Genderf*cking Catholics at the Met

On a recently visit to New York City for a friend’s wedding, I was able to take a quick pit stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. While the exhibit deftly explores many themes (you can read the curator blog about some of them here), there was some extreme genderfucking going on in that exhibit, which was mostly glossed over.

To genderfuck is to disrupt traditional notions of gender, primarily through dress. Many of the outfits on display at Heavenly Bodies were inspired by traditionally male ecclesiastical garb, but were created for women. One exhibit label mentioned that, in the Church, “dress serves to reinforce divisions based on rank and gender, themes explored in the fashions on view here.” However, none of the exhibit labels explicitly explored the ways that the fashion displayed in the exhibit confronted the Church’s notions of gender.

While wandering through the exhibit, a dress by Pierpaollo Piccoli, Valentino’s Creative Director, jumped out at me as a prime example of genderfucking. According to the object label, the dress “recalls the silk moiré great cape, or cappa magna, worn by cardinals and bishops.” The cappa magna is a men’s garment, while Piccoli’s dress is tailored for a female body. Piccoli’s dress is also incredibly low cut, displaying the wearer’s breasts. The cut not only emphasizes the gender of the individual wearing the garment, but also sexualizes a garment that is normally worn by a celibate individual. It’s a genderfuck and a mindfuck!

Piccoli, Pierpaollo, evening dress, red silk taffeta, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I was also struck by the placement of a dress by A.F. Vandervorst next to the sixteenth century painting Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo. The object label for the dress relates that it is based on an alb, the same piece of clothing that the acolytes wear in Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo. An alb is most commonly worn by Catholic priests during Mass. The dress was part of A.F. Vandervorst’s autumn/winter 2001-2 collection, which explored the theme of “external decency.” The dress begs the question, “what is decent for a woman?” It is not form fitting or revealing, which would make it immodest according to many Catholics. However, the woman wearing the dress violates social conventions because she is basically wearing a male garment. Furthermore, Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo throws the woman’s potential transgression into stark relief. The individuals wearing the alb in Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo are the holy men observing Saint Augestine become consecrated as bishop. They are serving their God-given role. But, what is the role of a woman in an alb?

Vandervorst, A.F., ensamble, white cotton poplin, ivory grosgrain, wood, metal, Fashion Museum, Antwerp; Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Oil, gold, and silver on wood, 1400-1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The exhibit begs the question, “what is the role of individuals who genderfuck in the Catholic imagination?”

What do you think?

If you’re interested in exploring views on gender, sexuality, and Catholicism, check out CatholicTrans and The Catholic Feminist Podcast.


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