Catholic-inspired Met Gala could be the most controversial

This spring, Anna Wintour is taking the fashion flock to church.

On Monday, the world’s most beautiful people will attend the Vogue editor’s annual Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum in their most divine clothes — monkish capes, bejeweled crucifixes and Virgin Mary cosplay. The theme, a nod to the Costume Institute’s new exhibit opening Thursday, is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

And why not? Designers have long looked to the Catholic church for inspiration, borrowing its shapes (Cristóbal Balenciaga’s priestly garments), sense of pageantry (Alexander McQueen’s infamous Joan of Arc show, where he set the runway on fire in homage to the saint burned at the stake) and imagery (Gianni Versace’s slinky lamé gowns adorned with crosses). Some of these are reverent homages; others, brash — some would say blasphemous — provocations. But they’re all dazzling.

“Designers keep referencing Catholic dress because it’s the most spectacular clothing anyone ever saw,” art historian Anne Higonnet tells The Post about the imposing, richly ornate vestments associated with the church. Plus, there are so many styles to draw from, the Barnard professor adds: from the angelic to the magnificent to the monastic.

And even in our increasingly secular, multicultural world, it seems that designers, performers and fashionistas can’t get enough of Catholicism’s unique flair for pomp, drama and bling.

“It’s just been so omnipresent,” says Chloe Esslemont, co-founder of scholarly pop culture Web site Tabloid Art History. “It’s such an old religion and is so visually rich that its images have been seared into our collective imagination and consciousness.”

The Catholic Church wasn’t always so glamorous. In the early days, those who followed the teachings of Jesus, wore drab gray robes to align themselves with the poor.

“Their clothing expressed their detachment from things of this world,” says Kristi Upson-Saia, assistant professor of religious studies at Occidental College.

Women in particular were instructed to forsake cosmetics, elaborate hair styles and jewelry. Such asceticism “repelled unwanted sexual attention [and] expressed their interest in pleasing God more so than humans,” says Upson-Saia.

But, as Catholicism gained strength and numbers, some clergy members softened their stance on worldly things, and began commissioning lavish architecture, artworks and, yes, ceremonial garments in order to symbolize the power and might of the church — with the pope getting the fanciest gold threads of them all.

“The church hierarchy were really like princes, in terms of wearing the best kinds of clothes: silk, brocade, velvet,” says Valerie Steele, director at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “That’s been true since the Middle Ages — if you look at museums, the most elaborate and beautiful clothes were either those worn by princes and kings, or princes of the church.”

Yet even royals couldn’t top the splendor of those closest to God. Wealthy court members frequently commissioned portraits of themselves done up as angels and saints: Louis XIV’s mistress Madame de Maintenon was painted as the tragically beautiful Saint Frances of Rome, in robes of ermine-trimmed velvet. “The church seemed fine with it,” says Esslemont. (As Pope Francis would say, who are we to judge?)

In the mid-19th through mid-20th centuries, the rise of the middle class, couture houses and ready-to-wear diverted dressmakers’ attention away from their holy clients. But these new designers — who came from predominantly Catholic France, Spain and Italy — didn’t totally forget the church. “It’s part of their culture,” says Steele.

Former chorus gal Coco Chanel credited the nuns who raised her for her austere chic and turned the sacred Maltese cross into cheeky costume jewelry. The devout Balenciaga — whom Higonnet calls “the greatest designer of all time” — based his severe shapes and sumptuously minimal garments — which floated away from the body — on monastic robes. And Christian Dior, who brought the hourglass shape into fashion after World War II, gave the habits worn by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul a fashion-forward update.

Fashion’s relationship with Catholicism, however, has had its ups and downs. After all, it’s hard to tell when a designer (or clothes-wearer) is paying homage to the church, or ridiculing it.

Take the infamous Il Pretino, or “little priest” dress. Designed by the Italian brand Sorelle Fontana, the black silk frock caused a scandal in 1955 when bodacious actress Ava Gardner paired it with a tasseled monsignor hat and rosary-like necklace. Lay Catholics deemed the ensemble blasphemous, never mind that the Vatican had given Sorelle Fontana — and its entire line of cardinal-inspired threads — its blessing.

Then there are those individuals, mainly pop performers such as Madonna and Lady Gaga, who use Catholic imagery to shock or make a feminist statement.

“When Madonna wore the rosaries and the wedding dress for her performance of ‘Like a Virgin,’ she was being deliberately provocative,” says Esslemont. “It’s the sacred and the profane: the wedding sacrament, the white referencing virginity and purity, the sexy lingerie — and she’s dripping with crosses.

“I think in the case of Madonna and Lady Gaga, they come from a Catholic background, and part of their playing with these tropes is them exploring or puzzling out their own identity.”

Sometimes, as with Nicki Minaj, who arrived at the 2012 Grammys in a scarlet cloak with a date dressed as the pope, or Jeremy Scott, who sent sparkly pants splattered with Jesus’ face down his 2017 fall runway, such use of Catholic tropes can read as offensively vapid.

“We do have to remember that to so many people around the world these are really still sacred signs,” says Higonnet. “Creative reinventions of those signs express what’s powerful about them. But just slapping them on a garment sometimes diminishes their sacredness.” (A spokesperson for the Pontifical Council for Culture — which loaned some 40 holy relics for the exhibition — tells The Post that it fully supports the Met’s “stimulating initiative.”)

And it’s not just fashionistas and pop rebels who find Catholic dress so heavenly.

“One of the great monastic outfits of all time was Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck,” says Higonnet, adding that athleisure, with its monkish hoods and roomy shapes, is similarly divine. “Even Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie is inspired by the church!”

This pope goes casual chic

Pope John Paul II had custom white Dr. Martens. Pope Benedict was rumored to wear Prada. But Pope Francis is strictly anti-fashion.

The “cool pope” has shed the ermine-trimmed velvet, gold-thread embroideries and gem-encrusted bling of his predecessors. Instead, he pontificates in old black loafers, modest wool cassocks and plain wood crosses.

“Pope Francis is pulling away from the magnificent toward a new combo of angelic and monastic,” says art historian Anne Higonnet. “He wears all white, but not layered with all the gold and jewels.”

According to the Catholic news site Crux, some “fashion-conscious Italians” are complaining that Francis’ “papal athleisure” is making Sunday Mass way less fabulous. Vatican insiders nearly fainted when they saw him out in public with a torn sleeve.

Yet even old-school Catholics have to admit that Francis’ ascetic chic is probably good for the church. As one tailor says to Crux: “Maybe now we can concentrate more on the will of God instead of men.”

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