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The Met’s Next Fashion Exhibit Is All About Catholicism

The museum is putting designers’ love of Catholic iconography on display.

A model wears a gold gown and a circular gold headpiece that fans out like a halo.
A model walks Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring 2007 haute couture show.
Photo: Chris Moore/Getty Images

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After dedicating its last major Costume Institute exhibit to Rei Kawakubo, a challenging designer best loved by hardcore fashion nerds, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is going for mass recognizability (and big-ticket sales) with next year’s exhibit. The theme is Catholicism.

The exhibit hits on two expressions of the subject: clothing worn in the Catholic church, and garments inspired by its art and style. The history of European and American fashion is littered with examples of the latter from designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Jean Paul Gaultier. (Anna Wintour’s first-ever Vogue cover in November 1988 showed a beaming model wearing a Christian Lacroix jacket with an oversized embellished cross on the chest.) The New York Times reports that the Met’s upcoming exhibit will include 150 Catholic-inspired garments, as well as 50 ecclesiastical pieces loaned to the museum by the Vatican. The two won’t be displayed together, out of respect to the working religious garments.

Such a rich subject will no doubt inspire stellar Met Gala looks, but, as usual, it’s not without its potential for criticism on the basis of its content or its scope. Visitors could take offense at the sexualization of Catholic imagery that often results when designers translate it for the runway (see: Versace’s fall 2012 collection, full of corsets and crosses). They might also dispute the limited scope and viewpoint of the exhibit, which was originally conceived as a look at the role of religion in fashion broadly before it was pared down to focus on Catholicism, and which only features three non-European or American designers.

The Met’s 1983 Vatican Collections exhibit — the last time the museum got a loan of this size from the Vatican — remains its third-most popular show ever, indicating the moneymaking potential of this new exhibit. On top of that, the Costume Institute has stacked its Met Gala hosting committee with names that will draw a ton of media attention: Amal Clooney, Donatella Versace, and Rihanna. Can the biggest fashion party of the year get any bigger?