This year more than 1.6 million people visited The Metropolitan of Art’s exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and Catholic Imagination,” making it the most popular exhibit in the Met’s history. You would think that as a scholar of religious clothing I would be thrilled at this box-office success. Instead I’m concerned that it signals that religious clothing has become just another thing we feel entitled to package and consume for our own profit and entertainment.
At first no one was more excited than I when the Met announced this theme. Forty-two liturgical items on loan from the Vatican? Unprecedented. Couture gowns inspired by Catholic aesthetics from major design houses like Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, and Dior? Yes please. I was excited to learn what sorts of inspiration designers found in the Catholic faith. Were they drawing on Catholic art? Rituals? Their own experiences at mass? Would there be political statements? Subversive critiques of Catholic ethics? I assumed the point of having the glittering items on display amongst the Met’s permanent collections was to teach us how to “read” them better. I thought I’d emerge from the exhibit with expertise akin to that of Amanda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, who knows the real story behind a cerulean blue sweater.
Things started to go awry as soon as I arrived at the Met. I had pre-purchased my entrance ticket and the audio tour, only to find out that there was no audio tour.
Things did not improve. I started in the Byzantine galley where five gold and silver metal mesh Versace dresses were on display, only they were placed above eye level, making it feel like I was peeking up the mannequins’ skirts.