The theme of the 2018 Met Gala – Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination – has had some mixed reviews within and without of the Catholic community, with diverse opinions across the board.
The public display of papal artefacts alongside designer outfits might seem disrespectful, reducing Catholicism to a fashion accessory. Celebrities bearing halos, vestments, and enormous wings could be seen to elevate themselves above their station. The Vatican, however, evidently gave not only its permission but also its support to the designers and organisers of the event. They allowed objects of their collections to pass beyond the doors of the Vatican in order to be used in what I can describe as a fashion show.
Some people believe that this move by the Vatican may have provided the Catholic Church with a much-needed boost. Church attendance is at an incredible low-point in Europe and America, with many people attending Church only once a week, and some only attending on religious holidays. The Met Gala, with its huge attendance and media coverage, brought Catholicism back into a wide public sphere. Doubtless the event was a success, and the fashion is undeniably stunning. Such divine images may hold the key to (re)introducing many people to the awesome beauty of Catholicism.
As Catholicism is not an historically oppressed religion, its art and style cannot be considered to have been ‘culturally appropriated’ in the Gala. However, whether it can properly be called ‘cultural appreciation’ is another matter. Indeed most of the designers who partook in creating the pieces for the Gala and the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition were Catholic, or else had a Catholic upbringing. The designers, therefore, can only be accused of appreciation because they aimed to display their own culture. Those wearing the designs, however, are more liable to be criticised.
One might also criticise the Met Gala for not properly taking into account the Catholic value of modesty.
Although Heavenly Bodies was construed purely as an art form, in order to appreciate the rich history of Catholic visual imagination, it is clear that the Gala in many cases was highly political, and some of the celebrities (whether intentionally or not) made some provocative political statements. An anonymous student contributor criticised Rihanna as her “papal vestments were both immodest and clearly a political statement about women’s ordination rather than a celebration of Catholic art.” The ordination of women into the priesthood is an issue which the Church has had backlash about in recent years. Bringing such a criticism to a gala supposedly celebrating Catholicism is evidently not in the spirit of the event. Indeed Anon believes that it is also a futile effort, as “political statements won’t change Church teaching until you’re prepared to engage with the philosophy.”
One might also criticise the Met Gala for not properly taking into account the Catholic value of modesty. Zoe Kravitz, for example, was wearing a dress which could be described as a scanty piece of lace draped over one shoulder. Similar was Cara Delevingne’s choice of a transparent gown. High leg slits were a common feature, alongside enhanced cleavages and liberal cutouts. Arguably this is not the type of ‘beauty’ which the theme suggests should be championed. However, most of the designs displayed in the Met Museum do comply with the ideal of modesty, so perhaps looking only at the Gala’s red carpet is a selective sample. Celebrity culture revolves around exposure and sex appeal, and this would have been an influential factor in their choice of design.
Whether supportive or not of the theme, the Met Gala was obviously a significant accomplishment, and one which has reached the public eye to no small extent due to its controversy. It is clear to me that interpreting the Heavenly Bodies theme rests with the individual – and though the Catholic Church has affirmed its support for the concept, the success of its execution is up for debate.