Ever since it was announced a year ago, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, 2018’s Met Gala was certainly going to be the most controversial theme yet. And so it was with Pope Riri, Madonna, Katy Perry’s angel wings and Jared Leto’s very realistic Messiah.
Full disclosure; I was raised Catholic and only have two sacraments left, marriage and death. I now consider myself, to the unending consternation of my staunch mother, “spiritual, not religious.” The Met Gala is the juiciest, meatiest red carpet event of all time because there are always nuances, interpretations and painful toes.
How, for one, did the Vatican even get in the same room with fashion? Turns out it was a two-year negotiation. You can’t have a Met Gala on Catholicism and do it without the Vatican. It is the exhibition that is the centerpiece.
The red carpet is simply fashion being itself — using illusion to juxtapose and draw attention to fashion as art.
Which is why the Anna Wintour Costume Institute and the Metropolitan Museum built bridges into Italy, the home of fashion since 14th century Florence.
Home to the great Medici Dynasty. An immensely powerful family whose wealth came from textiles, gave the world two queens and three popes, revolutionised the banking system and expanded their elite network through strategic marriages. Milan is ranked 4th as a fashion capital, and for generations Made in Italy was the essence of luxury. Fashion has been heavily influenced by the Catholic church from Alexander McQueen, Dolce and Gabbana to Jean Paul Gaultier.
The liturgical colours on the priests robes were designed by Pope Innocent III in the 11th century. The lush crimson, deep regal purple, sharp green, the bishops cossacks in black with purple and red trim, the rich silk of golden threads and a cross section of fabrics all with sacred meanings. The mitre, aka the papal hat, is built upon wreaths and crowns but is mainly believed to be a residual tiara. Like the unpriced piece the Vatican donated for the exhibition, a tiara with 18,000 diamonds.
This exhibition is in fact the biggest one yet, taking over three galleries. The Vatican donated 40 pieces.
It’s actually perfect sense that Versace, an Italian fashion brand that dressed 18 celebrities for the gala, should host it. The Catholic aesthetic of a plush Vatican and the decadence of a highly sexualised brand do not at first seem to merge.
I found it fascinating that something about Catholicism kept translating into a whole lot of thigh high boots! From Rihanna, Katy Perry to Mary J Blige, the pop culture mythology of the kinky Catholic girl with an untempered interior life lives on.
Designers also drew from the mozzetta, a short elbow length cape worn during mass. In some instances, such as Priyanka Chopra’s, it was melded into a gold head wrap. In other dresses it was shorter, but the influence was obvious.
Aside from the spiked halos, the crosses — not crucifixes, because the Catholic church always hosts a crucified messiah and not a bare cross — that were woven into metallic fabric, were drawn from the Crusades.
Yet another layer used to interpret an invite that cheekily read “Sunday Best.” The Crusades, Holy Wars lasting for centuries, drew in Zendaya’s Joan of Arc.
The dark history of the Catholic church has been criticised on social media and think pieces as glossed over by the Gala. Good. Art is at its most primal when it sparks debate.
Overlooked at a smorgasbord event like this, nails. Rihanna’s manicure was done in collaboration with Tammy Taylor, a South African acrylic genius with a salon brand Red Hot Nails.
Of course, we all know Cardi B’s preference. Even Mrs. West got in on the action by going back to the 1990s with a bespoke designer French manicure.
Clutch bags and shoes were customised according to the dress and theme. Heavily researched for impact and storytelling. One way to sidestep the inevitable confusion was to simply wear Versace, the host.
Every year one celebrity is picked as the last person to shut down the red carpet. Beyonce was picked twice.
This year it was Rihanna. I missed Lupita. A sighting in Cannes is just not the same. Anna Wintour was asked who the best dressed was. She said James Martin.
“He is a Jesuit priest who was advising us on the exhibition, and he came in his appropriate robes.
And apparently all night, people were coming up to him and saying, I really like the fact that you came as a ‘sexy priest’— and you look so authentic. So that was my favourite.”