Holy Chic: Byzantine Glory in Art and Fashion at the Met

By Ahnna Lee

   

“The Pope Wears Prada” was the headline of a 2005 Newsweek article reviewing Benedict XVI’s chic sartorial choices: red Prada loafers and Gucci sunglasses styled with his papal garments. Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, cites that quote as the catalyst for his latest curation: Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Although brief, the article made Bolton realize there was much more to be deliberated, “namely the role that dress plays within the Catholic Church and the role the Catholic Church plays in fashion and the imagination.” The curator, who is also responsible for the hugely successful Costume Institute shows Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and China: Through the Looking Glass, in 2011 and 2015 respectively, has now put on another astonishing exhibition that is ripe with eloquent context. Working in congruity with the museum’s department of Medieval Arts, costumes are thoughtfully placed amongst religious works of art from the museum’s permanent collection, establishing enduring and iconic interpretations of fashion’s seminal relationship with Catholicism.

Evening Dress, Gianna 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

The exhibition is arranged like a pilgrimage: To experience the entire show viewers must journey between The Anna Wintour Costume Center, the Byzantine and Medieval art galleries, and the Cloisters, in upper Manhattan. There is no shortage of exemplary Catholic imagery and motifs, including Madonna, Christ, celestial beings, and crosses to name a few. “Most of the designers in each exhibition were raised Catholic and while many of them no longer practice and their relationships to Catholicism vary considerably, most acknowledge its significant influence on their imaginations,” says Bolton. For a number of designers, the highly decorative, glistening interiors and architecture of Byzantine churches provided considerable influence for their collections.

In one gallery, five dresses from the late Gianni Versace’s last haute couture collection for autumn/winter 1997–98 are situated high on pedestals, ascending like saints embellished in gold metal-mesh and emboldened with crosses, revealing the designer’s inspiring visit to The Met’s 1997 exhibition The Glory of Byzantium.
 

Ensemble, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana for Dolce & Gabbana,
autumn/winter 2013-14; Courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb

Dolce & Gabbana’s autumn/winter 2013–14 collection pays tribute to Byzantine cathedrals and their radiant micro mosaics and tesserae, particularly the epically lustrous Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. The five evening garments presented are made of silk organza and or jacquard, embroidered with crystals and beads, some with gold and silver paillettes and mother-of-pearl-encrusted stones reflecting the elaborate inlay of micro mosaics and gilded tiles that commemorate its heavenly Catholic figures.
 

Gilet, Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, 2007-8 Métiers d'Art; Courtesy of CHANEL
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb

Referencing Byzantine and medieval reliquary crosses (which often held relics of saints and martyrs), designer Karl Lagerfeld for the House of Chanel creates an impressive gillet – an armor of linking Maltese crosses. Seen as a version of chainmail, this ornamental shield, which supports the lavish and often colorful attributes of Byzantine crosses, is also reminiscent of Chanel’s interlocking C’s, effectively connecting two major design.
 

"Gold-Gotha" Ensemble, Christian Lacroix, autumn/winter 1988-89 haute couture; Courtesy of Maison Christian Lacroix, Paris
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb

One might recognize a fitted jacket by Christian Lacroix adorned with a jeweled cross: It was the first cover of American Vogue under the leadership of Anna Wintour. A bold reference to jeweled Byzantine crosses, Lacroix magnified its numbers of jewels and beads in a glorified construction, not unlike the elaborate way Byzantine cathedrals were built and decorated.

Beyond the unequivocal influence of Catholic iconography and symbolism displayed in the fashion, Bolton concludes, “it is the narrative impulses of the designers that are the deepest and most profound expressions of their Catholic imaginations. While the fashions that are featured in the exhibition might seem far-removed from the sanctity of the Catholic Church, they shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, for they embody the storytelling traditions of Catholicism.”

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is on view until 8 October at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ahnna Lee is a New York-based editor and writer.

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