Heavenly Bodies – Medieval Looking New

Every year the Met Gala brings out more than just an opportunity to showcase fashion, but a chance for true artistry to be found amongst designers in a profound historical context. The finished, curated product presented by the Met showcases fashion’s exhilarating interaction with the times – past and present – and its playful, edgy and demure sides. The Heavenly Bodies exhibition was no exception.

A dialogue between fashion and Catholic imagery, especially medieval, was expressed literally – mannequins lined the the vaulted halls of the medieval galleries of the Met and the Cloisters. Adornment from recent years correlated almost precisely to the figures appearing on tapestries, in wooden sculptures and gilded paintings of the Middle Ages. The sacred mixed with the profane in a thoroughly post-modern presentation, linked by strong visual pairings.

While the dresses and accessories were astonishing in their details, I was thrilled to contemplate the artwork that inspired it. In some ways, the contemporary fashions brought the saints’ figures to life, and ancient jewelry took on a fascinating appeal. While some might consider this bold cross of sacred and profane to be offensive, the careful curation directed the gaze towards the past. While there might be irony in Versace’s and others’ coopting of Christian iconography, in the context, the show itself did not exude any tongue-in-cheek. Rather, to my eye, the pairing of the two ages – Middle and present – underlined the resonance of this imagery. A look at some of the Vatican’s adornments and accessories was also no joke in the richness of materials, design intricacy and finery. The familiarity of the iconography makes it casually wearable in these times – but this set of visual ideas has an impact far from light.