by Mac Spencer
Three decades after the fallout from Like A Prayer, the relationship between pop culture and Catholicism seems on more stable ground if the pinnacle of the fashion calendar is anything to go by. However Monday night’s Met Gala theme, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, has not been without a backlash of its own. Opinions have glutted the collective Twitter feed of the week, with one user’s “My religion is NOT your damn #MetGala outfit!” achieving thousands of retweets before its eventual deletion. A predominant rhetoric from the critics has been that of cultural appropriation, adopted in some cases gleefully by those who often diminish its existence.
Although a man usually “all in favor of cultural appropriation”, Conservative National Review writer Kyle Smith surmises:
“The Met costume party is entitled to send up, among others, black, Jewish, Muslim, Latino, or Christian culture as it sees fit. These days, though, only one of these cultures ever seems to come in for a jolly roasting where the swells gather.”
Joining Smith in his unabashed adoption of a victim narrative, a Daily Mail commenter states that “the Met NEVER does an “All Things Muslim” event … The resulting carnage would resemble 9-11”. Right-wing Daily Mail mainstay Piers Morgan declares his loose Catholic beliefs “rudely disrespected”, and freely borrows the same banner of cultural appropriation that he so often derides.
The simple trigger that renders these articles irrelevant is Smith’s and Morgan’s blatant misunderstanding of cultural appropriation’s central tenet: that of power. In using the term as a metonym for borrowing, they fail to mention what makes cultural appropriation’s true form so potent. The mechanism of appropriation borrows an element of culture from an oppressed or excluded group, and neglects to proffer a platform. Instead, said group is often demonised for the very elements that are borrowed, further ensuring their exclusion and widening the power imbalance between the two groups.
What is crucial here is that Catholics, in a Manhattan social event monopolised by upper-class and mostly white crowd, are not ostracised. The Vatican was in fact consulted throughout the planning stage, and worked closely with event chair Anna Wintour and her team. Forty garments were lent directly from the Vatican Chapel Sacristy, the Archbishop of New York was in attendance, and Met curator Andrew Bolton visited the Vatican ten times during planning. In short, there is no resemblance to cultural appropriation; rather than exclusion of the borrowed-from group, what we see instead is a level-plane, mutually beneficial relationship, one where the Vatican was given a platform of which they had a significant part in crafting.
Though in this case the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications hailed the event’s “real attention to Catholic sensibilities”, this is not to suggest that the Gala’s organisers are infallible to problematic culpability. A mere three years ago, the elected theme for the Ball was China: Through The Looking Glass. Again taking into consideration the undeniable whiteness of the Manhattan elite en masse, the ethics of the chosen theme seemed questionable, and became all the more uncomfortable when the original title was revealed as Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion. New name aside, the evening was critiqued as exoticising Chinese fashion, and flattening what could have been an important exposure for minority designers into an unsavoury pan-Asian conceptualisation of Chinese culture, in which ‘China’ and ‘Asia’ became exchangeable terms. This facilitates an atmosphere in which Asian Americans are, in Jian DeLeon’s words, “forever “the other,” still trying to navigate our way above a bamboo ceiling.” A closer examination of the Met’s Board exposes a cohort that, although equal in gender, is a staggering 90 per cent white. The Board’s somewhat insensitive approach in 2015 becomes rather less surprising, though no less disappointing.
In regard to this year’s event, what is revealing in the responses of those claiming dissatisfaction in the 2018 theme is their (often subconscious) use of misogynistic and racially questionable rhetoric. In user @percy_gryce’s tweet, the caption reads “High fashion inspired by Catholic art vs. sacrilegious cosplay”. The left side of the image shows Arianna Rockefeller, a slim white woman, sporting a long-sleeved, demure white gown at the Met Gala and smiling reservedly. None of her flesh is visible below the neck, her hands even gloved. To the right is a photograph of Rihanna on the same night, her comportment dominating and confident, and her unsmiling gaze geared unflinchingly toward the wall of paparazzi in front of her. Her cleavage is displayed, and her legs visible to the upper thigh.
