The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a stunning new exhibit: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” To view it in its entirety, one has to make a “pilgrimage” to three zones—the MET 5th Avenue, the MET Cloisters, and the Anna Wintour Costume Institute. The last houses a collection of papal bling from the Vatican, and no photographs are allowed. On one particular clasp of Leo XIII, there are about seven hundred diamonds (in addition to gold, sapphires, and rubies). The word “diva” (derived from “goddess”) springs to mind.
Yves Saint Laurent, Statuary Vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, (circa 1985)
A curiosity also springs to mind: is papal pomp, piety or profanity? Shouldn’t humble souls refrain from elaborate masquerade? Why doesn’t the pope dress like a nun or a monk? On the surface, hierarchy dictates specific religious threads, not only in the earthly Church but also among the angels. Partly, this involves differently hallowed hues—white, black, red, sometimes purple. But there is also a theme of reduction and adornment.
Marc Bohan for House of Dior, “Hyméné” Wedding Dress
Unlike the pope, nuns and monks adopt a modest “habit”—i.e., no tiaras. Yet, as one gazes on the stoic black and white frocks currently flanking the medieval wing of the MET, it is hard not to think of Karl Lagerfeld. He has a modest habit, too, but it is somehow modestly pompous—a pair of adjectives with which Nietzsche accessorizes all priests.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Whether in the fashion of ornate humility or barren elevation, clothing seems to lord a stamp of mock purity. What, for instance, stops the pope’s haute couture from incurring the same criticism as that of a vapid clotheshorse? The folderol of ritual is by nature as shallow as wearing a fashion for fashion’s sake. On the flip side, the meek garb of a Dominican friar could be seen as a kind of Catholic “normcore”—delighted by its own pretension to submission.
Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble (1967)
Perhaps we can appeal to Genesis 3.1-7 to redeem clothes. In the fashion of a shallow grave, fig leaves entomb the body in order to elevate the soul. However, even in the Bible, nudity and clothing are hard to pull apart. The Hebrew word, arum, is used to refer to both the nudity of Adam and Eve and to the shrewdness of the serpent. Covering up seems to reproduce temptation by way of omission. Or perhaps nudity was already a form of omission, and this was the problem?
Wearing fig leaves is like the blacking out of a curse word or the closing of a bedroom door. At the Cloisters, one finds several examples: Chanel wedding dresses modeled after baptismal gowns, friar’s robes with unceremonious peep holes in the “private parts,” and a cardinal red Dior gown with a gigantic portrait of Machiavelli.
Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Wedding Ensemble, (1990–91)
House of Dior, John Galliano, spring/summer 2006 (with portrait of NiccolòMachiavelli)
Even in its most simplistic form, clothing seems to confirm the presence of the body in its very obscuring of it. It is both pope and monk, both beyond and underneath. Its heavenly ascension somehow descends. The papal gems encrust a single man with the height of divine being, and this reduces him to nothing. In his angelic outfit, the pope must evaporate in obsequy to the Holy Spirit. He is not just wearing god’s clothes; he is god’s mannequin.
Christian Lacroix F/W 2009 Haute Couture
Likewise, the poetic adornment (i.e., clothing) of truth may undress by way of its flowery refinement. In this way, clothing is almost like swearing. It reflects something hidden even in the nude, for which we cannot find the perfect expression. One can swear on a Bible or at a bad driver—to bless or to damn. Clothing, too, may appear holier than thou or an effusion of meaningless tripe. Either way, its redemption is to tempt us to see beyond the surface.