Melanie McDonagh

Catholic fashion is in vogue – but spare us the rosary beads!

Catholic fashion is in vogue – but spare us the rosary beads!
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Which was your favourite outfit then, for the Met Gala on the theme of Heavenly Bodies – Catholicism and Fashion – the images of which are everywhere right now? Madonna was true to form with a heavy black mantilla, channelling a Sicilian widow, and Anna Wintour’s dress was, apparently, Cardinal Chanel – though if I may be pedantic, a Cardinal’s colour is scarlet, not white (that’s for the Pope). But Elon Musk, the Tesla man, was pretty good with a kind of reverse clerical suit…white, with a black dogcollar. Frankly, an awful lot of people missed the point of the thing, the theme being Sunday best, loosely interpreted as going to church crossed with fancy dress, crossed with the highest clerical camp.

There’s a fine line, obviously, between homage to religion, and the sending up of it, and outright sacrilege. But most attendees stayed on this side of good taste, if your concept of good taste includes Katy Perry in an archangel outfit. I was braced for the sexy nun trope, but if it was there, I missed it.

Actually, the exhibition itself, curated by Andrew Bolton, which provided the theme for the Gala, is really interesting. It’s got a number of exhibits from the Vatican collection, from rather beautiful vestments to John Paul 11’s red shoes (it was really unfair that Pope Benedict got it in the neck for wearing the same thing). The catalogue, by Yale, is terrific; it has an interesting essay by Cardinal Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, in which he examines the theme of Christianity and fashion, from the prescriptive account in the book of Exodus about how the priest should be dressed right through to the admonition by William Hazlitt in his essay On Clerical Dress about clerics being too keen on clothes. It’s a most spirited case for “the bond between religion and beauty”.

There’s also a notable piece by Donatalla Versace, one of the sponsors of the exhibition, about its theme. Her brother, Gianni, she said was, as she, profoundly influenced by Catholicism, but his fashion references were never “literal” and never “profane”. If only the celebs at the Gala had taken it on board.

What the exhibition does demonstrate is that the best way for fashion to channel Catholicism is obliquely. There’s a brilliant cassock dress by Krizia, which takes a clerical shape and moulds it to the female form; then there’s a fabulous series of capes by Balenciaga, possibly the most intelligent of the designers, which play with the outlines of those of the clergy, in one case, replicating the outlines of a monk’s habit. And there’s fascinating ways of suggesting the divine… Lanvin did it with colour, celestial blue. Or you can reference clerical dress just by playing with the sober colour spectrum of black, red and white.

But back to the gala, which was way less suggestive and interesting than the clothes in the exhibition. It was fine, I reckon, for the fashion crowd, not always the brightest knives in the drawer, to think up ways to reference Catholicism; a bit of fun with halos hurts no one. But when they got pretentious, it was tiresome. The only thing that struck me about Amal Clooney’s frock (she was one of the promoters of the event) was that it was pretty – all those blousy flowers in the train - but was not noticeably Catholic. And then I read the statement from the designer, Richard Quinn: “Her decision to wear trousers was a statement to advocate female empowerment and modern religion by referencing the stringent oppression that women faced”. Really? And there I was, missing the trousers for the train, and not getting the empowered vibe at all. Silly me.

Fancy dress is fine – so long as it’s not blasphemous; personally I draw the line at the image of the Virgin and Child on a bodice holding up someone’s boobs, and I reach for my revolver when I see rosary beads used as a provocative fashion statement (Cardinal Hume once went into orbit over a Vogue shoot in which they were used as props for grunge fashion.) But what is intolerable is when fashion people get worked up about the evils of religion when they know next to nothing about it. Unlike, I may say, designers who come from a Catholic culture, like Dolce and Gabbana, who know exactly what the aesthetic means.

I leave you with a piece for Vogue online on the Gala by one Osman Ahmed, which combines fatuousness and sententiousness and ignorance in pretty well perfect proportions. Enjoy!

“…Here’s the thing: the Vatican and the Catholic church has had its fair share of problems. In the past, the institution has been quick to denounce and vilify important movements that have changed the world for the better — gay rights, contraception, abortion, IVF — and its image as a profligate, secretive institution has made it seem out of touch at times. In fact, in recent years, the Vatican has tightened its belt amid criticism that a startling percentage of donations to it is dissolved into financial holes — not charity. And in the age of #MeToo, Catholic churches are longstanding examples of places where abuse of power thrives.

…Lena Waithe in a rainbow flag cape reminded us of the progress that has been made in the face of the Catholic church — despite it, even. The cape was by Carolina Herrera (the grande dame of Upper East Side eveningwear) and it was fastened by Byzantine-inspired Maltese crosses similar to the ones Coco Chanel turned into her iconic cuffs. Props to Zendaya, too, for a forward-thinking homage to Joan of Arc, a woman who had to be burnt alive for the church to realise she was a saint all along. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Christopher Kane’s kinky marabou-trimmed ode to Joy of Sex felt suitably subversive. Greta Gerwig channelled the monastic spirituality of a nun’s habit exquisitely executed by The Row.”

Oh please.