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The Vatican, Versace and Vogue

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a preview of their controversial collection of priest fashion from vintage to current designer options titled Heavenly Bodies:  Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.  The show explores the complex relationship between the Church and fashion.  Having traveled throughout Mexico as a dancer at various events I’ve frequently seen museum displays of clerical fashions from the past.  Frankly, I’m  surprised in New York City, much less the Met, a display of vestments created so much interest.

Last week the Met’s largest show to date featured Rihanna, Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour, famed editor of Vogue and Meryl Streep’s portrayal of in The Devil Wears Prada, rubbing elbows with cardinals (clergy, not birds).  All were together to view ecclesiastical garments and accessories the Vatican is lending the show.  Exactly how fashion and religion work together has become a hot topic in today’s media.

I was taken aback it was men’s fashion that was being studied and displayed.   Orders of nuns originally formed their uniforms based on the then current fashion of court ladies, many of whom later joined religious orders.  Unfortunately, court fashions changed but habits (literally and figuratively) did not and orders became fashion frozen.

Priests, it seems, were a bit more fashion forward.  Vestments of the Colonia Era were designed to be spectacular to the indigenous featuring brilliant golden designs, silver thread, bejeweled crowns and miters to remind all that priests were the gateway to Heaven in the afterlife.  A more subtle message was the wealth and power of the ruling Church during the Inquisition.  To be frank, I’ve seen cassocks in Mexican museums any Las Vegas show girl would be happy to shorten, then wear, in a casino show.

The historical and cultural significance of robes and accessories is what the Met is counting on folks coming to see.  Plus there are pieces designed by Chanel, Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli and Dolce and Gabbana.

Today’s church, under the leadership of Pope Francis (Esquire’s best dressed man in 2013 for his unadorned style), stresses simplicity in the Church and many of these opulent works of art would be currently out of place in a more humble time.  The polarization theme of past extravagance versus current humility will be apparent much like papal fashion is in HBO’s The Young Pope starring Jude Law.


San Miguel’s churches, we’ve ten times as many as a Mexican town our size normally does, draw tourists from around the globe like moths to a flame.  Even the most casual observer will note priests’ garments change color throughout the year and here is a run-down on why:

  • Green – called Ordinary Time or when you apply order to study the life of Christ. As a child I assumed Ordinary Time meant the boring weeks between major holidays!
  • White – for holidays and popular saint feast days to help you think about Heaven and/or the Saints.
  • Red – represents the blood of martyrs and Jesus that gave up their lives. Red is worn also on Pentecost to represent the fiery spirit of the Holy Ghost, I mean, Holy Spirit.
  • Purple – for Lent and Advent being a melancholy color for sin’s gloom requiring us to repent before Christmas and Easter. Reddish purple in Lent is for Christ’s blood on the cross while a richer purple represents the coming of Christ the King at Christmas.

Sidebar:  A cowboy pilgrimage for Christ the King behind La Comer occurs the Sunday after US Thanksgiving to mark the start of San Miguel’s holiday season’s focus on Christ’s arrival.

  • Pink – like Molly Ringwald, local clergy get to be Pretty in Pink, though they prefer the color term rose, on only two Sundays falling during Lent and Easter. Both Sundays focus on the joy of Christ more so then Molly getting a date to the prom.
  • Gold – a gold sash reminds folks of the holiness of Heaven on Christmas and Easter.

For funerals the presiding priest may wear white (eternal life in Christ), black (somber mourning) or purple (prayers for the dead).

The most interesting display I’ve seen of clerical garb I can only hope the Met copies when vestments displayed on hangers from a chain hung from the museum’s ceilings.  Then as the fans moved across the room the clothing would flutter and move ever so softly as if being worn by a ghost.  It literally made the cloth come momentarily alive and I was fascinated.

You can buy vintage clerical robes on Ebay or Amazon and I pondered copying this technique by hanging a cassock by a window in a guest bedroom.  That would scare any guest more in the middle of the night than a shelf full of Madame Alexander dolls!  However, I would be the only one to find the experience humorous.

Less funny was a display of 17th century clerical garb I saw in a museum that included clergy’s underwear made from fishing nets.  Why those gentlemen didn’t see the miraculous benefit of going commando is a fashion faux paus that amazes me and my boxer briefs!



Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series.  All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays.  Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA.  Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkingTours.com, and JosephTooneTours.com.

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