Sine Qua Non: An Exploration of a “Catholic Imagination” at the Met

“Sine Qua Non: An Exploration of a ‘Catholic Imagination’ at the Met” (2019)

Mark O’Connell



Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a hallowed cultural institution, was transformed into an ecclesiastical couture extravaganza through the installation of the Anna Wintour Costume Institute’s latest exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. This exhibition showcased papal finery as well as gorgeous couture gowns juxtapositioned with icons from the Met’s collection in various galleries, some even installed within vitrines where fashion objects nestled right in beside antiquities. This exhibition went on to become the highest attended (and therefore also highest grossing) exhibition in the museum’s history, and while undoubtedly a beautiful spectacle, it also bought up relevant issues of didactic cultural display, the incursion of commercial interests in public institutions, and which voices are included and which are excluded from this specific display. Of particular note are some of the other messages that have been inspired by a Catholic “imagination,” both implicit and explicit, especially in how they relate to LGBTQ+ people and the original intentions of some of the designers. Ultimately, the exhibition inadvertently illuminates what is truly worshiped by a contemporary, urbane, non-believer living in a secular society: fashion. This paper is an exploration of some of the larger themes that are brought up when secular and religious iconography are brought together in a large-scale public institutional display, and also includes an experiential review of the exhibition by the author at both the Met 5th Avenue as well as the Cloisters locations.

Key Words: fashion theory; queer theory; museum exhibition; social justice; politics of inclusion; social value versus social justice


Kirby Large

Benetton advertisement from 1992, using the colorized photograph David Kirby by Therese Frare, shot May 1, 1990. Therese Frare, David Kirby. 1990, Benetton Advertisement.


O’Connell, Mark. “Sine Qua Non: An Exploration of a ‘Catholic Imagination’ at the Met.” Fashion Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2019,

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