History 39B, Section 1

Fashion, the Middle Ages, & the Catholic Imagination: The Heavenly Bodies Exhibit (4 units, LG)

Professor Maureen Miller
Monday 10:00-12:00, 3205 Dwinelle Hall, Class number: 32823

In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented an exhibit of contemporary designer fashions inspired by the Catholic tradition. Entitled Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, and staged amid the museum’s Byzantine and Medieval galleries, the exhibit was opened with a Met Gala featuring celebrities—Rihanna, Madonna, Katy Perry, Cardi B—decked out in their versions of Catholic attire. Heavenly Bodies went on to break all attendance records, but this smash hit exhibit also sparked controversy and critiques. For scholars, the exhibit’s chief disappointment was its failure to contextualize the extraordinary haute couture garments presented or to interrogate critically the meanings generated. What were designers trying to do with Catholic imagery? How is fashion drawing upon the visual culture of Catholic Christianity, particularly medieval Christianity, in order to fashion contemporary identities and use the clothed body to engage and comment upon the contemporary world?

This seminar explores the relationship between contemporary fashion designers and the “Catholic imagination” by engaging students in critically examining some of the designs exhibited in the Heavenly Bodies exhibit. After being introduced to the history of fashion and critical questions in clothing and textile studies, students will define and conduct their own research projects using the exhibit catalog as a primary source. Having selected a garment, or collection of garments, from the exhibit, students will be guided through research and analysis of key issues: the background, ideas, and work of the designer(s); the collection context and reception of the garment(s) exhibited; the materials, symbols, and forms used and the array of possible meanings generated; and the further meanings evoked in the exhibit by the garment’s juxtaposition with Medieval and Byzantine works of art.

Instructor Bio

Professor Miller is a historian of medieval Europe with a particular interest in textiles and clothing. Her book Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe c. 800-1200 (Cornell University Press, 2014) won both the American Catholic Historical Association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize for the best book in Catholic history and the Medieval Institute’s Otto Gründler Book Prize for its outstanding contribution to medieval studies. After she participated in a panel sponsored by the Medieval Academy of America about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination she was inspired to create this seminar to enable students to research contemporary fashion and its relation to cultures both past and present.

Faculty web site:


Requirements include attendance and active participation; 3 brief (5-minute) presentations; 2 short (2-3 page) papers, and a longer (10-12 page) paper bringing together and further developing the analyses in the shorter papers.<br><br>This seminar will be taught in person; attendance and participation in person at the regularly schedule class times is essential to successful completion of the course.<br>