, Industry News by Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

The Medieval Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Main hall for “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at the Fifth Avenue Location.

If one goal of the Catholic Church through the ages has been to awe followers, the Met’s Costume Institute’s upcoming show, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, definitely keeps the faith.

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Gown and angel wings by Thierry Mugler. Fall/Winter 1984-1985

This ambitious show (stationed at both the Met’s Fifth Avenue location and medieval Cloisters further uptown) is filled with 40 ecclesiastical masterworks from the Sistine Chapel sacristy, many of which have never been seen outside the Vatican, not to mention mannequins wearing heavenly couture and angel wings, eyes closed in silent prayer. Some float upward toward the ceiling, arms open in welcome; the rest are lined up in an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show or Roman Catholic liturgical procession, which, according to the signage, really aren’t that different. Upon entering the dimly lit main hall by the towering metal gate and hearing the richly moving chamber music playing, visitors won’t be alone if they are overcome with emotion.

“Heavenly Bodies” officially opens this Thursday, May 10th, but the public will get a thematic glimpse at tonight’s Met Gala, as attending A-Listers get creative with their interpretations. Expect lots of rosaries and cross jewelry, not to mention robes, sashes, daring headpieces other religious-inspired accessories. But no matter what the celebrities wear, the show, like religion in general, is a highly personal experience. ACCESSORIES got a sneak peek at today’s press preview, and while we were a bit skeptical on how the show would manifest itself, we’re thrilled to to say it delivers on many levels.

Dior. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

House of Dior/John Galliano, “Madonna” Wedding Ensemble, FW2005, haute couture. Courtesy Dior Heritage Collection, Paris.

“The Catholic imagination is rooted in and sustained by artistic practice, and fashion’s embrace of sacred images, objects, and customs continues the ever-evolving relationship between art and religion,” said Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of The Met. “The Museum’s collection of Byzantine and western medieval art, in combination with the architecture and galleries that house these collections at The Met, provide the perfect context for these remarkable fashions.”

Tiara of Pius IX (r. 1846–78), 1854. German and Spanish. Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Riccardo Tisci, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Riccardo Tisci, Statuary Vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie, 2015. Blue silk jacquard and gold metal passementerie.

More than 150 ensembles, primarily womenswear, from the early 20th century to the present will be shown in the Byzantine and medieval galleries, part of the Robert Lehman Wing, and at The Met Cloisters alongside medieval art from The Met collection, providing an interpretative context for fashion’s engagement with Catholicism.

The fashion items are interspersed among centuries-old painted panels and tapestries, all which provide a literal historical view of what people wore through the ages. It’s hard to imagine fashion designers, especially those who are Catholic, not being immensely inspired by this exhibition.


Accessories have been worn by Catholic disciples and followers through the ages to make statements and note hierarchical positions, and they feature prominently in this show.

Head coverings are common on the Roman Catholic Church, with habits taking many forms. These have been frequently depicted in pop culture, from the habit worn by Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1959), Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965) and Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act (1992). As such the Dominican Nun has achieved almost mythic status, with fashionable implications as shown in the fashion garments above.

Secular clergy wears a cassock, or soutane. For daily dress, all members of the clergy (excluding the supreme pontiff) wear a black soutane trimmed in black silk, with rank chiefly denoted through the color of the sash (fascia). Above, a fashionable interpretation.

Jean Paul Gaultier. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Jean Paul Gaultier, evening ensemble, 2007, haute couture.

Yves Saint Laurent. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Statuary Vestment for Virgin of El Rocío, Yves Saint Laurent, ca. 1985


The cross, symbol of Christi’s Passion and sign of the Christian faith, was ubiquitous in the Byzantine world. Style varied, but the heavily jeweled cross, or crux gemmata, was highly valued. Crosses and other religious symbols have long been adapted by fashion designers.

Karl Lagerfeld. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, 2007–8 Métiers
d’Art; Courtesy of CHANEL

Christian Lacroix. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Christian Lacroix, “Gold-Gotha” Ensemble, FW1988.

Rodarte dresses. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Rodarte, 2011

Rodarte’s 2011 fashion collection, namely the gold metallic silk dress second from left, was inspired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52). The primary reference is the gilded stucco rays that “illuminate the scene of religious ecstasy.”

Alexander McQueen. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

Alexander McQueen, Birch plywood and ivory leather, ivory wool twill and ivory silk lace.

One particularly moving piece was a set of ethereal balsa wood angel wings created by late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who tragically took his own life in 2010. The wings were in the Met’s Alexander McQueen exhibition, and they seem particularly poignant here.

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

With so much artistic talent inside the museum in general, and this exhibition in particular, it’s clear that angels walk among us.

“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” runs May 10 through Oct. 8
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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