Beauty, Incarnation, and High Fashion

May 10th, 2018

The annual fundraising gala for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City, informally known as the Met Gala, is not an event to which I normally pay a lot of attention. I might catch up with who wore what on fashion blogs the next day while I’m clicking around the internet, but it usually passes me by without too much fuss. This year, however, the combination of high fashion, celebrity, and the theme based on the current exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” caused me to sit up and take notice.

The exhibit itself explores the influence of Catholicism on fashion and was not only officially approved by the Vatican but contains fifty pieces of clothing and accessories loaned to the Met by the Vatican for display. However, despite the Vatican’s stamp of approval and the presence of Catholic clergy at the Met Gala, many of the outfits generated quite a bit of controversy with some individuals claiming cultural appropriation.

Gala attendees had many different takes on the theme, from the more subtle to the more overt. For example, Rihanna arrived in a bejeweled silver outfit complete with what some fashion commentators referred to as a “pope hat,” otherwise known as a bishop’s mitre. Headpieces designed to look like halos were popular on the red carpet, and a few women were clearly inspired by Saint Joan of Arc’s more military look. Others were influenced by traditional Catholic vestments like cassocks and simars, the vestments of a cardinal.

As one might expect, crosses were a common sight, and Katy Perry arrived as an angel with massive wings. Two other popular looks of the evening were Lena Waithe’s and Chadwick Boseman. Both featured a take on the cope, a liturgical vestment that looks much like a cape but fastens in front. Lena Waithe wore her rainbow pride flag-colored cope over a tuxedo, a powerful statement about the church’s lack of acceptance of LGBTQ persons. Boseman was one of the most fashion-forward men in attendance with his ivory cope embroidered with ornate golden crosses, an ivory three-piece suit, and glittering gold shoes.

Despite the theme relating directly to the exhibit, some people were upset at what they interpreted as sacrilege or even mockery of holy and sacred traditions. As a priest in the Episcopal Church who is prone to a bit of irreverence herself and also fond of shiny, sparkly things, I loved the creativity and art of most of what I saw on the Met Gala red carpet. For me, art, aesthetics, and music have featured prominently in my faith journey and my spiritual life, and that has been true for many Christians throughout the centuries. Beauty, whether in a sunset or a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary or the elaborate embroidery on a vestment, is one way that we can know God.

In an increasingly secular society, more mainstream exposure to the deep and rich traditions of the church may spark a curiosity in some people that leads them to Jesus Christ. That might be a tall order for a fashion ball, but I can imagine some young woman seeing Zendaya’s outfit and learning about Joan of Arc, her visions, and her role as a martyr and holy virgin. It is possible that the combination of celebrity and high fashion might open the door to the strange and beautiful stories of the church and her saints.

The artistic heritage of the church is beautiful, and this beauty can reveal God to us, even in its modern interpretation. To shun or condemn something because it comes to us in an unexpected way or place is to limit the attractiveness of God. Incarnation is important to the Christian tradition, and because of it, we can experience God here and now through our senses. Whether it comes in the form of a Bach cantata or an Oscar de la Renta dress, beauty helps us experience the presence of the divine.

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