Last night was Met Monday. The Met Ball. The Gala. Fashion event of the year and so forth.
And, per usual, there was a theme—”Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” —and that theme was interpreted loosely, literally, and liberally.
How to interpret this theme? It has also been described as “Sunday’s Best” in the dress code, which can lead to less ostentatious ensembles and what we’d see on any old red carpet. Some people lack imagination. Much less Catholic Imagination.
To abide by the idea of the “Catholic Imagination” is to abide by the rich and dizzyingly long tradition of Catholic dress, from art to ritual to society. It’s an expansive timeline that I couldn’t possibly cover here. But it is a part of our collective consciousness.
Catholicism and Dress
Dress, in the sense that it will be used here, is “an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings.” (Roach-Higgins, Eicher.) It’s easy enough to see how the highly symbolic dress of the Catholic tradition holds meaning that, once established, is significant when others encounter it.
For example, the nun’s habit makes a show of exactly the sort of woman you’ve encountered (wrong or right) by her dress: pious, prudent, unassuming, and virtuous. You can’t see her hair, her body, and her face is untouched by the various products and colors women so often use. She is distinguishably Other.
In religious art and iconography the dress is similarly distinct, elaborate as it may be. We are pointed to godly and ungodly figures in a jumbled mess of symbolism that we read with ease, exposed to them so often in our culture and religion.
The floating golden discs that signify the halo, the blue hue of the Virgin Mary’s frock that denotes her importance and regality despite her humble origins—these are the tidbits we understand upon seeing. The Catholic Imagination is a rich playground for all art forms to draw from, just as much as Greek Mythology, fairy tales, and Asian folklore.
Of the host of referential garbs on display last evening, only some were interesting beyond first glance. First and most obviously, Rihanna. Co-chair to this Met Gala and consistent overachieving guest.
Perhaps because she’s high up in the Met Gala’s chain of command, but not quite Papal (does this make Anna Wintour the Pope?), Rihanna has chosen to emulate a bishop. She has on the traditional and iconic headpiece, the mitre made by Stephen Jones millinery, wears at least one ring, has what appears to be a variation of the “pectoral cross” on, but is without the crozier (shepherd’s staff, essentially) and the pallium (sort of a long collar.)
This outfit is clearly profane. But ignoring the fact that the office of the bishop is no place for seduction of any kind, it’s interesting that Rihanna has hit on so many of the essential elements. The mitre typically signifies a flame of the Pentecostal persuasion, one that leads in the dark towards the mitre’s other meaning: victory. And if we are to understand anything about Rihanna it’s that she is the victor—at this Met Ball, in fashion, in business, in music, and in your face. As for her leading, it goes without saying: you follow.
In terms of the aesthetic detailing, the intricacy and luxury of the beading on her custom John Galliano dress and overcoat echoes religious art from the 15th and 16th century, even hinting to the Russian Orthodox tradition of icons. A fine example of some artistic similarity is El Greco’s “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”. It shows a sumptuously dressed bishop while the color scheme and adornments on other popular religious paneling at the time are expressed in her outfit.
The choice to go with silver in lieu of gold is a nice modern update on what would certainly end up looking a little too on the nose in gold. Though with the bishop mitre balanced on her head, we’re planted squarely on the nose anyway.
The flower motifs and other swirly ornate shapes in her overcoat and dress could simply be Galliano’s choice, but to me they harken back to the illuminated pages of Medieval Bibles. It is fun to picture a number of brown-robed, tonsure-headed monks making Rih Rih’s dress.
Lilly Collins is highly underrated at most fashion events, in my opinion. She never seems to be talked much about, yet she always seems to deliver classic and stunning ensembles. This Met Gala was no different.
There’s a lot going on here in terms of women in the church. This iconography is classic: the Rosary in hand, a symbol of the pious and virtuous woman or the nun, the halo to signify that she is a saint or holy person, and the simple black and white garb pointing to nuns or a priest in a cossack. She plays a godly woman well.
But most impactful and most importantly of this outfit: the tear.
Tears are often mentioned in Catholicism. They exude ardency, earnest devotion, and go hand in hand with begging for forgiveness. If you are or were raised Catholic, you are likely familiar with these themes. Excessive crying had its heyday during the Middle Ages, when worshippers “believed that vulnerability, expressed through weeping, was the ‘only way toward holiness.'”(Gutgsell, 1.)
Mentions of crying or tears in the Bible are plenty, but I particularly enjoy when it’s mixed with another tradition of Catholicism: the washing of feet.
“As she stood behind [Jesus] at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” Luke 7:38
Catholic tears are not always water or salty human tears. They are often blood, oil, or some other liquid of foreboding or fortunate meaning. Tales of weeping statues and paintings are plenty, but only a few are actually verified by the Church, one of which was in Sicily during the 1950s. Experts, scientists, and clergy members traveled to it to find that even when wiping the tears of this particular artwork and removing it from its wall mount, tears reappeared once more.
Lily here is a walking icon, a Weeping Madonna, grieving still. Or maybe she’s sweating blood, like Jesus did.
Modern Fashion and Iconography
One of the perks of being raised Christian in the Western World is that you grow up armed with the knowledge to decode all manner of literature, art, and yes, even fashion.
The two easiest examples are Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. Both brands’ have Catholicism in their DNA and it manifests far from subtly.
Besides the Italian Catholics and their iconic look (cross on chain, done up hair, skirt suit, and so on), Dolce & Gabbana derives much of its pattern-making from ancient religious history. One of the best examples of this is their Fall/Winter 2013 collection, inspired by Byzantine mosaics.
Though they did turn to Roman coinage rather mutinously the very next season.
Gianni Versace had a particular fascination with Catholicism himself and, despite dressing women in bondage apparel occasionally, always seemed to return to his mixture of Grecian might and Catholic extravagance with his gold crosses and outlandish prints.
And we’ve hardly touched the world of Alexander McQueen and his Elizabethan influences. I wish we could have had a bit of that, but the Virgin Queen’s religious leanings remain rather murky.
A Call from Above
Artists are drawn to Christianity. It has a dramatic and righteous narrative, mystical qualities, and drastic meaning to it. Most of the Western World understands and recognizes Catholic symbolism, so artists can saturate their work with it, using Crucifixion or Baptism as a means to relate life and death. I’m sure similar is true for other areas of the world and their relevant religions.
What is the Catholic imagination? It is in of itself a philosophy, a form of understanding oneself in relation to the rest of the world—hell, the Universe. It’s a space of self-reflection, of guilt, of forgiveness, of retribution, and of doubt. It is a matter of life and death, of eternal life and death. Artists are cerebral, self-reflecting beings. Religion is within their realm, whether they practice it or not.
And while this exhibition is controversial in nature and hard to navigate considering Catholic virtues contradict fashion’s wasteful splendor; it is a legitimate pairing. The two have always gone hand in hand, even if they were at odds.
Though, like the self-indulgent clergymen of the past, the vanity of celebrities adorned with iconography, wearing halos, and reaching for godly status is a bit too close for comfort to Medieval past. The Kardashians are not our deities and Rihanna is not our God-appointed monarch. We’d all do well to remember that all of us are mere mortals. Even the ones with mitres on our heads.