There is a great scene in Fellini’s film, “La Dolce Vita,” in which Anita Ekberg’s character, dressed in a ridiculously inappropriate version of a priest’s cassock, climbs to the top of St. Peter’s dome to have a look. It’s all played for laughs. Ekberg’s character doesn’t mean to offend; she probably is trying to show respect, in fact. But she has no clue. And, Fellini’s point seems to be, that goes for everyone in post-war Europe. Everything and everyone is banal. People no longer have a sense of meaning, and therefore no longer understand when they are being insulting.
I thought of that scene when I stumbled earlier this month upon the Met’s exhibit on Catholic fashion, “Heavenly Bodies.” The less said about the show, the better, except that the word meretricious comes to mind. On the Saturday evening I saw it, the exhibit was jammed with visitors; I’m sure it has been a great success for the Met, financially. Apparently the Catholic Church cooperated on the exhibit, a fact which, as a non-Catholic, I have to say I find truly perplexing. In “La Dolce Vita,” the problem was that people didn’t know when they were being insulting. Today, apparently, people no longer know when they’re being insulted.
Anyway, for those who are interested, here is the Met’s catalogue for the exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, by the Met’s Andrew Bolton. The publisher is Yale University Press. Here’s the description from the Yale website:
A brilliant exploration of fashion’s complex engagement with the great art and artifacts of Catholic faith and practice.
Since antiquity, religious beliefs and practices have inspired many of the masterworks of art. These works of art have, in turn, fueled the imagination of fashion designers in the 20th and 21st centuries, yielding some of the most innovative creations in costume history. Connecting significant religious art and artifacts to their sartorial expressions, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination provides a critical analysis of fashion’s engagement with notions of the divine. Exploring fashion’s complex and often controversial relationship with Catholicism, Heavenly Bodies probes what dress reveals about the state of religion and spirituality within contemporary culture, and how it may manifest—or subvert—Catholic values and ideology. Art objects, such as devotional paintings and altarpieces from The Met’s collection, are presented alongside fashions from designers including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Callot Soeurs, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Madame Grès, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, Jeanne Lanvin, Claire McCardell, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Gianni Versace. The volume also presents a selection of ecclesiastical vestments and accessories from the Vatican collection, many of which have not been published before.