Fashion’s biggest party will be all about Catholicism next year

Balenciaga channels papal vestment.
Balenciaga channels papal vestment.
Image: Courtesy of the Met; Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Each year, the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art puts on a major fashion exhibition that draws visitors from around the globe. Previous subjects have included the savage genius of Alexander McQueen and the mind-bending dichotomies of Japan’s Rei Kawakubo and her label Comme des Garçons.

The exhibit is the reason for the annual Met Gala, which kicks off the opening with fashion’s biggest party and draws hordes of celebrities dressed up for the theme. In 2018, that theme will be a deep look at the intersection of fashion and Catholicism, with support from an even higher spiritual authority, the Vatican.

Evening Dress, Gianni Versace for House of Versace, autumn/winter 1997–98; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Donatella Versace, 1999 (1999.137.1) Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb
You could proclaim your faith with this dress by Gianni Versace.
Image: Courtesy of the Met; Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb

The seat of power of the Catholic Church is loaning out about 50 “ecclesiastical masterworks,” including papal robes and accessories such as tiaras and rings, stretching across 15 papacies and dating back to the 18th century. They’ll form the “cornerstone of the exhibition,” the museum said today (Nov. 8) in announcing ”Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Many of those items have never been seen outside the Vatican.

Not traditionally considered fashion, the ceremonial garments of the Catholic Church’s leaders do have a reputation for their opulence and ornamentation. Among the notable examples is the papal tiara that popes wore for centuries, as well as their exquisite robes. Benedict XVI, incidentally, was even known for his fashion sense, though the current pontiff, Francis, has drawn notice for bucking the trend and opting for simple, less-formal clothes.

These ecclesiastical garments, as well as the art and iconography of Catholicism, have left their influence on fashion, particularly in Europe. Also included in the show will be about 150 looks, mostly womenswear, from a number of fashion’s most revered designers. Legends including Cristobal Balenciaga, Azzedine Alaïa, and Coco Chanel will be represented, as well as rebellious visionaries such as Kawakubo, Raf Simons, and Jun Takahashi of Japanese label Undercover. And no show on Catholicism and fashion would be complete without Italian labels Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, and Versace, which is sponsoring the exhibit.

Evening Dress, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, spring/summer 2014 haute couture; Courtesy of Valentino S.p.A. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb
A biblical sort of floral by Valentino.
Image: Courtesy of the Met; Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb

The focus on Catholicism does narrow the theme that was originally rumored for the show, which was fashion and religion (paywall)—a framing that would have necessitated a look at the influence of faiths such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism too. Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, told the New York Times (paywall) that he limited the focus in part because many Western designers were engaged with Catholicism specifically. Several were raised Catholic, as was Bolton.

The exhibit is noticeably Eurocentric. Yet the world’s largest Catholic country is Brazil, Catholicism has a profound influence all over Latin and South America, and Catholicism’s future at this stage lies in Africa. And there are, for example, no South Americans included, and only one Latin American, Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo.

The Met did not comment when contacted about this focus on European designers. When the Times asked Bolton about it, he responded that he hoped to expand this scope in a future show.