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Heavenly Bodies – Fashion & The Catholic Imagination

Visiting the Heavenly Bodies exhibition straight from a red-eye flight was equivalent to waking up in art and fashion heaven.

Thierry Mugler Evening Ensemble, A/W 1984-85, The Met on 5th.

And I got blessed being the first one in, meaning my pictures are relatively crowd-free compared to what you can see elsewhere.

So seek the limelight, walk the red carpet, your eyes might even see some angels!

House of Dior, John Galliano. Evening Ensemble, A/W 2005–6 Haute Couture. White silk tulle, embroidered white silk, and metal thread. The Met on 5th

Spanning both the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue and their Cloisters location perched on the highest point of Manhattan, Heavenly Bodies is truly a visual tour-de-force.

House of Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Evening Ensemble S/S 1999 with Valentino Evening Dress, A/W 2017-18 behind. The Met on 5th.

Let’s face it, if I tell you “come with me to the museum, there is this fantastic exhibition on medieval art at the Met”, I can already hear a thousand excuses. And I am with you: despite having come to appreciate how rich this art can be during my Art History studies, I would not put Medieval or Renaissance art on my walls.

But what about if Byzantine art comes with this little Dolce & Gabana number?

With Heavenly Bodies, there are many mutually reinforcing forces at play, and they all compel the viewers to look and learn from this cleverly orchestrated dialogue between past, present and future.

Perhaps finding mannequins wearing haute couture gowns by Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Chanel, Yves Saint-Laurent etc. in the context of museum collections of antique jewelry or altarpieces is still an eye-catching novelty. And rightly so.

Versace, A/W 1997-98, The Met on 5th

Fashion and Haute-Couture almost feel too “new” to belong to museums.

Nevertheless, having written about breathtaking past exhibitions which explored the fashion of Balenciaga at Musee Bourdelle, Dior at Les Arts Decoratifs and Iris Van Herpen at Phoenix Art Museum, I am glad the Met keeps on threading the stories and inspiration that art never fails to provide to couturiers. Taking it to a whole different level, in the process.

Be it Dior with a Pollock-inspired dress or Jun Takahashi’s take on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights: the fascination and inspiration transcend time, art history and visual appeal.

Dolce & Gabbana Wedding Ensemble, S/S 2013. The Met Cloisters

Juxtaposed against centuries-old tapestries and paintings, the aesthetic contrast between dramatic fashion and the quieter, sometimes faded, art of the past actually draws attention to both in equal measure.

House of Balenciaga, Wedding Ensemble, 1967. The Met Cloisters

Fashion houses see their body of work (or is it work on the body?!) rightly elevated to museum-worthy art form while Medieval and Renaissance Art seem more alive. Or is it divine?

House of Dior, John Galliano, Evening Ensemble A/W 2001-01 with Thierry Mugler A/W 1984-85 at left. The Met on 5th.

Trying to think how these Balenciaga and Thierry Mugler creations breathe new life into the art on the walls, I believe the ghostly mannequins, strangely, bring a humanizing factor to an art which can feel really difficult to connect with sometimes.

Chanel never hid that her black & white outfits, pure lines and strict collars owed much to her childhood years spent with the nuns at a convent.

Thierry Mugler A/W 1984-85 at left. The Met on 5th.

And with Thierry Mugler, you can never be far from an angel, from his couture creations to his signature fragrance.

Cleverly staged fashion moments encourage viewers to time-travel back to when such religious artworks would have marked the rhythm of life.

A.F. Vandevorst, A/W 2001-02, The Met on 5th

Counting prayers dressed with an A.F. Vandevorst rosary conjures up ambulatory devotions and religious meditations fitting the confinement of monastic life, while altarpieces, monumental paintings and saint sculptures almost seem activated and more sacred, as opposed to being simply stored and preserved within museum walls.

I found this art conversation most beautifully expressed at The Met Cloisters.

