Fashion and the Vatican have much in common. Both understand the power of spectacle, but often find their substance overshadowed by pomp and style. Fashion also often looks to religion for inspiration. Christian Dior was a deeply devout and superstitious Catholic but faith didn’t overtly enter into his collections until one of his many successors, the designer showman John Galliano, sent a model opulently dressed as an archbishop down a runway perfumed with incense in 2000.
The relationship between religious beliefs and the rite of getting dressed is the basis for this year’s blockbuster fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, opening May 10, will include religious artworks from the Met’s collection and papal robes from the Sistine Chapel sacristy displayed alongside designer garments by the likes of Gabrielle Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy.
While the exhibition will focus mostly on the creative influences of Catholicism on fashion designers, the more intimate relationship of religious symbolism and style is between it and the women who both embrace and subvert religious elements in their wardrobes. The Catholic Church is unquestionably a patriarchal institution that can be seen as the very opposite of modernity, but there are still those who find virtue and personal meaning in wearing sacred iconography reworked, whether it comes from the runway or the vestry.
The contemporary interpretation of sacred art and symbols has a special resonance for Toronto philanthropist and conservationist Sylvia Mantella. As an avid fashion collector, she wears avant-garde labels like Off-White, but is most drawn to the decadent collections of Italian designers like Fausto Puglisi and Dolce & Gabbana, who often incorporate traditionally sacred motifs like Madonna and child, crosses and devotional mosaic figures into their clothes. Sicilian Puglisi mixes centuries-old religious art with a glitzy rocker sensibility. “I was obsessed by his Young Pope collection,” she says of Fall 2017’s wide circular saturno hats and cassock uniforms inspired by the television drama.
“I relate to it because it’s powerful and it’s exquisitely beautiful. Catholic motifs aren’t just crosses – they reference paintings and subjects and mosaics,” says Mantella, who was raised in a Catholic household but no longer practices. “The cherubs, the rosettes, the geometric patterns that are very strong if you go into the history. Because most of all I’m drawn to the tremendous history. It fascinates me. I’ve travelled to Rome probably a dozen times and I could still spend countless hours in the Vatican just mesmerized by the works there.”
For Iranian-born artist and style savant Maryam Keyhani, religion doesn’t figure into her appreciation of religious garments. On her lush and lyrical Instagram feed, cardinal red socks and peaked pompom-topped moiré biretta caps bought at Gammarelli, the Vatican’s official haberdasher in Rome, often make a cameo. “They are really magnificent in person and they fold into flat shapes so I can travel with a few of them at a time,” she says. Keyhani was thrilled that, as a layperson, she was allowed to buy the clerical vestments. The caps are the typical formal dress of bishops and other high-ranking church officials. “They are poetic but also carry such humour,” Keyhani says.
The hats are severed from their religious meaning and Keyhani connects with them on an aesthetic level as unique millinery objects, though their original purpose may still unwittingly play a role in her interest. She says she is “fascinated by costume, uniform and the rituals of dressing the same everyday.” For her next liturgical look, she has her eye on shtreimels (Jewish Orthodox fur hats), but, she adds “they are a harder catch.”
Sporting religious iconography became subversive for the masses in the 1980s, when provocateur Madonna began wearing lingerie layered with a tangle of rosary beads. The style soon infiltrated high fashion, where designers like Christian Lacroix embraced a Catholic influence.
“It was all about Like a Prayer,” Mantella recalls. Pop culture embraced what was once considered blasphemous and the acceptance of sacred symbols in ready-to-wear helped another icon of sorts, newly installed Vogue editor Anna Wintour, make a splash with her first cover in 1988. On it, Israeli model Michaela Bercu pairs jeans with a black Lacroix haute couture jacket covered in a bejewelled cross.
“I was just a teenager when that came out and I never forgot it,” Mantella says. “I never would have thought that someday I would be touching and looking at that piece thirty years later!” she says. But a decade ago the opportunity arose for her to purchase that holy of holies, the vintage Lacroix haute couture jacket worn on the cover. And she did.
“That is the one piece I’ve yet to wear,” Mantella admits. Maybe some things are still sacred after all.
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