Vestement Design

A Vestment Designer Looks at The Met’s “Heavenly Bodies”

Heavenly Bodies, the Costume Institute show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, brings together fashion, which I know about, and religious clothing and imagery, which I don’t. So I called up Patrick Boylan, Fashion Design ’82, owner of Grace Liturgical Vestments; he designs ceremonial garments for clergy members to wear during church services. Boylan, also an adjunct instructor of Fashion Design, agreed to tour the exhibition and share his point of view.

The Met’s show explores how modern fashion designers use Roman Catholic motifs and references. Boylan does the inverse, bringing a contemporary sensibility to garments that haven’t changed much since the 13th century. “I work in a very traditional template, but I infuse it with a nuance of texture, color, and pattern,” he says. (Most of his clients are Episcopalian, a faith sometimes characterized as a “middle way” between Catholic and Protestant.)

Boylan loved the theatrical presentation of the garments in the museum’s enormous Medieval and Byzantine gallery. An ornate, 18th-century choir screen covers one end of the space, providing an ecclesiastical setting for couture pieces by McQueen, Valentino, and Galliano, among others. “I’m a faithful Episcopalian,” Boylan told me over surges of mood-setting organ music. For years after coming out as gay, he felt alienated from the church. What drew him back wasn’t the doctrine, he said, but the sensuous aspects of the faith: vestments, incense, music. “My path to God was through design.”

Here were a few of his observations:

The red in this swoony taffeta gown, left, designed by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, evokes the blood of Christ. Boylan employs a lot of taffeta in his own work, right; it holds rich color, which helps with visual storytelling. He lined one Advent chasuble (an ornate robe in what Boylan calls “your classic poncho shape”) in green taffeta to give it a “moment of surprise” when the priest moved. “Advent is about waiting for the birth of Christ. Bright green life: That’s what the season is about.”

“That’s exactly what a pope would wear,” Boylan said of this Galliano confection, above, calling it “a direct quote” from vestments, not exaggerated in the least. The elaborate, jeweled headpiece is known as a precious miter. (Note: This isn’t the one Rihanna wore to the Met Gala, which was by Maison Margiela.) In his own work, Boylan seldom uses ornate embroidery. An early mentor gave him advice that stuck: “Don’t load the vestment up with iconography; let the vestment itself be the icon.”

Thinking of going into vestment design? Get to know your audience. Every diocese in the Episcopal church has an annual convention, which all the clergy attend; the national Episcopal church holds one every three years. Like any vendor, Boylan sets up a booth to display his latest creations (both images above) for sale. His work has sacred significance, but in some ways it’s as worldly as any modiste’s. “As a designer, I’m always driven by fabric. Draping—that’s what it’s all about,” he said. His work can be seen in churches and cathedrals from coast to coast.

A second part of the exhibition, downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, comprises actual garments, such as this cope, worn by clergy at the Vatican. (We didn’t tour the third part, at The Met Cloisters.) Boylan explained that a cope is a processional garment, worn over the shoulders and open in the front. He pointed out a few worn spots in the fabric where the priest’s shoulders would be: “As you can imagine, these are heavy garments, and there’s no air conditioning in those old churches and cathedrals.” Boylan makes copes, he said, “but the ones I make tend to be more wearable, and fit the shoulder better.” Still, the exquisite needlework moved him: “Every bit of this is hand done. These are dead art forms, so it’s hard to find this level of work.”

Heavenly Bodies has inspired controversy from those who say there’s no common ground between faith and fashion. Boylan, however, thought the show did a good job of braiding the two together, and reminding viewers that the glamorous garments we think we know may have hidden meanings. Catholic belief, he said, “has been infused into our culture and art. It’s everywhere around you.”—Alex Joseph

Heavenly Bodies runs through October 8.