NEW YORK – Scarlet and lit up, the red carpet in front of the Met’s Costume Institute today patiently awaits the feathered and bejeweled dresses, inspired by the Catholic imagination, which will grace it this evening on fashion’s biggest night out.
As the countdown tempts both the public and the media to impatience, Catholic women from the worlds of fashion, art, design, news and entertainment express enthusiasm and optimism toward the widely publicized event and encourage the Church to seize the opportunity that they believe this intersection of faith and fashion represents.
The Met Gala, known as the “party of the year” for fashion aficionados, brings together the designer elite with movers and influencers of popular culture, from Kim Kardashian to Beyoncé. It also inaugurates the Met’s Costume Institute’s main exhibit, which this year is titled, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” with guests invited to interpret the theme in their clothing on the red carpet.
Priceless vestments from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, some of which have never left the Vatican, will be on display before the celebrities and the world during what is the most-Instagrammed event of the year.
While fashion crosses gender lines, with both men and women being engaged and enthused by it, it’s perhaps women who for the most part have been its subject, being both elevated as muses and also belittled and objectified.
While some Catholic women look at the event with trepidation, concerned that it might provide yet another opportunity for a secular cheap dig at religion, others expressed curiosity and optimism, emphasizing that the exhibit represents a chance for the Church to be “out there,” even convert someone.
There’s one thing all the women agreed on: This is not a moment that can be ignored.
When a picture of Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, Italian designer Donatella Versace, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican, began to make the rounds of the internet in late February, it sparked an immediate reaction.
While some perceive fashion and faith as an odd couple, others recognize that the opulence and richness associated with fashion are a key element of the Catholic faith.
“When it comes to Catholic understanding of fashion, you’re expressing through beauty the greatest act of creation, which is the creation of the human person,” said Maria Grizzetti, a blogger and Dominican tertiary.
In her view, extravagance is in the DNA of the Church, exemplified by the “extravagance” of God’s making Himself man in order to die for humanity, a belief that’s made tangible in rites, art and the sacraments, especially the beauty of the Mass.
“The Catholic imagination is heaven. Period,” Grizzetti told Crux. “Everything expressed or rendered artistically is an attempt to render heaven. It’s the only justification for why we have such elaborate rendering of religious garments, but also art and architecture.”
Other observers agreed that “extravagance” is key.
“We think of the fashion world as being one of excess, but the Catholic Church has also had a history of being a front-runner in terms of sartorial and artistic excess, especially during the Renaissance, which may have resulted in spiritual drawbacks but gave the world some beautiful art,” said Delia Gallagher, CNN’s Rome-based Vatican Correspondent.
The unique thing about the Catholic Church, she added, “is that it holds the sacred and the profane in tension,” channeling beauty to serve as a direct link to the heavens.
Many of the values that motivate fashion and pop culture today are at striking odds with official Catholic teaching, which may explain why not everyone had an immediately positive response upon hearing of the upcoming collision of high Church and high fashion.
“The beauty of religious art in its various forms has been misunderstood, mocked, and used as a means to attack the Church, rather than to appreciate and recognize her contributions to the culture and the world,” said Teresa Tomeo, an author and a talk show host interested in media and pop culture.
Despite this, she added, with Pope Francis asking faithful “to reach out beyond our comfort zones,” the Met exhibit might be a positive opportunity.
Anna Mitchell, news director at Sacred Heart Catholic Radio, producer, and host for the Son Rise Morning Show, expressed the same skepticism when the Vatican agrees to partner with “questionable industries.”
“The fashion industry, I think, would certainly fall into the ‘throw-away culture’ that Pope Francis rightly rails against,” she told Crux. “We know that behind the art there is also the exploitation of women, of workers, and that’s not to mention psychological issues everyday women have when it comes to trying to live up to the unrealistic standards that the high fashion industry sets.”
According to the radio host and commentator, the event also risks heightening the already polarized debate within the Church, given the possibility that the exhibit might encourage stylists and designers to parade clothes down the red carpet offensive toward Catholic sensitivities.
According to Justina McCaffrey, among the biggest names in Canadian fashion thanks to her stunning wedding gown designs, Catholics watching the Met Gala should not be surprised by synched waists, high splits and long trains, which, she said, are not borne from a desire to mock the Church but rather to celebrate it.
“Knowing the way a designer’s mind works, we should not be insulted, because this is their way of showing homage to the Church,” McCaffrey told Crux in a phone interview.
The designer suggested instead “to just smile when it happens,” adding that if she were going to design something for the event, she would play with a bishop-inspired gold damask gown of some sort.
A self-described conservative Catholic “in love with the Latin Mass,” McCaffrey said that in her opinion, no institution is more fit to host the beautiful Vatican garments than the Met.
“The people who are concerned are living in a place of fear, and they need to get out of it!” she added.
