Monday night's annual Met Gala is, as the seasoned among you will know, much like the Oscars of fashion. Packed with the biggest names in the industry and thrown by Vogue to inaugurate new exhibitions at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, the event has steadily become more famous with each passing year.
While the red carpet looks get their fair share of circulation and criticism online, the real significance of the Met Gala is what the evening is there to celebrate - the exhibition itself and its particular theme. This year, the curators at the Met have delivered their biggest exhibition to date, entitled "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination," a subject that no one saw coming, but that certainly delivered.
Of course, it wasn't without controversy (and I'm not just referring to how you felt about Sarah Jessica Parker's divisive manger hat). Unlike last year's Commes des Garçons tribute, which paid homage to a specific designer, the reference to Catholicism drew criticism for what some considered to be cultural appropriation. The sexualization of religious symbols was a point of disrespect to many, as was the costume-ification of sacred garb.
The difficulty with calling out the Met Gala for "cultural appropriation" is that appropriation necessitates an imbalance of power, wherein it is the dominant culture who pilfers and cherry-picks aspects of a group that they have marginalised, replacing a quest for justice and equality with a kind of superficial "appreciation" based solely on aesthetics. It is often also imbued with misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or taking elements of a culture that have been stigmatised and labelling them as "cool" or "avant-garde" when they are reused by people of a dominant identity (read: white, cis people wearing clothes, jewellery, and hairstyles invented by cultures that are discriminated against for wearing those same things).
Furthermore, dominant groups have often created their notion of culture through colonial projects and the theft of artefacts and traditions from those whom they have dominated; for example, Catholicism took much of its aesthetic vocabulary from violent conquests in the East, but when it comes to 2018, the Vatican collaborated closely with the Met on the curation of this exhibition, even voluntarily contributing exclusive items from the Sistine Chapel sacristy.
In brief - it is difficult to make a sound argument that Catholicism, one of the most wealthy and powerful branches of Christianity, can be appropriated, when it has been prosthelytized by some of the most influential governments around the world - often with deadly force and colonial, "crusader" impetus. How can something be appropriated if it has been forcibly given to people on a mass scale?
Most importantly, however, the dominance of Catholicism, and moreover, Christianity, in Western culture is arguably the leading cause in the historical and ongoing marginalisation of queer people and the repression and 'taboo' of female sexuality; on the red carpet, maybe remixing symbols of normative religious dogma is not just about "looking sexy" or selling a brand, but furthermore, it represents a subversion of the norms of a Christian-centric sexuality that has policed certain bodies and made them invisible, less then, persecuted, illegal, and taboo.
It is fitting that Madonna, an artist who has drawn criticism from the Catholic church since the 1980s for her satirical take on religion and its limiting view of female sexual expression, was the musical performer for the night (and that she showed up in Jean Paul Gautier, her long time collaborator and accomplice in ruffling feathers).
TeenVogue Digital Editor and founder of Them, Condé Nast's first publication for LGBTQIA+ readers, Philip Piccardi, also responded to questions of appropriation, highlighting his Catholic upbringing as a young gay man:
"Catholicism has [...] helped to criminalize homosexuality and kill queer people all over the world, despite those communities existing within cultures well before colonization," Piccardi wrote on Twitter.
Actress Lena Waithe also turned up in a rainbow cape courtesy of Carolina Herrera. Piccardi and Waithe are right not to allow the relationship between Catholicism and homophobia fall to the wayside, and both used fashion as a platform with which to declare a reimagining of the religious view of the queer body.
Fashion writer Connie Wang also noted in a Tweet about the exhibition that "the greatest thing about the #MetHeavenlyBodies exhibit is that much of it is essentially drag: women in men’s clothes." (She continued to add that "the worst thing is that it’s presented without an iota of satire," but then the Costume Institute has never really been one to use the exhibition for critical cultural commentary - that's oddly more of the role that celebrities at the Gala have played.)
In effect, the designer-adorned bodies that we saw on the First Monday in May might have been heavenly, but they also marched to the beat of their own drum. They paid homage to the craftsmanship and symbolism of Catholic dress, while using contemporary design to call attention to the religion's problematic relationship to our construction of identity (a factor that fashion is, not coincidentally, a critical element of). Bodies have meaning and this meaning is built with dress, a phenomenon that has been shaped by all elements of culture, with a long and complex history that we are only now beginning to appreciate, thanks to exhibitions like this one.
"Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination" is on at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art from now until October 8, 2018.