The Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute's annual exhibition is always greeted with anticipation. This year's, "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" brings two worlds, the spiritual and the secular, together in a way you might not think makes sense, at first.
But as Andrew Bolton, head curator for the Costume Institute, explains, a pathway to greater faith for many is the appreciation of beauty. The exhibit is on until Oct. 8.
Vivian Lee: What inspired you to go to Catholicism to create this very elaborate, monumental exhibit?
Andrew Bolton: The idea was to cover five religions: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. And up to 11 months ago, that's what we were going on. But 80 percent of the designers we were looking at gravitated much more to Catholicism and Catholic iconography. When the Vatican collection came on board, the imbalance between Catholicism and the other four religions was even greater, so we decided we needed to focus on Catholicism.
VL: Why that title, "Heavenly Bodies, Fashion and the Catholic Imagination"?
AB: We wanted to locate within the Catholic ideology heaven, but also the idea of the body. The body is so central to fashion. It's also central to the Catholic doctrine, this idea of the incarnation, of transubstantiation.*
VL: The Met Gala this year introduced this exhibit (the theme of the gala was "Sunday Best"), with superstars wearing some of the designers featured. The Twitterverse lit up — some called it blasphemous to have Catholicism put on display that way. Did that hurt you?
AB: Not really. I think in actual fact what the gala did was make a connection between church processions and the fashion runway. Both are based on an active and passive participant, both are based on theatricality, performativity.
VL: Makes me wonder if you're also trying to confront two ideas, the patriarchy of the church and the dominance of the female form in the fashion world?
AB: Even when [the designers] play with masculine types of dress within the Catholic hierarchy...they transpose it onto the female body.
Which, in itself, is probably the most subversive part of the exhibition —
VL: — a miter on a woman's head!
AB: Completely. And that, for a devout Catholic, is shocking.
VL: What do you want the visitor to come away with, if they don't already know the reputation of the Costume Institute within the Met Museum?
AB: For this particular exhibition...the role of aesthetics. Within fashion, and the role of esthetics within religion, I think Catholicism in particular has a rich history in the role of beauty, in terms of how one accesses one's faith.
VL: The Costume Institute's reputation — why is it so important to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
AB: It's one of the most visible parts of the museum, primarily because of the centrality of fashion to popular culture. Fashion has become one of the more appreciated art forms of popular culture. It's a living art form.
VL: But so many people think, "It's so superficial, it has nothing to do with our daily lives."
AB: Maybe I'm biased, but even if you decide to reject fashion — if you decide, "I'm going to wake up this morning and put on a t-shirt and jeans" — you're still making a statement. It's still about your identity.
VL: "How am I going to reveal, what am I going to conceal?"
AB: There's a lot of psychology behind it.
VL: So many of the designers featured in "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" are Catholic. How much of their faith informed their designs, do you think?
AB: Many of them no longer practice. They rejected the [notion] that growing up Catholic had an impact on their creative development. Slowly, though, email by email, [they said,] "You're absolutely right: Growing up Catholic has made me think about my creativity differently" — particularly through the trope of storytelling.
VL: Transformation is so important to Catholics. Does this exhibit force the faithful to confront that in a way they might not have understood before?
AB: Yes, I think that just as fashion changes, it is much faster than the Catholic faith. But the reason why Catholicism is so interesting, is that it is able to change and transform to contemporary ideas.
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*Transubstantiation is a part of Catholic doctrine, and is the belief that during Mass, when Holy Communion is celebrated, the bread and wine on the altar are turned into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.