The Costume Institute Takes on Catholicism

Left-right: Hugh Bonneville, Paddington, Hugh Grant

But after the designer Rei Kawakubo announced that she was ready for her retrospective last year, he postponed the project, and later decided to more narrowly define his topic, in part because he found that the majority of Western designers (and there are only three non-European or American-based names in the exhibition) were engaged in a dialogue with Catholicism. Perhaps because, as Mr. Bolton noted, so many Western designers were raised Catholic, including Elsa Schiaparelli, John Galliano, Riccardo Tisci, Christian Lacroix, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Norman Norell, Thom Browne and Roberto Capucci, among others. (Mr. Bolton is also Catholic.)

He began conversations with the Vatican in 2015; the loan came from the Sistine Chapel sacristy Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, as opposed to the Vatican Museums, since it involves garments still in active use. (They date from the mid-18th-century to the papacy of John Paul II.) Mr. Bolton said the church was immediately receptive to the idea of working together, though he had to make eight visits to Rome to discuss the show. And because of concerns about display and security, the loan contract was not signed until last week.

Asked if he had met the pope or knew whether he had approved the show, Mr. Bolton said he had had no contact with him, and did not have any idea if he was involved.

Greg Burke, the director of the Holy See press office, said: “The Roman Catholic Church has been producing and promoting beautiful works of art for centuries. Most people have experienced that through religious paintings and architecture. This is another way of sharing some of that beauty that rarely gets seen.”

The Vatican garments will be separated from the rest of the fashion in the exhibition, out of respect for the fact that they are still working garments and, presumably, to defray criticisms that could incur if a visitor were to see, for example, a sacristy robe next to a Jean Paul Gaultier dress with a chalice embroidered over the breasts.

Less has been done, seemingly, to defray the idea that Mr. Bolton’s definition of “fashion” is definitively Western. Save Isabel Toledo, who is Cuban-American, there are no South American or Latin American designers in the show, for example, though it is hard to imagine that no one else from that continent engaged with Catholic iconography. Challenged on the subject, he said he hoped to expand his purview in a future exhibition.

In any case, Mr. Bolton has been here before: In 2015, his show, “China Through the Looking Glass,” became the fifth-most-visited exhibition, despite accusations of skating over the surface of the issues it raised, underscoring for him the importance of tapping into the broader conversation. He followed it up with “Manus x Machina,” which examined the role of technology in fashion (and which became the Met’s seventh-most-visited show); and then “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” the Costume Institute’s first retrospective of a living designer since 1983. Though it was widely praised, Ms. Kawakubo is a less obviously buzzy choice, and the show and the attendance were smaller.

Which may partly explain why the museum decided to roll the dice with this show. The last time this many Vatican garments made their way across the ocean, in 1983 for “The Vatican Collections,” the exhibition became the third-most-visited in museum history, with 896,743 attendees.

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