A deeper look into each case throws the Twitter user’s statement into uncertain territory. The designer of Rockefeller’s dress is quoted as explicitly saying that “I looked into the theme and decided it would be amazing to make her look like an archangel.” It is odd in this case that Rockefeller’s ensemble is exempt from the “sacrilege cosplay” narrative while Rihanna’s (which, being John Galliano-designed, should logically inhabit the same “high fashion” sphere as Rockefeller’s) is condemned. Presenting herself as a body-confident woman of colour at the event likely plays part in garnering a different reaction; as an unruly subject, she is redolent of the Jezebel stereotype, where black women are historically considered immoral, lascivious and predatory in comparison to the moral and restrained white woman.
Cardinal Dolan is quoted in a LifeSiteNews article saying that he “did not find the spirit of the evening to be offensive or blasphemous at all”. Immediately following, the Gala’s guests are demeaned as “a Victoria’s Secret model dressed as a sexy cardinal alongside dozens of other celebrities in sultry Catholic-themed outfits”. The same anti-woman rhetoric arises; doubt is implied on the authenticity of the Cardinal’s statement. The author finds Dolan’s lack of disapproval illogical in regard to an event populated by revealingly dressed women.
Elsewhere in Kyle Smith’s piece, he complains:
“Do I really have to explain that Kim Kardashian’s path is not the path forward for the Church? Why encourage mixing enduring symbols with the shallow ostentation of Katy Perry or RiRi?”
There is a great irony in Smith using the word “ostentatious” as ammo, one frequently used to describe the historical practices of the Catholic Church in aesthetic and decoration; as a prime example, one of the papal tiaras loaned from the Sacristy boasts 18,000 encrusted diamonds. In the same excerpt, Smith makes no attempt to mention any male guests of the Gala, effectively pinning the anti-religion issue onto the women in attendance. In another stark example of the same discourse, Piers Morgan writes that
“Kim Kardashian wore a Versace gold gown with large crosses emblazoned on her hips and torso (The same hips and torso she’s spent the past two weeks flashing naked online). She had two more necklace crosses perched above her bulging cleavage.”
Kardashian-West has been criticised for her abetting of choice feminism in objectifying her own body, an approach that Morgan seems to take as some perverse form of permission to do the same to hers. Choosing to sexualise her body in its publicly presented form, he juxtaposes her displaying herself online as grossly incongruent with moral respectfulness and piety, and linguistically transforms her breasts into a “bulging cleavage” that, he implies, somehow detract from the Catholic symbols lying inches above. Here he diminishes Kardashian-West’s self-identification as a Christian and reduces her to a sexed body. In the comment section of Morgan’s article, user Morebeautifuldanu opines, “There were no heavenly bodies there last night just [sic] bunch of plastic silicon-filled disasters playing God.”
What we witnessed on Monday cannot be called appropriation in good faith. Rather it was a demonstration of symbiosis, elite with elite; the Vatican gained a modicum of 21st-century relevancy nowadays little seen, and the celebrities a vehicle to exhibit decadence through sanctioned Catholic aesthetic. As was always the aim, the Vatican’s institutional form of Catholicism, grand and powerful, was alluded to in fitting fashion. Written in Cardinal Dolan’s own blog post on the exhibit:
“In the “Catholic Imagination,” the truth, goodness, and beauty of God is reflected all over… even in fashion. The world is shot through with His glory.”
The fashions worn by the guests did an apt job of exemplifying the splendour that the Vatican wished to exhibit. Perhaps it is the gendered bodies upon which the dresses were worn that have truly aggravated those in protest.
Mac is a current postgraduate on the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy MA at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. His research interests include consumption, gender, and morality. Primarily, he enjoys applying anthropological thought to areas that are often neglected, such as popular culture and celebrity.