Something thrilling is happening to fashion. We are re-discovering it.
The Met Gala 2018 demonstrates the same coordinated feminist uprising as the black wash of the #metoo Oscar party, only this time the word was ‘icon’.
The nod to the holy iconoclastic figures of the European Renaissance period echoes a historic tendency to reach for the heights of beauty and godliness when the world around you is becoming more and more ungodly by the minute. It is in keeping with the Pre-Raphaelite repatriation of medieval costume and harks further back still to the Renaissance appropriation of wealthy patrons into religious paintings.
The Pre-Raphaelites unlike their Renaissance counterparts spoke with a moral reference point, during a time, like now, of change, uncertainty and an aching romantic re-telling of a moment in history when man moved beyond himself.
During their uprising, the depiction of medieval costume by the Pre-Raphaelites was anachronistic. Similarly, the met gala throws all historical accuracy to the winds of time and embraces the spectacle of divinity, through flesh, beauty and a certain Napoleonic lavishness.
Historically when all hell breaks loose we look to the stars and indulge in our human folly rather than face the challenges at hand. What the Pre-Raphaelites remembered that the French Bourgeoisie forgot were the lessons from the past. William Burges whose ‘dream was the dream of a generation which thought it could redeem the evils of industrialism by re-living the art of the Middle Ages’ (J.M Crook, 1981, p. 16) was a key figure at this time. For Morris the medieval revival was ‘a comparison of the arts in medieval and in modern times as a mirror of the state of the societies that produced them’ (J. Harris, 1984, p. 4).
What then does our current calling back to the icon say about the current state of our society? And what role does feminism play in this resurgence of the female icon in modern culture?
Vittore Carpaccio’s Saint Ursula Cycle was one of the first commissioned iconic works to reflect contemporary culture through dress. John Ruskin (1819-1900) hailed the St Ursula Cycle; ‘perhaps more in this than any other series… he represents the beauty of religion always in animating the present world’ (Ruskin, ‘St Mark’s Rest’, in Cook and Wedderburn, 1906, vXXIV 369). This period was a time when the wealthy were placing themselves in religious narratives and the lines between the divine and human (although a particular type of human) were being blurred. During this period dress was regulated by sumptuary law which governed the dress worn by citizens (Kivesi-Killerby, 2002, 115) and was key in identifying ones class. The cycle tells of the sacrifice of 1000 virgins. It was a moralistic symbol of chastity for young women (see Dominic, Regola del governo di cura familiare, cited in Burke 1999, 128.
This image of David Maitland Armstrong and Helen Neilson Armstrong in 15th-century Style Fancy Dress in Rome, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells similar story of embodied history at a time of need. (see footnote).
Much as Elizabeth I reclaimed her virginity at her inauguration, the images of movie stars with halos, monuments to the saintly status born on the red carpet are offering a re-birthing of the very fragile, very human female figures that are now rising from the ashes of the Weinstein inferno as beyond human. The only risk in this celebration is that of losing touch with what makes us swoon at the movie stars in the first place. Their human-ness. The ability to be vulnerable at a moments notice when the cameras are rolling.
What the Pre-Raphaelites warn us however, is at all times to know the cost and to know our motive. Feminism has become the common driving force for fashion and it is long overdue. The risk now is that the progress made will be hampered by the speed and violence with which the roar has erupted from the core of all people who have felt victims. What the Met Gala offers is a means of exorcising that extremity. Like the fool at the ball, a place must be made for the artists to shine a light in the darkness. As a society, our role is to understand, to remember the references, to draw the wisdom of the past into the present along with the blinding beauty of artists and saints long past.
Side note: Amal Clooney once again was the true embodiment of a Goddess. Enjoy the fashion porn and search #metgala18
Image 1: Coronation of the Virgin
Artist:Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia) (Italian, Siena 1398–1482 Siena)
Date:ca. 1455Medium:Tempera on wood, gold groundDimensions:Shaped top, 70 5/8 x 51 3/4 in. (179.4 x 131.4 cm)Classification:PaintingsCredit Line:Robert Lehman Collection, 1975Accession Number:1975.1.38
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 956
Image 2: ‘The Love Song’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (British, Birmingham 1833–1898 Fulham)
Date:1868–77Medium:Oil on canvasDimensions:45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm)
Image 3: David Maitland Armstrong and Helen Neilson Armstrong in 15th-century Style Fancy Dress in Rome
Sitter:D. Maitland Armstrong (American, Newburgh, New York 1836–1918 New York)
Sitter:Helen Neilson Armstrong (American, 1845–1926)
Date:1871Medium:PhotographDimensions:Sheet: 5 1/4 x 3 3/4 in. (13.4 x 9.5 cm)
Mount: 6 9/16 x 4 in. (16.6 x 10.2 cm)Classification:PhotographsCredit Line:Gift of Helena Bienstock, Cynthia MacKay Keegan and Frank E. Johnson, 2012
This image was made while the couple lived in Rome, where Maitland Armstrong had been sent in 1869 as American Consul to the Papal States, Mrs. Armstrong wears a 15th century style gown and her husband a doublet jacket and hose, costumes reputedly inspired by a painting by Carpaccio. The occasion was a ball held to raise funds to relieve victims of a devasting flood of the Tiber that took place December 26, 1870. Armstrong and two artist friends, Frederic Crowninshield and Charles Caryl Coleman, both of whom lived in Rome at the time, formed the organizing committee.
Images Care of the Met online collection https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/policies-and-documents/image-resources