Fashion for the Sacred — and the Profane

COMMENTARY: The real story of the Met Gala was that the Church, if only for one evening, was paying tribute to the visual arts in a theatrical way.

Sarah Jessica Parker attends the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ exhibition on May 7 in New York.
Sarah Jessica Parker attends the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ exhibition on May 7 in New York. (photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Evangelical outreach? Blasphemous outrage?

The Met Gala May 7 — which ought to be distinguished from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition itself — brought into stark relief contrasting views in the Catholic world.

Jesuit Father James Martin brought his “LGBT bridge” up to Fifth Avenue and exulted that the Catholic imagination was front and center in the gay-friendly world of fashion’s biggest night.

Father Dwight Longenecker considered the whole matter reminiscent of decadent Florence, with prelates winking at, if not embracing, moral corruption. He was not pleased that Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Father Martin were present as “chaplains to Vanity Fair” and wished for a latter-day Savonarola to show up on the red carpet.

But the next day he changed his mind and thought perhaps Cardinal Dolan and Father Martin were doing what Jesus did, going to “parties with notorious sinners, cheats, frauds, prostitutes, gluttons and drunkards.”

And, it should be noted, Mitt Romney.

The erudite New York Times columnist Ross Douthat thought that the Met Gala reflected the divisions in what moderns think about Catholicism. Did the Met Gala celebrate “an Old Church that’s frightening and fascinating in equal measure” or serve as a contrast to “a New Church that’s a little more liked but much more easily ignored”?

So what does this Catholic commentator think about the Met Gala — again, as opposed to the exhibition, which it inaugurated?

First of all, Pope Francis would have hated it. There’s a good reason there were no official Vatican representatives sent to the gala.

Pope Francis is not eager for the company of the super-affluent in general, so a gathering where the rich and the richer gather to literally marvel at themselves would not be his preferred night out.

From the first day of his pontificate he has made ostentatious displays of simplicity the core image of his pontificate. Ostentations displays of excess make him cringe. Had the Holy Father been present at the gala, there can be no doubt that he would have quickly found his way to the kitchen, the better to chat with the immigrants earning minimum wage who serve Manhattan’s very rich and very progressive fashion set.

Was the gala blasphemous? Many of the outfits paid due honor to the Catholic tradition of sacred art. More than a few were stunningly beautiful. To be sure, modesty was not the watchword, but, then, it never is on the fashion runway, and the ladies were generally less exposed than is otherwise the case.

Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress whose oeuvre wittingly celebrates and unwittingly laments the sexual revolution, balanced a Neapolitan Nativity set on her head. Hard to know what to make of that, but it was a marvel of engineering and balance, if not necessarily piety.

There was Rihanna, with bejeweled miter — “pope hat” was how it was usually described — and a minidress that left little to the imagination, Catholic or otherwise. Yes, that was offensive to Catholic sensibility. She was the exception, though, rather than the norm.

Madonna, the aging queen of genuine sacrilege, didn’t seem to have her heart in it anymore. It has been almost 30 years since the Like A Prayer video was released, complete with burning crosses, self-inflicted stigmata and the seduction of a statue of St. Martin de Porres come to life.

The Met producers rolled out the dowager to sing Like A Prayer after dinner. It was a big production number, but this time it was not even Madonna-lite, and she was backed up by a choir dressed like Franciscan friars. Things were actually much worse in 1989.

There were genuine exchanges between worlds that rarely meet. The curator of the exhibition, Andrew Bolton, openly professed his surprise that the Catholic imagination — sacred art, liturgical vesture, even architecture — was so influential on secular artists, including fashion designers.

“That was really surprising to me, because as a curator, you are always interested in what drives a designer’s imagination, what lies behind his or her creative impulses,” Bolton told Father Martin. “And I never thought it was really Catholicism. Perhaps one’s gender, one’s sexuality. But I never realized that Catholicism had such a big impact on their creative development and their creative imaginations.”

