Monday night the fashion and museum worlds had their annual collision at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Fashion Institute Gala. It’s always an entertaining display of the good, the bad, and the ugly. For every memorable moment of breathtaking creativity, there’s a designer phoning in the theme for the paycheck, or a moment of entitled privilege run amok. Stars: they ignore museum rules just like us! It’s great to admire the antique paneling of a period room, but that doesn’t mean you can lean against it for a selfie, Kim and Kylie. Not to mention that themed costume parties are almost always for offensive cultural appropriation, an issue that Costume Institute labels have generally given a permissive shrug.
This year’s theme was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, tied to an exciting exhibit featuring Vatican artifacts. Religion nerds waited with baited breath to see just how glorious or blasphemous the party would be. As usual, it was a mixed bag. Some gowns were tacky, and many barely addressed the theme. The red carpet resembled every middle school All Saints Day party, with guys in basic black and girls playing it safe as pretty angels and princesses. But several party goers did think outside the box and pay creative homage to religious imagination.
Imagination is the operative word here. As visual culture historian David Morgan eloquently explains in his recent book The Forge of Vision, religions teach their followers how to view the world. Catholic cosmology envisions an unbroken connection between heaven and earth via the sacraments and communion of saints. Since God became human, lived, suffered, and died on earth; physicality has been sanctified.
In Catholic practice, symbolic objects and garments function as visible reminders of invisible realities, and devotions consistently encourage the faithful to engage their imaginations. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, the Mysteries of the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, and even the concept of Eucharistic Transubstantiation itself make contemplative visualization a key component of prayer.
Over the past 2000 years Catholic imaginations have run into every nook and cranny of the human experience, and it’s not always glamorous. Gory martyr wounds, hoarded limbs of dead saints, and hearts pierced with sorrow dot the landscape. Bringing heaven into the material world inspires both creative excellence and brutal honesty. The best Met Gala ensembles recognized that Catholic imagination is more than just who has the fanciest robes.
Check out my best and worst picks after the jump. Photos come from this comprehensive Vogue slideshow.