This summer I have a pretty stressful, but extremely fulfilling, internship in New York City. During the weekends when I am not sleeping or otherwise completely fried, I’ve been enjoying (re)visiting museums in the city. My favorite trip so far has been going back to The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art focusing on medieval art. As the museum’s name suggests, it’s built around four real cloisters shipped to the U.S. in the 20th century from European monasteries. It offers a beautiful respite from the city—perched over the stone walkway that wraps around the building and looking out toward the water, you’d hardly know if you’re in 2018 New York or in medieval Europe.
The museum was especially mesmerizing this time around. After drooling over the Kardashians’ and Hadids’ MET Gala outfits, I had been looking forward to seeing the Heavenly Bodies exhibit at the MET. My sister told me vaguely that some of the exhibit was at the Cloisters too. When I arrived I was happy-shocked to see that Heavenly Bodies had done a takeover of the whole museum. It reminded me of a designer collab like Supreme X Louis Vuitton — The Cloisters X Heavenly Bodies, or, more descriptively, stuffy-medieval-art-that-no-one-ever-cares-about X modern haute couture.
It was interesting to see so many people at the Cloisters. Of course, they were paying far more attention to the beautiful clothing than the medieval art. But that’s understandable, even to me. First of all, the MET fashion exhibitions are like summer blockbusters. Second, it’s hard to find pressing relevance in artefacts that are so old; that were created out of understandings of the world that now seem near-mythical to us. Still, it was funny that I had to jostle against people to walk past medieval sculptures. That doesn’t even happen at the Louvre.
Personally, I love medieval art. I think it’s so interesting partly because it’s so ugly and awkward-looking, when you study it from traditional beauty standards. Fittingly, one of the things I was most fascinated by at The Cloisters X Heavenly Bodies was seeing which designer pieces were most influenced by a similar ugliness and which are traditionally beautiful. There were a fair amount of representations of both. For example, the Balenciaga wedding dresses were exquisite and smooth and pretty in a way you can’t think twice about. But other pieces that were just so ugly–ugly in a near-divine way, where the ugliness inexplicably elevates the clothing. For example, the Jean-Paul Gaultier evening dress where a sword slashes a beaded heart and a gush of red fabric falls to the floor. I wouldn’t have loved it half as much if it wasn’t so gaudy and bizarre-looking.
Another thing I adored about The Cloisters X Heavenly Bodies was how dramatic its displays are. Mannequins in scary-beautiful black clothing were elevated high above our heads, towering over stained glass windows in the authentic cathedrals inside the museum. It felt like I was inside a video game, or in some gorgeous purgatory. The Balenciaga wedding dresses I mentioned earlier were worn by mannequins who had their backs turned to viewers as they looked like they stared devotedly at real altars. It was haunting, goosebump-inducing. The curators’ genius is on display here in addition to the lavish garments.
I visited the main part of Heavenly Bodies at the MET the following week, but I was not nearly as impressed. Maybe it’s that the atmosphere of the MET is not as awe-inducing. Maybe not all the displays were as thought-out (only one gave me the chills–the choir of Balenciaga-donned mannequins displayed in a balcony above the main floor). Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a suite of dresses inspired by Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights at the MET. Or, maybe, I’m not as interested in papal clothing if it’s not worn by Rihanna.
Either way, Heavenly Bodies is worth a visit (make sure you see it at the Cloisters). It’s up through October 8. You can read a good article about it here.