Evidently he has never read the lyrics on a Bruce Springsteen album, but all the better if he is now realizing that Catholicism is the sacred imagination of our culture, whether celebrated or mocked.

It was certainly a novum that a Catholic cardinal proclaimed the good news of the Incarnation to an audience of Met staff, benefactors and fashion journalists — most of whom may not have heard it in a long time, if ever. Cardinal Dolan did so explicitly and with confidence that it was good news, not in general, but particularly for those in the world of fashion, too.

Perhaps the designers were wondering if Joseph and Mary might have used some of the gold from the Magi to upgrade the Baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes, but Cardinal Dolan did not muse about that.

As for the Church, it would be a safe wager that the cardinal only learned now, as did I, that Rihanna is pronounced with a silent “h.” Horizons — pronounce the “h” there — were broadened.

Yet it seems to me that the real story of the Met Gala was that the Church, if only for one evening, was paying tribute to the visual arts in a theatrical way.

Leave aside Rihanna and Madonna; for the Church — even if only in the person of the local archbishop — to celebrate visual beauty in vesture is not a small thing.

The exhibition is a museum project about the past. The importance of the gala was that it is the present, recognizing that excellence in visual arts, in fashion, is an excellence that can ennoble the life of the Church.

That’s important not to overlook, because for 50 years the Church has presented herself in fashion terms as boring, plain and mediocre, if not outright ugly.

Consider this: If Rihanna had not worn a facsimile of a jeweled miter, how many Catholics would even know that such a thing exists? Where would they have seen it? It is valid to object that a jeweled miter had no place at the Met Gala. But one might ask: When was a jeweled miter last seen where it belongs, at an actual Mass in an actual cathedral?

From the time of Blessed Paul VI on, the Church has abandoned — sometimes even destroyed in acts of iconoclastic violence — her own heritage of excellence in the visual art of vesture. How many items of great beauty have been locked away in the local equivalent of the Vatican sacristies, while prelates and priests appear in the most uninspired vestments? How many are in landfills?

Why do bishops generally appear in worldly business suits of mediocre tailoring when their cassocks and cloaks and capes convey so much more?

The riot of color and texture and style sported by religious sisters in their myriad habits has been replaced with unremitting dowdiness and lapel pins. It is not a great mystery why so many Catholics appear in varying degrees of slovenliness for Mass; the ecclesiastical equivalent is often on the liturgical runway — rather, in the sanctuary.

The nadir of the Church’s recent abandonment of her own fashion tradition was at the great jubilee, when St. John Paul II consented to wear a cope (a long cape clasped at the breast) for the opening of the holy door at St. Peter’s that was so garish and hideous that it never appeared again. All the while, the papal sacristies were stuffed with a long tradition of excellence. You can bet the Met didn’t ask for John Paul’s millennial cope for its exhibition.

Pope Benedict XVI made some modest steps toward recovering a tradition of sartorial excellence, but it seems now to have been an interruption only of a consistent downward trend.

We are in challenging times for sacred fashion. Pope Francis has almost shuttered the papal wardrobe entirely, deciding to wear the same things — the unadorned white papal cassock — whether he is eating breakfast, greeting a head of state or giving the apostolic blessing to the entire world as universal pastor of the Church. But if the Church abandons sacred fashion, all that is left is profane fashion, for both the world — and, in time, the Church.

At a recent papal audience for the “missionaries of mercy,” I maintained the clerical custom of wearing a cassock in the presence of the Holy Father. I was in a small minority. In fairness, that is what Pope Francis apparently prefers, and clerics nervous of their superiors might have judged it safer to wear a suit. But there were priests present in jeans — black jeans — and V-neck sweaters to greet the Vicar of Christ. It was dismal and discouraging. Rihanna at the Met was a one-off. Fashion catastrophes are a consistent Catholic problem.

The Met Gala may have prompted some of the stars to think about the things of God. That was Cardinal Dolan’s impression. But more important is that the Church might begin to think about how she presents herself, perhaps even to consider that she might aspire to excellence as might a bride who makes herself ready.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

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