Every year on the first Monday in May, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York City hosts its annual Met Gala that raises funds for the Met Costume Institute.
Every year, the invitation-only guests wear the finest garments from the world’s most prominent designers. Guests are encouraged to draw inspiration from the theme when dressing for the occasion. The themes are meant to weave a dialogue between works of fashion and their designers, art history, and its cultural significance. Past themes have included China Through the Looking Glass and Manus x Machina.
This year’s theme is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” It hopes to foster a conversation between the Museum’s religious works of art and religiously inspired clothing. Some notable pieces in the show include papal garments on loan to the Met from the Sistine Chapel. Vogue has said that “the intersection of faith and fashion,” or “the sacred and profane” has not always been easy.
And certainly, these difficulties do not come without controversy.
I talked to a college Catholic student named Dana* about this year’s Met Ball theme: “It’s offensive.” She went on to talk about how these gaudy showings of her faith only reinforced stereotypes because “being Catholic is to be humble.” Dana has visited Costume Institute exhibitions in the past but she thinks this year’s exhibition may have gone too far: “I know that the whole Catholic thing is trendy right now, but people are really uninformed about our faith and have a lot of misconceptions about Catholics. The Met usually has great exhibits, but this just seems offensive.”People are uninformed about our faith and have a lot of misconceptions about Catholics. This exhibit is just offensive. Click To Tweet
This year’s show is directed by Head of the Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton. In the documentary, The First Monday in May, Bolton talked at length about the process of creating the Met exhibition and hosting the 2015 gala. He said he expects “dissenters” of his exhibitions and has no issue being “controversial” or “provocative.”
The Met has insisted that this year’s show is not about religion or politics, rather, it’s about fashion, art, and aesthetic inspirations.
I grew up Catholic and much of my family practices the faith.
When I heard that this year’s Met Gala would be centered around Catholicism and “material Christianity,” I was stunned. I knew that people would definitely dress culturally inappropriately as they drew on inspirations from the papacy, the Virgin Mary, and the Madonna– icons that are sometimes misused and misrepresented.
Further, the Met Gala is a huge cultural event that invites celebrities from fashion, film, music, and beyond.
And how these celebrities dress is not without larger implications. This year’s theme creates big questions about cultural appropriation, like where is the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation? And to what extent does creating an event around an institution like Catholicism require an element of historical and cultural education? And what is the roles of the celebrities who attend the Met Gala to be culturally sensitive and use their celebrity to educate people broadly?
Some of this year’s clothing choices certainly fell on the side of controversial in my book.
Notable ones include Met Gala hostess, Rihanna, wearing a silver, bedazzled version of the Pope’s hat and matching miniskirt, top, and jacket. Maison Margiela created the revealing ensemble.
The Pope is the most sacred figure in the Catholic Church. He teaches the global Catholic community about the faith and its applications in the modern world. The current pope, Pope Francis, has a reputation for making the Church more open and welcoming, diminishing the gaudier aspects in favor of caring for the poor, and even environmental issues. For Rihanna to wear the papal hat seemed self-important and culturally insensitive to me.
While of course designers draw inspiration from the Church, they must be careful to respect the cultural norms, traditions, meanings behind their inspirations.
Lily Collins wore a floor-length, sheer black dress with a structured black top piece that drew inspiration from traditional nun apparel. Collins accessorized her ensemble with a metallic black halo atop her head and clutched a thin silver chain with a cross at the end of it. Her makeup included dark eye makeup and a single red tear on her cheek.
While I did not find her outfit too offensive, the inspiration and subsequent sexualization of Catholic nuns in her outfit seemed inappropriate.
Collins is not the only one who wore elaborate headpieces to the Met Gala. Many others wore halos, veils, and tiaras to the event.
While the ecclesiastical inspirations found historically in fashion and presently in the Met Gala border on cultural appropriation and offense – they also create the perfect opportunity for critical thought and dialogue.
There’s something to be said about that, too.
*Name has been changed for privacy.