I was brought up in Catholicism, while attending Catholic schools from kindergarten to college. Going to Mass nearly every Sunday, I never thought about the Catholic Church’s influence on fashion.
My long-time friend Jeanne, who owns stores in the Midwest, invited me to join her in New York City for Mother’s Day. The added plus was that I would get to spend the day with my son Christopher. By a remarkable fashion coincidence, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had just unveiled the exhibit Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.
The media buildup began with the Met Gala, the annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, with this year’s dress code, “Sunday’s Best.” As celebrities and fashion icons climb the museum’s carpeted steps, they vie for the most over-the-top design. Rihanna, who never disappoints, arrived with a modern female pop-like ensemble complete with a pearl beaded miter. Sarah Jessica Parker wore what looked like a tabernacle on her head, and Katy Perry used a Rolls Royce convertible dressed as an angel for her entrance.
Jeanne (also Catholic) and I began Mother’s Day with Mass at St. Malachy near Times Square. Known as the actor’s church, due to its proximity to the theatre district and its liturgy schedule that is coordinated with Broadway plays, it has served the acting community for decades. Douglas Fairbanks married Joan Crawford there, and in 1926, thousands jammed West 49th Street in front of the church in final tribute to Rudolph Valentino.
On our way to brunch we stopped at Duane Reade, a New York pharmacy, to kill time and play in the cosmetics area. We were left alone to try on lipstick and gel soles, giggling about how ridiculous it was for two grown women to have so much fun in a drug store.
We met Christopher for a sumptuous brunch at Beauty and Essex, a super-trendy restaurant on the Lower East Side, and then headed uptown to the Met. Waiting in a light rain, we imagined the fashion crowd climbing the dramatic stairs for the gala that had happened just a few nights before. By the time we got to the massive entrance we were a bit soggy, but enthused at what we were about to see.
This groundbreaking exhibit incorporates The Costume Institute, the Met’s Department of Medieval and the Cloisters, within the museum. It also represents the first collaboration between the Vatican and the Costume Institute. The power of the exhibit hits you right away, as a spiritual and fashion experience with a mix of iconic fashion designs presented with Papal vestments, religious statues and over-the-top presentations.
Most of the featured designers were raised Roman Catholic, and although many are not practicing the religion, its influence is striking. The Versace collections of gold mesh dresses and tunics use the cross as a decorative element, inspired by the Byzantine era. Floating dress forms with Versace designs are the first stop in a maze of fashion and religious wonder. Besides crosses, there were Madonna references with crowned or haloed headpieces, such as Dolce & Gabbana’s 2013 wedding ensemble, next to statues of Mother and Child.
The day was a heavenly combination of fashion, food, friendship and motherhood, and inspiration from Catholicism. Who knew?