I never thought I’d put “popes" and “high fashion" in the same sentence, but the thing that struck me most about the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion And The Catholic Imagination exhibition—running at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) till 8 October—is just how exquisite the papal vestments are. In fact, not only do they hold their own against the works of over 50 top fashion designers on display, they outshine them. Taken from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, this Vatican collection of magnificently embellished papal robes and jewel-encrusted accessories (including a tiara with 19,000 precious stones, first worn by Pius IX in 1854), left me awestruck by their beauty.

They also left me somewhat disoriented, generating a back-of-the-mind hum of conflicting feelings, and that I suppose is what makes this exhibition so interesting, this juxtaposition of what belongs in the religious domain with what belongs on the catwalk. You are forced to question the role of dress in the church, and how extravagance, spirituality and worship come together. In an ambitious second part of the exhibit, you look at how modern fashion designers like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Valentino Garavani, to name a few, have been inspired by the Roman Catholic church. Surprisingly, they have sometimes even designed for it, as in Yves Saint Laurent’s sumptuous 1985 creation in gold silk brocade and Chantilly lace for a statue of the Virgin in the Chapel of Notre Dame de Compassion in Paris.

The Vatican collection—displayed downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume Center—has one stunner after another, many never seen outside the Vatican before. The most spectacular pieces of clothing are two massive copes—think of them as huge half circles covered with intense, elaborate embroidery—one worn by the aforementioned Pius IX (1846-78), the second by Benedict XV (1914-22) and also later several times by Benedict XVI (2005-13). My favourite was a dalmatic made for Pius IX which features an embroidered scene of Christ’s crowning with thorns—the needlework is so fine, that initially I thought it is painted—surrounded by rich rambling floral gold zari work on silk gros de Tours. The effect is stunning, both visually and emotionally, especially the figure of Christ, which is so sensitively rendered that you stand in awe and wonder: can mere embroidery move you? And that’s when the penny dropped for me—perhaps, we all worship at the altar of beauty?

Interestingly, that particular dalmatic is part of a suite of 12 vestments made for Pius IX, which collectively took 15 highly skilled women almost 16 years to complete. Clearly, this kind of near-infinite hand labour is not something that today’s commercial designers can afford, but they make up for it with creativity and chutzpah, drawing on Catholic symbols—the cross, the Virgin Mary, angels with wings, even a nun’s habit or a priest’s cloak—and this is what forms the second part of the exhibit. The scale is ambitious for these dresses are displayed in the Met’s Byzantine and medieval galleries, happily mingling with existing ancient art objects, each outfit strategically placed next to artworks that highlight visual or thematic similarities.

So you have a 1,000-year-old Byzantine processional cross—about 2ft high, silver with elaborate gilt decorations—placed alongside a line-up of dresses by Gianni Versace (Autumn/Winter 1997-98 haute couture), rendered in his signature silver and gold metal mesh, appliquéd with big bold crosses in amber crystals. They are gorgeous and poignant—his last collection, he was killed soon after—and also unabashedly oomphy, for instance, a sparkling silver mesh wedding ensemble that ends mid-thigh, or a body-skimming evening gown with an emphatic cross cutting horizontally across the bust and running vertically down the middle of the dress. This proximity of ancient objects of worship and modern objects of desire is both cheeky and fascinating, but ultimately, what stays with you is their innate but separate beauty.

While many dresses make a literal use of religious symbols, there are some that play with the idea of Catholic practices. Perhaps the most ingenious in this category is the “Ex-Voto" evening ensemble by Jean Paul Gaultier (Spring/Summer 2007 haute couture) which takes off on the practice of placing a vowed offering—or ex-voto—in gratitude for a miracle. On an elegant outfit of grey silk, white lace and gold crochet, Gaultier has appliquéd intriguing little ex-votos—holograms of saints and aluminium plaques sculpted with body parts—creating an outfit that is both weird and wonderful.

The most weird and wonderful piece in the exhibition, however, is not a dress but a video clip of the “ecclesiastical fashion show" scene from Federico Fellini’s 1972 film Roma, which draws a hilarious parallel between a church’s procession and a runway fashion show. A satire on the hierarchy of the church, Fellini has the full range from “new nuns" in black habits walking jauntily down the runway all the way to papal robes with flashing neon lights, and somewhere in between is a comical duo of red-robed priests who roller-skate in. You laugh, and then you turn from the screen, and see a line-up of designer dresses based on a nun’s habit—Thom Browne, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, among others—and a parallel line-up of attires inspired by a priest’s robe. And then you laugh again, because they are severe and whimsical, and yet utterly beautiful.

The outfit that most closely evokes the splendour of the Vatican collection is John Galliano’s evening ensemble for Dior (Autumn/Winter 2000-2001 haute couture)—nipped tightly at the waist in line with Dior’s hourglass house style—with ornate gold embroidery on white silk gros de Tours. It includes a small cope draping the shoulders, and even a matching mitre by way of headgear.

If you have ever wondered what a female pope might wear, this is a good approximation.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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