The Met Gala 2018: Celebrities deified; religion commercialised?

By Rosie Dowsing

The Met Gala is renowned for being a glittering celebration of art, fashion and high profile celebrities, often dubbed as the fashion equivalent of the Oscars film awards. This year, the theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, has been the most extravagant and outlandish yet, combining the intricate and iconic legacy of the Vatican’s art with popular culture.

Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination

However, where there is religion involved in modern society and the media, there is controversy. Even among practicing Catholics themselves, there are mixed reactions to the eccentric display of Catholic motifs on the objectified bodies of A-list celebs. While some feel that it was a shameless PR stunt from the Church or an insensitive act towards sacred religious beliefs (since the Vatican was reportedly on board with the exhibit), others argue that it was a public acknowledgment of Catholic artistic traditions transferred into a modern context for the world to admire. Was this year’s Met Gala a step too far by commodifying religion as though it is a mere fashion trend? Or, was it a worthy platform for celebrities to express meaningful messages à la mode?

Among the most notable styles, Blake Lively’s Versace couture burgundy and silver embroidered dress (which reportedly took 600 hours to embroider) was the most shared on social media. She looked undoubtedly spectacular and had to take a party bus to the red carpet as it was the only practical mode of transport for a gown and train so big.

The actress revealed on her Instagram page that her outfit had a hidden message: etched onto her clutch bag was a crucifix with the initials of her family, which she captioned, “Take your family to work day…”

Was this year’s Met Gala a step too far by commodifying religion as though it is a mere fashion trend?

Rihanna was another icon to capture the awe-inspired eyes of the popular imagination. Borrowing style from the symbolic figure of the Pope, the 30-year-old Met Gala co-host wore a version of the Papel Mitre, a traditional Bishop’s hat which was jazzed up and bejewelled with silver rhinestones, combined with a figure-hugging corset, cape and crucifix necklace. A lavish motif for a lavish costume party, to say the least. Meanwhile, Jared Leto literally dressed as Jesus, and Katie Perry mimicked the Arc Angel Gabriel with extravagant feathered wings and a halo.

What is ironic about such outfits that incorporate saintly religious symbols and characters it that, in our modern society, celebrities have become icons with as much following (see Rihanna’s Instagram likes) as religious figures. Celebrity culture is what people turn to for hope and inspiration, more so now than ever before. We live in a world in which more young people know the names of the Kardashians than the name and nationality of the current Pope.

The 72nd annual Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit may have provided a platform for the world’s most talented designers to incorporate a culturally rich religious aesthetic into their creations, but it also strengthened the power and saintly influence of celebrities through which many see as role-models for their daily lives. While Cara Delevingne can rock a black widow’s headdress and a grid mesh gown that is reminiscent of a penitent’s confessional box, women in Northern Ireland are still restricted by their religion to divorce or have an abortion. Many wear a crucifix as a symbol of their faith and devotion, rather than as costume jewellery for the spotlight.

We live in a world in which more young people know the names of the Kardashians than the name and nationality of the current Pope.

Fashion designers and celebrity fans alike will maintain that this year’s Met Gala should not be considered as cultural appropriation.  There is also no doubt that these celebrity and fashion icons pulled out all the stops and looked amazing. But imagine the backlash if next year’s theme was to be inspired by Islam, a religious culture rich in symbolism and with a beautifully intricate Arabesque art. Celebrities who do not follow the same values should not be sporting Islam’s religious heritage in the public eye, especially if they are using such symbols to accentuate their figures and strengthen their influence according to Western ideals.

Of course, Catholicism is predominantly a Western religion and not a prejudiced minority in our occidental world, and so it is perhaps less offensive to mime it with ludicrous outfits at a Gala that pushes the boundaries of creativity. But no matter how positive the recognition of religious culture and art is, the further deification of celebrities in a media-obsessed world is never a good thing.

Photograph: Versace

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