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Heavenly Bodies; Rigorism and Decadence

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Rigorism versus modernism, simplicity versus opulence, the Catholic Church and fashion stand at a distance from each other, but share a taste for beauty, as evidenced by a new exhibition of the Met New York. The opening of the show proceeded with a New York cardinal who made a speech for the opening of an exhibition on fashion in front of an Egyptian temple and under the eyes of Anna Wintour; only New York could offer such a spectacle.

With Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the "High Priestess" of Vogue Magazine, Anna Wintour, wanted to once again create the event centred around the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum, which has borne her name since 2014. After two years of talks, it obtained from the Vatican a loan of about 40 ecclesiastical pieces of tiaras, mitres, copes, mules, ferrets worn by more than 15 popes between the eighteenth and twenty-first century. Some of these works had never been released from the Vatican. They respond to designer dresses inspired by Catholicism, from the mid-twentieth century until today. It is to finance this exhibition and the very existence of the Costume Institute that Anna Wintour organizes, every year, the Met Gala, the second social event of the year in the United States behind the Oscars.

One of the pieces on display for the exhibition

"You might be wondering what the church is doing here," Cardinal Timothy Dolan acknowledged on Monday during the presentation of the exhibition, which opened to the public on Thursday and until October 8. "I myself asked the question when I received an invitation a few months ago," he added. "This is because the church and the Catholic imagination, the theme of this exhibition, speak of three things: truth, kindness and beauty." And for him, these values ​​"are represented everywhere, including in fashion". Probably anxious to avoid controversy as much as possible, the Met opted to present Vatican and couture pieces several hundred meters apart, in separate rooms, so as not to allow any confusion to the nature of their displays. Part of the exhibition has even been installed at Cloisters, the cloister located at the northern end of Manhattan and owned by the Met.

Sacred and secular come together in the refinement and sophistication of the outfits and ornaments, the fineness of the embroidery, the precision of the cuts, the richness of the materials. Precious stones apart, exclusive to the popes, gold thread, taffeta, gold glitter and pearls are found both on the Vatican coins and the dresses seen on the catwalks. The two worlds celebrate, in a similar way, the know-how, the arts and crafts, or the thousands of hours spent on floral embroidery or a veil of lace. An occasion to remember, by the way, that almost all the coins coming from the Vatican and carried by popes were grandiose gifts of great courts of Europe or congregations. Even if it is beauty, a universal value, this celebration of luxury clothing during an exhibition funded in part by the fortunes New York toe the line of Pope Francis' dogma, which marks a return to churchly simplicity and humility.

The Medieval gallery of the exhibition


According to the New York Times, the Pope was not consulted and did not have to agree to the loan of Vatican works. In addition to the quality of confection, the link between religion and fashion in the exhibition is also made by the interpretations of Catholicism of different designers. The most daring in this register are in the spotlight, between Dolce & Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano period Dior, who do more in representation than evocation. Galliano dares a set of silk and gold with miter, direct declination of the papal ornaments, Thom Browne diverts the black dress of the nuns and their cornet, while Geoffrey Beene has fun with the monk's clothes that he redirects to sportswear.

"Most of the designers in this exhibition have received a Catholic education," said curator Andrew Bolton. "Although many of them are no longer practicing, (...) most recognize a significant influence (of Catholicism) on their imagination."

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