I had read a lot about the Heavenly Bodies exhibition at the Met. There were quibbles from the pious(how could the Pope have allowed the Vatican garments to commingle with the outré lay fashion designers), the fashionistas (how could the strictly fashionable collections be held up alongside couture garments not made with an eye toward wearability) and the art press (the same old saw: what is fashion doing at the Met amidst so much real antique splendor).
None of this is relevant. The show is a blockbuster because it is fantastic. The installation by Diller Scofidio is suitably dramatic, the clothes, both vintage and contemporary, divine (and I mean divine in the spiritual sense), the settings in the galleries, unparalleled. Curator Andrew Bolton is a genius. As someone who grew up going to the foisty Cloisters (a hodgepodge of European remnants), the Cloisters is truly transformed into a star of the show and it is there that the exhibition makes the most sense. The chapels and arcades breathe with a perfect synchronicity that is rare with architecture and art. Right now, as a bonus, the gardens of Fort Tyron park and the interior courtyards awash in spring flowers.
Here’s the takeaway: the Catholic church once again, shows itself to be the receptacle of many lifetimes of labors of devotion. Those Vatican robes have embroidery that in one case is identified as having fifteen women working for fifteen years. Mulitply that. As with architecture and art, the church has in effect been the uber fashion patron for centuries.
Valentino, Galliano, McQueen, all Catholics, are imbued with this tradition: their designs which often mimic the opulence of the church vestments, are certainly magnificent.
But it is the quiet, white cotton dress of Miucca Prada with crosses carefully cut out of the fabric itself, the charming construction of Elsa Schiaparelli’s short black cape with its faux necklace of embroidered religious charms, the dress Ava Gardner wore that resembles the Roman priest's coat or the severe Balenciaga wedding gown which echoes but does not precisely copy the eccleciastical robes that instead steal the show. (I think these designers are all Catholic too. This show could be a conversion vehicle!)
I can safely say that the Cloisters will never look better than they do with this installation, and the Met Fifth itself never more lively. The sculpture show at the Met Breuer is also an excellent companion to this show, as is the Mexican painting show: the dresses in these portraits another example of the commingling of fashion with the Catholic church.
The Met Fifth Avenue is jammed. Go early or go late. But the Cloisters on a sunny weekday right now is perfection and it’s worth playing hooky to have the place less encumbered. The show is open until October 8th.