Salvaged from ruin and neglect in France and Spain, purchased by sculptor and collector George Grey Barnard, dismantled and shipped to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, these four cloisters were eventually rebuilt as architectural museum “fabric¹” to house a portion of the Met encyclopedic art collection.

Valentino Evening Ensemble A/W 2017-18, The Met Cloisters

With Heavenly Bodies inhabiting The Cloisters’ walls, museology takes on an entirely new dimension as a significant portion of the museum’s architectural frame is a medieval artefact itself. In a sense, The Met Cloisters blur the historical distinction between collection items and architectural display, mutually reinforcing the visual appeal of both while making sumptuous Valentino fashion apparitions all the more resonant.

Valentino Evening Ensembles A/W 2015-16, The Met Cloisters

The overall integrity and function of the original cloisters also fit perfectly with Heavenly Bodies, due the importance of material selection, preparation and craftsmanship when it comes to fashion design.  

The dialogue established between the medicinal plants grown in the cloister gardens (columbine, lady’s mantle) but also used and represented in textiles and manuscripts found in the adjacent galleries (notably the Unicorn Tapestries), all talk of material culture, in both past and present tense.

Thom Browne, Wedding Ensemble S/S 2018 with The Unicorn in Captivity Tapestry in the background. The Met Cloisters

This may be hard to believe nowadays but in Medieval and  Renaissance times, embroideries and tapestries were more valuable than paintings. Threaded with strips of gilded silver and gold, such artworks were a value repository – unfortunately for us, too easy to melt down when currency needed to be raised for wars.

Valentino, Evening Dress A/W 2015-16, The Met Cloisters

Rare surviving examples, such as 27 designs for ecclesiastical vestments created by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1432-1498) over 26 years during the Quattrocento, attest to an incredible refinement and craftsmanship. Yet,  you probably won’t ever see anything like what Heavenly Bodies has on show.

Henri Matisse, Chasuble (circa 1950), on view in “Heavenly Bodies” at the Met Fifth Avenue, Anna Wintour Costume Center.

On loan from the Vatican collection (which almost never loans anything and had not done so since 1983), what is on view at the Met Anna Wintour Costume Center does not allow photography. Let’s put it this way, these embroidered chasubles and mitres are practically jewelry and definitely wearable luxury, with a papal aura that even the most talented couturiers can’t even dream to rival. Although they keep trying beautifully…

House of Dior, John Galliano, Evening Ensemble A/W 2001-01

During the Renaissance, this represented “mobile luxury²”, projecting Florence’s spiritual wealth further and farther as these bejewelled, costly luxurious garments could be worn outside the City in which they were made.

The or nué goldwork technique enabled a most subtle chiaroscuro, all made of precious threads rendering skin tone modelling in an almost three-dimension effect on fabric. This reached such “a painterly quality” that Giorgio Vasari and other painter artists felt goldsmiths and embroiderers really threatened their own trade towards painting reality. Now, imagine those being worn during mass and sacraments: they arguably became the first “moving pictures”, as the narratives threaded in gold and silver came to shimmering life with movement.

As you’ve understood, unlike other blockbuster exhibitions, Heavenly Bodies won’t travel. You won’t catch it anywhere but at the Met and Met Cloisters: fashion could travel but the Met collection and Met Cloisters are set in stone. Plan on joining the half-million people who have already visited Heavenly Bodies since May 10…or look at a few more of my pictures, if you can’t make the trip before October 8, 2018.


Benedictines, and Dominicans alike, put on their robes with the same supplication:

“Clothe me, O Lord, with the robe of salvation and the tunic of justice, and ever surround me with the garment of joy”

(13th c. manuscript from the Benedictine Abbey of Morbach in Alsace), in part inspired by Isaiah 61:10).


© 2018 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.


¹ Campbell, T, Foreword to Barnet, P & Wu, N (2005), The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, New York, p.7

²Wright, A., The Pollaiuolo Brothers: The Arts of Florence and Rome.

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