It is not as strange as it seems.
Over one million and 600 thousand people visited Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the latest exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is the historical record of the most important museum in the city, which has also pulverized the so far unbeaten Treasures of Tutankhamun, 1978. It would not even be real news if it were not a fashion show, desired and organized by the Costume Institute inside the Met . And we would not even be here to try to explain why the most visited exhibition in the history of the Met regards clothes, however beautiful, if not for the low consideration that fashion lives in the wider world of culture.
Why is fashion successful in museums?
In an attempt to explain this success, the magazine Vox immediately identifies the merit in social media, which have helped make fashion more democratic, at least as a speech and presence of image. Just open Instagram to realize it. Profiles on profiles dedicated to fashion, the one worn by influencers and fashion bloggers and the desired one thanks to an unprecedented diffusion of the image (which multiplies in sharing). The accessibility in real time of fashion shows, events and videos, in addition to the presence of the same designers on Instagram, does the rest.
But the democratic fashion on social media remains an image, but an exhibition allows us to see closely, almost touch, what we dream of. To really touch it, it’s better to try it in a boutique, but in the meantime one of the reasons for its success could be this: to look in person at what is really made that dress consecrated by a glossy image.
The secret of success, without wanting to take anything away from the splendor of the clothes, was also and above all in the preparation, which made Heavenly Bodies truly an exhibition for everyone, not just for fans of the material. The mannequins with the dresses of Dolce & Gabbana, Dior and all the other great creators were distributed to the halls of the Metropolitan dedicated to Byzantine and Renaissance art. Thus, in the midst of the marble statues of the Madonnas, crosses and monstrances, we saw mannequins dressed like Madonnas and golden crosses like the Byzantine ones, but sewn on the short dresses of Versace.
An unsuspecting visitor, convinced to observe the ancient collections of the Met, could thus find the incongruous presence of clothes that looked like talari but they were not, maybe it was the famous Pretino delle Sorelle Fontana created for Anita Ekberg of Dolce Vita and made famous by Ava Gardner .
Heavenly Bodies is a disseminated exhibition that instead of confining itself in a limited and well-defined area has hacked the sacred spaces of art by introducing fashion both as a stranger and as a full-fledged citizen of the arts. An approach that does justice to the ancient discrimination mentioned at the beginning: fashion is considered both too commercial and too frivolous to find itself on the same level (and in the same exhibition) of art or literature. The Met exhibition wipes out the old distinctions between high and low, showing how fashion can be as engaging as literature and “high” like art.
You can also make considerations of an economic nature, on the commitment of the board of the Met to collect stratospheric funds every time to finance the subsequent exhibitions, thus fueling a virtuous circle aided not just by the proceeds of the Met gala, the party with red carpet that inaugurates the new exhibition of the Costume Institute every first Monday of May. One could speak of the aesthetic sense for the affairs of Anna Wintour, one of the Met’s trustees, and in general of the immense return of image.
However, all this would not explain the success of a similar exhibition from the point of view of visitors. That Heavenly Bodies was not simply a fashion show, it was not facilitated by its mingling with art, and perhaps not even by the theme of Catholicism, which always attracts crowds of visitors to the Metropolitan. He was able to offer a real show, neither too didactic-boring nor elitist, and this is a lesson that should apply to all cultural initiatives, not just those dedicated to clothes.