The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Benefit, widely known as fashion’s biggest night looked to religion this year as its source of sartorial inspiration. The 2018 Met Gala theme, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination was a rumination on the influence that Catholicism has had on fashion as we know it.
While some may consider the Met Gala’s theme to be daring or controversial, fashion has never shied away from holding anything as too sacred. From Madonna’s affinity for crucifixes as accessories to Lady Gaga’s avant-garde take on a nun’s habit for her 2011 Monster Ball tour, here’s a look back on 15 iconic fashion moments that were inspired by Catholicism and its aesthetics.
In pop culture and the red carpet, there are few figures more closely associated with religion — and controversy — than Madonna. From her moniker to her love of a good crucifix accessory, Madge’s fixation on Catholicism (the religion she was raised in) has been a big part of her brand. Many point to her infamous 1989 music video for “Like a Prayer” (which featured stigmata, burning crosses, and a kiss between a saint and a very La Dolce Vita-esque Madonna in a black lace slip dress) as being Madonna’s most polarizing allusion to Catholicism and for good reason — the American Family Association boycotted it and led to Pepsi being cancelled.
However, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” controversy was nothing compared to the backlash that she received during her 2006 Confessions a spokesperson for the Vatican called her concert “an act of open hostility” and suggested that she be excommunicated.a bohemian ensemble by Jean Paul Gaultier tour, where she wore (the designer responsible for her infamous cone bra) while hanging from a mirrored cross and sporting a fake crown of thorns. After she extended an invite to her concert in Rome to the Pope, a spokesperson from the Vatican denounced the concert as “an act of open hostility” and suggested that she should be excommunicated.
When Lady Gaga, who was raised Catholic, debuted the music video for her song “Alejandro” in 2010, she was criticized for her use of Catholic images and iconography, most specifically, eating a rosary while dressed as a nun. The Catholic League released a press release about the video, admonishing Gaga for “abusing Catholic symbols.”
The critiques, however, didn’t deter Gaga from sporting a modified nun habit during her Monster Ball tour in 2011; the habit, which featured a structured wimple, was short and made of translucent latex — all the better with which to see Gaga’s fishnet tights and electric tape cross pasties.
Nicki Minaj raised more than a few eyebrows when she showed up to the 2012 Grammys in a red Versace ensemble with a pope impersonator on her arm. The rapper performed during the awards show ceremony, where she mimed going into a confessional booth and then experiencing an exorcism; both earned her an angry letter from the Catholic League, which publicly denounced her performance and the Recording Academy for allowing it.
When it came to this year’s Met Gala theme, Katy Perry was way ahead of the curve; the pop princess wore a full look from Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall/Winter ’13 collection that was inspired by the mosaics in Sicily’s Cathedral of Monreale to the 2013 gala, riffing off the theme, Punk: Chaos to Couture. A crown with crosses and crucifix earrings completed the edgy look.
While Beyoncé drew on multiple religions as inspiration for her 2017 Grammys performance that celebrated motherhood and the divine feminine, the Catholic influence was clear with the diadem elements of her headpiece, which resembled the aesthetics of the Black Madonna, an icon in Catholic art.
Likewise, the veil she swapped in for the headpiece to give her acceptance speech for Best Urban Contemporary Album was reminiscent of the veil worn by the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition.
Is there anything that defined the early-aughts more than Britney Spears’ sexy Catholic school girl in the “…Baby One More Time” music video? While the actual spiritual aspects of Catholicism wasn’t present, the video’s homage to Catholic school and its uniforms cemented the Catholic school girl stereotype in pop culture.
John Galliano for Dior
For John Galliano’s Fall/Winter ’00 show while he was at Christian Dior, the controversial designer debuted a “Freud or Fetish” collection, which opened with a sadistic priest wearing a complex ensemble (complete with a swinging thurible) that spoke to not only Galliano’s attention to detail, but also to his sense of humor.
Jean Paul Gaultier
Jean Paul Gaultier, he of the hyper-sexed sailors and cone-bra corsets, proved that even Catholicism could be alluring in its own way. Riffing off the gradiose iconography of the religion, his Spring/Summer ’07 collection was an homage to Madonnas, saints, angels, and cherubs. Models walked down the runways in headpieces resembling halos and diadems, while dresses and bodices were adorned with chalices, Sacred Hearts, and images of the Virgin Mary and angels.
Following the tradition of closing haute couture shows with a bridal look, Christian Lacroix gave his final model in his couture 2009-2010 collection the Madonna treatment. Clad in an ivory gown embellished with ruffles, gold embroidery, and a crucifix, she also wore a headdress that alluded to an aureole.
Riccardo Tisci’s gothic design leanings came out in full force with his Fall/Winter ’10 menswear collection for Givenchy, an explicit homage to his Catholic upbringing. In a show staged at the Sorbonne, Tisci sent models dressed in ensembles heavily influenced by Catholic faith — perhaps most emphatically with shirts with the image of Christ that had the words “Jesus Is Lord” emblazoned across the front. In an interview with the Associated Press, Tisci dedicated the collection to his faith. “Religion is a big part of my DNA and this collection was about my Catholic(ism) and every other religion in a way,” he said.
Dolce & Gabbana
Catholicism served as the romantic and brooding inspiration for Dolce & Gabbana’s Fall/Winter ’13 collection, drawing specifically from Sicily’s Cathedral of Monreale’s Byzantine and Venetian mosaics. More cheeky than their heavily detailed looks, however, may have been the liberally embellished, Cardinal red looks that they sent down in the models’ final strut down the runway.
Guo Pei, the Chinese designer responsible for Rihanna’s showstopping, iconic yellow robe for the 2015 Met Gala, showed off her flair for the dramatic with her Spring 2017 couture collection, that drew inspiration from cathedrals and specifically, reliquaries. Crucifixes, candelabra, and headpieces fit for a pope took over the runway.
Thierry Mugler’s Fall/Winter ’84 show closed with legendary supermodel, three months pregnant, Pat Cleveland being lowered down from the ceiling of Paris’s Le Zenith like a heavenly body or some kind of saint descending from the sky.
Sorelle Fontana, an Italian fashion line created by three Italian sisters, unintentionally brewed a what Vogue called a “miniscandal” when they created a black coat dress that resembled a priest’s clothing — further emphasized by accessories like a monsignor hat and a cross necklace that strongly resembled a crucifix. The dress, which was appropriately dubbed, “pretino” or “little priest,” was in the clear, however, when it came to getting the Catholic church’s approval. According to designer Micol Fontana, she and her sisters went straight to the source to clear the design: “My sisters and I—all faithful practicing Catholics—asked the authorities the permission to design the dress and the Vatican approved it.”
One of Cristobal Balenciaga’s signature looks, a structural, nun-like hood of a hat, has appeared in multiple iterations for the designer’s fashion line. First introduced in 1967, as a part of a futuristic bride ensemble, the hat looked both like something out of a nunnery and a science fiction movie. Since then, the nun-vibes have continued as later designers have revived the original designs for new collections.