THE THING ABOUT fashion is that it allows its documenters to get away with multi-hued, embellished expressions. Minimalism may be contemporary fashion’s ecologically pertinent need of the hour, but it is not sustainable in writing. When earthly adjectives start wheezing, words like ‘divine’, ‘heavenly’, ‘cherubic’, ‘angelic’, ‘godlike’ often help define glamour. Which is why Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, the 2018 theme of the world’s most audacious annual fashion party at New York’s Met Gala that opened earlier this week, didn’t just create a thesaurus jam for fashion pundits and devotees. The fundraiser that red carpets the most hair-raising couture gave way to an idea storm. Thank heavens for such moments when fashion’s faith in itself as the most devout pilgrim of untried territories becomes so evident. That’s what happened. With Catholicism as the theme and a never-before creative collaboration between The Vatican and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this was a fascinating avowal of religion’s influence on dress, identity and fashions. These spill over in the work of some Western designers who reference Catholic iconography in embroidery, beading, accessories, shapes, details.
The saviour queens of fashion who came dressed as brides of God said it all. They choked Instagram and crowded church and state in every media outlet. Rihanna’s Maison Margiela’s hand-beaded mini dress by John Galliano worn with a mitre—the ceremonial headdress worn by bishops—was delightfully wild (now, would you ever define a bishop like that?) especially when a video of her dancing in her true badass style among the Greek and Roman sculptures at the Met began playing on the internet. Madonna, by her name, fame and fashion musings, always a follower of Holy Cross jewellery and Catholicism-inspired couture, arrived in a Jean Paul Gaultier (on the designer’s arm too) black gown, a black net veil on her face. Bejewelled crosses, rosaries and a bouquet of black roses sharpened her look. Then she changed into a white monastic cloak to sing Like a Prayer before lapsing with devotion and emotion into Hallelujah.
Our very own Priyanka Chopra looked bold and dutiful (to the theme) in her deep maroon velvet Ralph Lauren, a willing worshipper of the big idea even if it may be alien to her upbringing. But it was the chaotic mess of Cardi B that fuelled much curiosity. The American rapper wore a 30-pound pearl-encrusted dress made of gold in cream with a silk duchesse satin overskirt, gem-covered gloves that stretched to shoulder, a bejewelled headpiece, a big buckle- and-pearl choker and enormous pearl drop earrings. Looking good was not the point. Looking on point was the good here. Irreverent designer Jeremy Scott of Moschino was Cardi B’s ‘Creator- Saviour’ for the evening. Blame the excess of tulle, belts, baubles and stuff on him. He was also her date that night.
The sheer range of reimagining Catholic inspired ideas for haute couture rustled shock and awe. Gigi Hadid’s stained glass inspired Versace gown with a thigh slit, Katy Perry’s outrageously attractive angel wings or Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman’s Versace with baroque swirls, a tasselled cape with crosses and shining Louboutin shoes made it legit to say ‘Oh My God’.
Why can’t India have a similar fashion moment, given the robust, colourful, rich iconography from our religious and mythological texts?
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The best photograph? For me, it was Andrew Bolton the curator of the costume institute of the MET, Anna Wintour, the all influential Vogue US editor, also the architect, author and stylist of fashion’s biggest party and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York in one frame. Best surprise: Shoemaker Christian Louboutin in bespoke Rohit Bal couture, a red velvet jacket with dori work! Unsuitably dressed: Deepika Padukone in a red Prabal Gurung gown, the devil be damned. Ho hum. Worrisome too muchness: Sarah Jessica Parker in Dolce and Gabbana with a tabernacle on her head.
The big story here is clearly the agreement of Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the prefect of the papal household under Pope Francis to lend the vestments from The Vatican to Bolton and Wintour for the exhibition that took more than a couple of years to actualise. The Met eventually got 40 items including white Papal vestments, from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy which looks after papal rings, pectoral crosses, stoles and shawls.
You probably guess where this article is going and assume that the next argument piling up here is why can’t India have a similar fashion moment, given the robust, colourful, rich iconography from our religious and mythological texts? A curator-creator-confluence that reimagines Lord Krishna’s blue robes, peacock feathered headdresses, creates Radha lehengas, Draupadi chandrahaars, Sita saris, Ravana masks, Ram drapes and Saraswati whites? Or the saffron robes of our monastic communities? The closest instance I can pick is designer Tarun Tahiliani’s Kumbhack collection of 2013 inspired by the saffron-yellow-orange-red drapes of sadhus at the Kumbh Mela interpreted for fashion garments. The BJP had still not come to power and Tahiliani didn’t exactly evoke any of the gods we fight about every day. I had loved the collection. Tahiliani’s sadhu chic was refreshing.
But to argue that political censorship or disapproval, an ostensibly Hindutva agenda of the current Government, would muzzle any interpretation of Hindu gods for fashion creativity or the religiously hyper sensitive offence-ready people that we are, should ‘ideally’ be critiqued is flawed reasoning. Our very own God’s Day Out at the National Museum is unrealistic.
Our needs as a people do not intersect with fashion nuance or experimentation. So our solutions cannot stem from dress and identity issues either. Indian fashion is currently fraught with copyright issues, haywire (over)pricing, GST-led loss of business and wide inequities between the country’s weaver-artisan and designer-manufacturer communities.
On the other hand, we rape and kill little girls and give those incidents religious shades. We wear religious intolerance on our sleeves, forget creating a Lakshmi-inspired sari blouse. We must deal with more basic issues of moral policing, of fundamental freedoms to wear what we want—a simple short dress, for instance—before shrieking in momentarily infectious me-too wrath to be given the right to send down Ranveer Singh as Ram on the ramp.
To expect UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to sit in the front row and applaud saffron- clad models channelling a math is to say that Indian fashion must offer solutions that governance and justice have not been able to. I am a fashion apologist but find it hard to argue for a Radha-Krishna party for a couture brand. A righteous little WhatsApp message to the imaginative Manish Arora (who I believe can create stunning Rihanna and Ranveer Singh worthy couture pieces inspired by Indian deities) to push the envelope and incite ghaghra politics is tempting but would amount to tokenism. We are not ready. Far from it.
This is a moment to envy Priyanka Chopra, who found an opportunity to walk on a red carpet into new territories of religion- inspired couture. Deepika Padukone missed her chance and ended up looking like a misplaced glamourina. For the rest of us, the Met’s Heavenly Bodies gala night was a fascinating spectator sport. It helped some of us retain our faith in fashion. Nothing else.