Others remain uncertain.
“Our culture generally associates heavenly bodies and beauty with women clad in the alluring and tantalizing, like what we see in fashion magazines or at Victoria’s Secret. This is quite different than what vestments are used for – to honor and bring glory to God,” said Carrie Gress, a mother, author and philosopher who teaches at Pontifex University.
She added that while in the fashion world beauty is a means unto itself, the Catholic imagination regards beauty as “a means to bring glory to God and to bring God’s glory to earth.”
Gress nonetheless added that “there’s an opportunity here to illustrate both how a woman’s body, as well as art, can and should point to something higher, more elevating, more sublime than what we have come to expect in our contemporary culture.”
The Church’s patronage of the arts
For some of those curious about what will unfold at the Met, there’s hope that it might serve as an encouragement for the Church to return to its historical role as a patron of the arts.
“Since the 1960s and ’70s, the Church has given up a lot of intellectual real estate when it comes to culture. Cinder block churches and kitschy statuary are the norm now, but clearly this hasn’t always been the case,” Gress said.
“I’d love to see the take-away from this event to be a great reminder that the Church historically gets culture and knows how to do it well,” she added.
According to Sierra Sequoia, a young Catholic entrepreneur working in style and design with a liturgical and costume design background, this large-scale event will encourage the Church to remember its roots as a sponsor of beauty.
“I do hope that it prompts Catholics to say, ‘Wow, look at the amazing art that we have been patrons of for thousands of years, what can we do to make it happen again?’” she said.
Evangelizing through beauty
For centuries, beauty has been a preferred tool of evangelization due to its power to move and inspire hearts beyond language and culture barriers. Some believe the magnificent garments on display at the Met also represent an opportunity to convert though art.
According to Sequoia, it will be up to Catholics to make that happen.
“There is going to be a lot of attention and a lot of press. Are we going to address it appropriately, or let it be?” she asked.
She added that in her years at design school the Met gala was a carefully examined event, from which students would draw inspiration, and they saw it as the pinnacle of what is happening in fashion today. The power of the Met ball to engage in the artistic and popular culture cannot be underestimated, she said, and can propel the Church’s message to places it seldom visits.
“This could be an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work on someone who would never be caught dead at a Catholic Mass, and I’m all about drawing people in through the beautiful, which can lead them to the good and the true,” said Mitchell.
Also, according to Grizzetti, “It would be a missed opportunity if this went down as just another collection of Catholic objects.”
Catholic commentator and theologian Pia De Solenni said that while fashion may be an “unexpected and unconventional” dialogue partner, the Met Gala can provide a useful platform for Catholicism to divulge its message.
McCaffrey has attended the Gala many times in the 1980s and ’90s, when it was still a small elite event and not the massive parade of starlets that it is today. She said she’s very aware of its power to influence and inspire people.
“In New York we’ve had a number of churches closing down for lack of attendance, and something like this can give a new and unusual crowd a sense of the historical beauty and grandness of the Catholic Church,” she said.
McAffrey said there’s a definite thirst for meaning and faith among the fashion crowd, who might be drawn in by the religious garments, adding that her own conversion took place while listening to Catholic choir music. Its ethereal notes, she said, drew her into learning more about the Church.
Francis minimalism meets old school opulence
In a way, the Met gala pays homage to a kind of Catholic imagery and opulence that’s out of fashion under the Francis papacy. While the Argentinian pope might be praised for his humility and pastoral approach, he would likely not make a best-dressed list, having chosen a more somber and simple style.
The gold-threaded vestments and diamond-crusted tiaras on display for the rich and famous at the Met gala likely aren’t what Francis has in mind when he refers to “the peripheries.”
“How does the Church of Pope Francis have a real dialogue with people who are paying $30,000 per ticket for the Costume Institute’s party to open the exhibit?” Mitchell asked, concerned that most people attending the event “will only look at it through the lens of fashion, and not with the eyes of the Church.”
A close observer of the Vatican, Gallagher also acknowledges the contradiction between Francis’s message of poverty and the “outrageously expensive clothes and vestments” showcased at the Met, but she adds that it might also strike a positive note.
“The exhibit might help to show just how different things are today: in the Francis era, expensive vestments aren’t much in vogue; popes haven’t worn a tiara since Paul VI. There is a different sensibility in the Church and in the world now,” she said.
“It’s funny to think that the Catholic Church might still be at the forefront of fashion, with a return to simplicity that Pope Francis represents,” Gallagher said.
Stay tuned for Crux’s latest news and updates related to the 2018 Met Gala and exhibition on Catholic fashion, where Crux’s faith and culture correspondent, Claire Giangravè, and national correspondent Christopher White will be providing regular updates. Follow them on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave & @CWWhite212 and visit Crux for daily updates and interviews from New York City.