Heavenly Bodies: a MET exhibit with a grandiose flair

By Jen

Our first exhibition from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, was exactly two years ago. I still remember how excited we were for walking into the Museum and be able to see the Manus x Machina exhibition in 2016. Due to logistic reasons (I moved to New York after it closed) I couldn't see the 2017 exhibition, so when it was the time to see Heavenly Bodies, I just couldn't wait.
Why am I telling you all this? Because this time, my visit to the museum to see the exhibition dedicated to the influence of Catholic church in fashion made me realize that it has been a while, and it also made me think of how much has changed in that while, and thanks to the knowledge.

Heavenly Bodies is available through October 8th at the MET
Melissa and I completed our first year of the Master of Arts in Fashion Studies, a discipline that has helped us understand the roots of fashion theory and how those theories connect with all the things we wear and that other people wear every day. And all this, obviously, has affected the way we look at fashion, including the way we see the setting of exhibitions like Heavenly Bodies, a project that has all the compliments of the industry but, if you look closely, you end up under the impression that it is more about its grandiose ambitions than what it really intakes.

Curated by Andrew Bolton, Heavenly Bodies shows how Catholicism, a religion under many designers from our days were raised, influenced their work. As the brochure explains "it unfolds as a series of short stories told through conversations between religious artwork on the MET collection and fashions of the twentieth and twenty-first century". And, indeed, being there is like being in the middle of a Catholic movie, like The Da Vinci Code with Dior dresses.

Christian Lacroix Haute Couture wedding dress (2009)

The color was a surprise in the exhibition, like
this dress from Valentino
Right at the entrance of the main wing containing the exhibition (divided in three sections, one of them the MET Cloisters, north Manhattan), are the first dresses displayed in high pillars, Dolce & Gabbana dresses from the famous fall 2013 collection, with beading and brocades from the baroque period that reminded us of the Catholic paintings of the 18th century. From there, the strong ecclesiastic music drives the attention of the crowd and guides them through several rooms where we can see everything from jewelry and accessories to stunning dresses, including somewhere the catholic inspiration, is subtle and delicate.

Dolce & Gabbana in a privileged part of the exhibition
One of the biggest contributors of the exhibitions was Versace, which is why is very obvious that the Italian brand has many pieces on display, including several from the 1997 Haute Couture collection that Gianni Versace presented just a few days before being murdered (and that we show you during our recap of The Assassination of Gianni Versace'). We can also find numerous pieces from the Galliano days in Dior, Cristian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and other brands considered less mainstream, like Thom Browne (who is, casually, the partner of Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute) and Sorelle Fontana.

The dresses that Versace refused to lend to American Crime Story
Being Catholic Church an institution that draws a line connecting heavenly qualities with the opulence of its superiors and, of course, its deities, it's no surprise that most of the pieces displayed are from Haute Couture collections, where the handcrafted work, the beading and the details and volume are common resources.

Madonna, from the 2005 Dior
collection, under Galliano's direction

John Galliano for Dior, Haute Couture fall 2000

Gown designed by Yves Saint Laurent for the
Virgin of Rocio, of the Cathedral of Notre Damme

In the big picture, it is correct to say that Heavenly Bodies is an exhibition full of glow and solemnity, but not only for its dimensions, for the number of pieces collected. However, the 'size' of the project also has to do with the way it is being displayed more than its actual size, which we can consider one of its flaws. Being set in for different scenarios, it becomes hard to follow. The first part, in one of the main wings, is the biggest and the one that follows the premise of telling a story connected to other religious objects in the museum. Walking through the halls it's possible not to see just clothes, but also accessories inspired in the Catholicism (that means an awful lot of crosses).

Brooches and pendants, from Chanel

Jacket from Versace
Jean Paul Gaultier
Though the good intentions of the first parte, the second and third (the most interesting ones, actually) are in different areas. One of themm the Costume Institute itself, which is the lowest part of the museum, and that has the pieces that the Vatican lend for the exhibition, real pieces of art with golden brocades, hand-painted fabrics and accessories with precious stones (including the ceremonial outfits and tiaras of some Popes) that unfortunately we can't show you because pictures are not allowed (as part of the agreement with the Church, because this objects are one of a kind). The other part of Heavenly Bodies is even further than that, in the MET Cloisters, a part of the museum that you can find in the most northern part of Manhattan and that not many people go to because of time. The result? Missing a big part of the exhibition.

It is a total of 25 galleries used of Heavenly Bodies and two locations of the museum for this project, the biggest of the MET so far. However, Heavenly Bodies is big, not really diverse. Beyond mainstream names like Galliano, YSL, Lacroix and, of course, Versace, there is no real exploration when it comes to participants. Many also point out the fact that, for example, the inclusion of Thom Browne might be biased for his affiliation with Andrew Bolton, as well as the lack of independent new designers. The whole project feels official and, sadly, really mainstream.

Alexander McQueen, 1999. One of the most creative pieces (because
of its subtle approach) and yet one that doesn't have a special place in the display.
Mask from A.F Vandervost, one of the less
mainstream names of the exhibition
Of course, it is a great experience regardless of what we can consider flaws, basically because you don't get to see a Valentino Couture that close every day, let alone the tiara that Pius IX used in the 19th Century. However, there are always observations about the work of these group of people who move the big figures of the fashion industry. With all that, Heavenly Bodies is worth the trip if you can make it to town (it will be through October 8th) and you have time to walk around dresses for a couple of hours. The MET keeps creating and we keep buying it, and you too!

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