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Madonna Has Been Prepping for This Met Gala Theme for Over 30 Years

No one can do Catholic iconography as fashion like Madonna can.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

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The Vatican agreed to loan the Metropolitan Museum of Art a bunch of papal garments for its exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” It was a process that took a few years and a lot of trips to Rome in order to convince the Catholic Church that everything would be fine, per the New York Times. But what’s shocking is that the church didn’t put this one specific condition on it: Fine, we’ll give you some tall, ornate hats, but only if you don’t let Madonna come to the party.

But of course Madonna showed up to the Met Gala, because this is the event that her entire career has been building up to. (Rumor has it that she will also perform there, according to Hollywood Life.)

Madonna in 1984 at the MTV Music Video Awards.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Ever since Madonna writhed around on the stage at the very first MTV Music Video Awards in 1984 wearing a wedding dress accessorized with a neck full of rosaries and large cross jewelry while singing about virginity, she has been annoying the Catholic Church. In fact, some fashion historians credit her with normalizing the rosary as a transgressive fashion accessory.

With Rihanna dressing as the literal pope and tons of starlets wearing heavenly halos, it was almost anticlimactic when Madonna showed up. But, not surprisingly, she devoted herself to the theme, in a black long dress with a cross cutout made by her longtime collaborator Jean Paul Gaultier. The crown and veil? She probably had those lying around her closet. The black rose bouquet? Bride of Christ with a twist. What’s most shocking is that this outfit feels respectful to Catholicism. Historically, this has not always been the case with Madonna.

Madonna — whose full real name is Madonna Louise Ciccone — was raised in an Italian-American Catholic household. She has clearly had a very complicated relationship with her religion.

“Catholicism feels like my alma mater. It’s the school I used to go to, and I can go back any time I want and take whatever I want from it because I suffered all the oppression, and all the abuse — and also enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance, the drama and the confusion and the hypocrisy and the craziness,” she said in a 2015 Billboard interview. “I feel like I can say whatever I want and do whatever I want. I’ve been ex-communicated by the Catholic Church a few times. But I also feel like this new pope is kind of groovy, and I think we might be able to get together and have a chat about sex.”

The “Like a Virgin” moment was just the beginning of her provocation of the Catholic Church. In 1987 she got an official denunciation from the Vatican for dedicating her song “Papa Don’t Preach,” a song about teen pregnancy, to the pope on the Italian leg of her tour. (Italians call the Pope “Papa.”)

Then in 1989 came her video for “Like a Prayer,” in which she touched on themes of racism and showed images of herself with stigmata on her hands while dancing in a church. The video was so controversial that she lost a Pepsi contract over it.

For the 1990 Blond Ambition tour, featuring Madonna masturbating on a bed and her famous Jean Paul Gaultier cone bras, the pope recommended boycotting the show. The Immaculate Collection, a greatest hits album released that same year, of course was a nod to the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception, a cornerstone of Catholic belief.

Madonna performing in 2006.
Getty Images

In the ensuing years, she continued to press the Catholic Church’s buttons while also dabbling in Eastern religions after daughter Lourdes was born in the “Ray of Light” era. She also became a follower of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that was popular with a lot of celebrities at the time. In 2005, she and then-husband Guy Ritchie showed up at a Purim party dressed as the pope and a nun. You can guess what the Catholic Church had to say.

During her 2006 Confessions tour, she presented herself crucified onstage on a blingy cross while wearing a crown of thorns and singing “Live to Tell,” pissing off pretty much every single major religion that time. Finally, her 2015 Rebel Heart tour featured a lot of cross imagery and the song “Holy Water,” whose lyrics go: “I can give you everything that you want / Bitch get off my pole, bitch get off my pole /... Kiss it better, kiss it better (Don’t it taste like holy water) / Make it wetter, make it wetter (Don’t it taste like holy water).” In concert, she performed the song with her dancers dressed as stripper nuns. She was banned from performing it at a concert in Singapore.

Everyone else at the Met Gala was wearing a costume; Madonna was just dressing as herself.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images