Cardinal Raymond Burke wears a cappa magna (literally, “great cape”) in this uncredited 2014 photo. A form of mantle, it is a voluminous ecclesiastical vestment with a long train, proper to cardinals, bishops, and certain other honorary prelates. It is hardly ever worn.
Catholicism and its fashion have fascinated the secular media for decades.
In last year HBO’s TV series The Young Pope, several lavish costumes were used to highlight the extravagance of the fictional young pope played by Jude Law.
Now New York is getting on board. The theme for the 2018 Met Gala, a high-profile fundraising event hosted annually by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
Celebrities will take inspiration for their wardrobes from Catholic vestments, robes, clerical clothing, artifacts and artwork spanning nearly 2,000 years. According to Vogue, the gala will “highlight the enduring influence of religion and liturgical vestments on fashion.”
Indre Cuplinskas, a professor at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta, equates the fashion industry’s fascination with Catholicism to how vestments were once modelled after the luxurious and dramatic attire of European kings and emperors.
“If you look back at early liturgical garb from the Middle Ages, it was taken from secular rulers. The Catholic Church itself is a very sensuous church. It is sacramental. Beauty is a part of how we honour and worship God,” said Cuplinskas, who teaches Christian history at St. Joseph’s in Edmonton.
“There are other sectors of Christianity which are very skeptical about ornaments and adornments. If you look at Old Order Mennonites, they don’t even wear buttons because it is too prideful. The Catholic Church has over 1,500 years worth of ornamentation that in and of itself is art.”
Similar to how trends come and go in the fashion industry, pastoral vestments and clothing have changed over the years. Following Vatican II, attire in the 1960s became less ornate and more practical.
“Along with a simplification of mass came a simplification of vestments,” said Cuplinskas. “For instance, the papal tiara has not been worn since Pope Paul VI in 1963.”
The papal tiara is a large headpiece once placed on the heads of popes at their coronation. The tiara comprised three layers of gemstones symbolizing the powers as priest, prophet and king. While Pope Paul VI’s tiara weighed only two pounds, the papal tiara donated by Napoleon I to Pope Pius VII in 1804 weighed upwards of 18 pounds.
Colour also plays a significant role in church fashion. The colour worn by clergy still indicates their place in church hierarchy.
“If you go to the Vatican in 2017, you can still figure out who is who and what their rank is based off of what colour they are wearing,” said Cuplinskas.
For instance, a cappello romano, the once popular hat with a wide brim, comes in different colours — red for cardinals, green for patriarchs, bishops and archbishops, violet for monsignors and simple black or white for priests.
While Catholic fashion has significance, clerical attire is not regarded as a sacred object, which is perhaps why the Vatican was open to the idea of a Catholic-themed celebrity function.
Following the gala evening on April 30, the Met Museum will present an exhibition of papal robes and accessories, with items on loan from the Vatican.
“There’s an important distinction between symbols and clothing,” said Cuplinskas. “In terms of appropriation and disrespecting the Catholic religion, I would find it more significant if people were disrespecting symbols relating directly to God and Christ.
“That being said, I don’t expect that attendees to be particularly knowledgable about the significance of Catholic vestments. I think some people will want to play with the theme and shock audiences.”
In 2015, the theme for the Met Gala was “China: Through the Looking Glass.” The night generated considerable controversy surrounding cultural appropriation and stereotyping of Chinese culture. Celebrities wore kimonos, ornate headpieces and carried bejewelled dragon evening bags. Pop singer Rihanna was the only celebrity who was applauded for honouring the culture. Her yellow silk gown was created by Chinese designer, Guo Pei.
The last celebrity to create major controversy over adaptation of church practices was American rap singer Nicki Minaj. At the 2012 Grammy Awards she performed an offensive skit that included a mock confession, on-stage exorcism and back-up dancers dressed as choir boys and monks. She was accompanied to the event by a date dressed as a priest.
Cuplinskas predicts some Catholics will be offended by the attire some celebrities choose to wear to next May’s gala. But overall she thinks the gala and the exhibit are a good thing.
“I tend to look at these kinds of things as opportunities,” she says. “People will have a chance to see real vestments and history from the Vatican.”
The general exhibit will be open to the general public from May 10 to Oct. 8.
“I cannot predict what the designers are going to do,” said Cuplinskas, “but I think there is potential to celebrate the beauty within our church.”
When it comes to the church in the media, Sister Helena Burns’ philosophy is that all publicity is good publicity.
“It is usually a good thing when the secular world even cares about what the church is doing,” said the Toronto-based Pauline sister. “It’s when they stop showing you, when we disappear from the media, then I am concerned.”
Cuplinskas tends to agree.
“The Catholic Church does not separate itself from the rest of the world, we’re very involved,” said Cuplinskas. “When you’re involved like that, you’re always at risk for being misunderstood, but at least you are present.”