The exhibition itself hinges on the assertion that the enchantments of Catholicism (stained glass, rosary beads, holy water) have inspired designers who grew up in the religious tradition. Yet the more sinister imaginings of the sect are also subtly present: The press materials suggest that Christian Lacroix’s wedding ensemble from autumn/winter 2009–10, along with his other designs, “invoke the concept of the ‘virgin bride.’” Throughout many of the show’s white gowns, the concept of the virgin birth reverberates. So does its corollary: the madonna/whore complex, which relegates women to two proscribed stereotypes—either pure or debased. (Fittingly, Madonna—the pop star—sang “Like a Virgin” at the gala.) For millennia, this dichotomy has inhibited sexual expression for both women and men.
The portion of the show situated in the Cloisters explicitly references the Crusades. The curators placed a beige quilted canvas ensemble by British designer Craig Green in dialogue with the Nine Heroes Tapestry, which features the Catholic warriors used to inspire the succession of 11th- to 13th-century conflicts, from King Arthur to Charlemagne. They emphasize how
art impacts Green, as well; the designer visually unifies elements of cultures that were both the aggressors and aggressed in the ancient conflict.
The exhibition’s mitres themselves have cross-cultural history. In his epic poem “The Faerie Queene,” from 1590, Edmund Spenser writes: “And like a Persian mitre on her hed / She wore.” Here, the mitre is described as non-Western ornamentation and dress for a woman, not a man. At one point
, Jewish High Priests wore headdresses known as “mitres,” as well. Indeed, Catholics most likely got the idea from their non-Christian forebears. Though mitres may be best associated with Catholic bishops today, that wasn’t always the case. In that way, Rihanna’s outfit returns the garment to its more diverse origins.
The Vatican also loaned out a series of its own mitres for “Heavenly Bodies,” which together offer a complicated history of politics and religion throughout Italy. The mitre of Pope Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978, is on view. Its accompanying text reveals that during the second Vatican Council (Vatican II) in 1964, Paul VI ended the use of the papal tiara, making the mitre the official headwear for coronation activities. Vatican II, in general, sought to modernize the church, make it more accessible, and allow its members to more deeply engage with world issues. (HBO’s television series The Young Pope highlighted this moment—and the symbolic importance of ecclesiastical headwear—when Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII reversed Paul’s decision, and opted to wear the tiara after all.) In these cases, decisions about hats became significant assertions of power and autonomy.