Like the good Reformed woman that I am, I proudly reference the well-known Abraham Kuyper quote whenever someone tries to denounce a piece of art as irrelevant or secular: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” For some reason, however, it never dawned on me that fashion, too, is art. That changed after intensely staring at the designs draped on celebrities during last week’s Met Gala.
Of course, the connection between fashion and faith was easier to make because of the Gala’s theme, which previewed a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The exhibit’s curator, Andrew Bolton, noted that the world’s most famous designers are all from traditionally Roman Catholic countries: France, Italy, Rome. “What struck me is how religion—Catholicism in particular—has really shaped the mind of these designers with a richness of imagery, a storytelling tradition, and seeing the world through metaphor,” Bolton is quoted as saying on Vogue magazine’s Instagram account. He offered this to the magazine itself: “As a curator, you are always interested in what drives creativity and what lies behind the designers’ and artists’ minds. I never thought it was religion. I never thought growing up Catholic had an impact on your creative development or creative impulses.”
Record scratch. Here’s where my Reformed instinct kicked in. I had learned long ago that an embodied theology leads to art, culture, language, and literature that reflects that theology. We are creatures created to create with our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. When we recognize and internalize the symbols, stories, rituals, and traditions of a shared faith, what flows out of us reflects that same faith, whether we mean it to or not.
Bolton, it seems, is more interested in religion as a benign muse. He told Harper’s Bazaar that the exhibit focuses on “a shared hypothesis about what we call the Catholic imagination and the way it has engaged artists and designers and shaped their approach to creativity, as opposed to any kind of theology or sociology.”
But can the lines be that clearly drawn? Theology is the study of the truest, greatest story ever told: creation, fall, redemption, new creation. So even though Bolton’s hope was to have the Met Gala be a celebration of art (fashion) apart from theology, it could not be separated from the Christian story that the designers were reflecting (whether they meant to echo it or not). As the celebrities started to parade in, I saw bodies floating down the red carpet reflecting vestments of medieval days past, colors inspired by liturgical seasons, gold that glistened like beautiful Eucharist chalices, silver that shone like candlesticks in a cathedral, halos inspired by iconography, makeup that mirrored Virgin Mary oil paintings, and beading so intricate and lovingly stitched I couldn’t help but think, “So this is what a ‘heavenly body’ looks like.”
An embodied theology leads to art, culture, language, and literature that reflects that theology.
What I didn’t expect and could not ignore were the theological statements of the celebrities themselves. The Gala became a night of reflections about their own beliefs: about faith, about sociology, about color, gender, and tradition.
Amal Clooney wore a design by Richard Quinn: a long brocade gown open in the front to expose cropped black pants. Quinn told The New York Times, “Her decision to wear trousers was a statement to advocate female empowerment and modern religion by referencing the stringent oppression that women faced.” Letitia Wright, one of the breakout stars of Black Panther and a vocal Christian, drew from her heritage in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to help a Nigerian designer create a gown inspired by Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world.” Coptic crosses covered the gold and black gown, while Scripture was embroidered into the back of the dress. “I would always see a more European take on Christianity in art, fashion, etcetera,” Wright told Vogue, “so I wanted to be a bit of a rebel and take the Met theme for this year and explore it a bit differently.” Selena Gomez, whose Coach gown was inspired by the strength and beauty of Queen Esther, took a pen to her custom clutch on the way to the Gala and wrote her favorite verse from Proverbs on the pale pink fabric: “A woman who fears the Lord is a woman to be praised.” And we cannot leave out the legend that is Madonna, who was covered in rosaries and gave a surprise, worship-like performance of “Like A Prayer” backed by an all-male church/monk choir.
Why should we care about any of this? Because every square inch of God’s creation has been claimed by him. This includes the materials used to create the vestments of the Roman Catholic Church; the people who meticulously laced Blake Lively up into her jaw-dropping tapestry of a gown (pictured above); the jeans we pulled on today without thinking; the songs that are written and sung from the depths of our hearts; and the art that inspired these artists to create more art. It may not have been made with the intention of moving us to worship God, but I myself felt a little closer to the majesty of heaven while watching the red carpet.
My prayer is that people of God who are passionate about the art and influence of fashion will find the boldness to create pieces that reflect the beauty and love of God and will drape it over their models’ bodies with the careful eye of their Creator. We need their creativity in the world, in the culture.
And what about exhibit curator Andrew Bolton, who thought the Met Gala would be all art and no theology? He had one more thing to say: “It’s about beauty and the fact that beauty can fill the gap between the believer and the nonbeliever. ...I hope, no matter what your faith, this will cause you to reflect on whether your religion has had an influence on your creative development.”
I believe we can say with confidence as passionate, artistic, God-fearing Christians … yes. Yes it has.
Topics: Culture At Large