The marketing for Heavenly Bodies, the blockbuster show now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would have you believe it centers on a certain male opulence. The aesthetic relationship between Catholic clerics and secular fashion designers certainly dominated the splashy Met Gala that celebrated the exhibition’s opening in May; you may recall various A-list celebrities bedecked in jewels, halos, and miters. It is a hushed surprise, then, to find that the exhibition opens with a sly tribute to the hidden women of both the liturgical arts and the fashion world.
At the entrance to the Anna Wintour Costume Center, before encountering the luxurious items on loan from the Vatican, visitors are presented with a modest liturgical vestment. This green and gold chasuble was designed by Henri Matisse in 1950 for his Vence Chapel project, but the accompanying plaque does not focus on the famed artist. Rather, it discusses the women who are credited with executing his design: the Dominican nuns at the Atelier d’Arts Appliqués in Cannes. They are compared with the artisans who carry out the sewing and needlework for the major fashion houses, known as les petites mains (“the little hands”). By crediting both (mainly male) designers and (mainly female) technicians, the curators question that division of labor while suggesting that the fashion world shares structural similarities with the ecclesial hierarchy it so often parodies.
My review of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at the Met is up at The Weekly Standard.