"Sunday best" was how the dress code was described for the 2018 Met Gala, which celebrated the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new exhibition, "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination." It's true that the outfits that crossed the arrivals red carpet were perhaps a little less revealing skinwise than in past years, but they actually revealed a good deal about the celebrities wearing them in that what-does-your-Halloween-costume-say-about-you kind of way. It's a feeling that was heightened by the fact that religion is perhaps one of the least-discussed topics on the red carpet today (or any day).
And since celebrity culture and the Catholic Church are two of the most rigidly hierarchical social structures around, what the Met Gala congregants chose to wear Monday night was an intriguing exercise in sartorial symbolism. No one leveraged this to greater effect than Rihanna, one of the evening's co-hosts, who arrived in full pontiff regalia — a pearl-and jewel-embellished, seafoam and silver Maison Margiela Artisanal bustier mini-dress, jacket and open skirt ensemble topped off with a bishop's mitre. RiRi's skirt didn't trail behind her like so many others on the red carpet but, let's face it, when your outfit says "head of the Roman Catholic Church" a long, flowing train is kind of superfluous.
Also at the top of the fashion food chain? Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, who quipped on the carpet that she was wearing "Cardinal Chanel" — as in Chanel couture, an all-white dress with a high, priest-like collar accessorized with a jeweled rosary necklace front and center. Rounding out the highest-to-heaven contingent was Gucci's holy trinity — creative director Alessandro Michele, Jared "Jesus" Leto and singer Lana Del Rey — who arrived together looking like refugees from a Renaissance tapestry, the latter in full Our Lady of Sorrows mode, complete with a stitched gold metal heart pierced with a half-dozen daggers.
In the Catholic Church, cardinals rank just below the pope, and it was easy to imagine that those who arrived in shades of red occupied a similar plane. Anne Hathaway and Bee Shaffer (both in Valentino), Amber Heard, Priyanka Chopra (in a scarlet-red velvet Ralph Lauren evening gown) and Andrew Garfield in a watermelon-red velvet Tom Ford shawl-collar cocktail jacket memorably had us seeing red on Monday night.
Wearing red, of course, can also be a nod to the cartoonish representation of the devil incarnate. That seemed to be what Nicki Minaj was aiming for in her devil of a red dress from Oscar de la Renta. Minaj even referenced the devilish side of the equation on the red carpet. "I wanted to make sure the bad guy was here," she said by way of explanation, presumably referring to Old Scratch.
Scarlett Johansson seemed to be sending a message as well with her choice of a burgundy-red gown by Marchesa, marking a return to the red carpet for the label co-founded by Georgina Chapman, ex-wife of Harvey Weinstein. Major stars had avoided Marchesa throughout this year's awards season, but in a statement to multiple press outlets, Johansson said, "I wore Marchesa because their clothes make women feel confident and beautiful and it is my pleasure to support a brand created by two incredibly talented and important female designers."
Every movement has its flag-waving contingent, and one fact visitors might glean from the "Heavenly Bodies" exhibition that officially opens at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday is that the predominant color of the Vatican flag is yellow. Those showing their colors (knowingly or not) Monday night included Amanda Seyfried (in Prada), Gabrielle Union in a Prabal Gurung stunner and former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
Metallic gold, which represents, well, gold, to most of the world, can symbolize the birth and resurrection of Christ when used in liturgical vestments, so it comes as no surprise that there was a deep vein of the precious metal at the 2018 Met Gala. Evan Rachel Wood made the color her own thanks to an Altuzarra ensemble with a golden metallic feather-covered cape that evoked a pair of angel's wings folded neatly behind her. Other golden girls included Kerry Washington (in Ralph Lauren), Kim Kardashian West in an Atelier Versace form-fitting liquid gold chain mail gown embellished with beaded Byzantine crosses and Olivia Munn in a golden chain mail-inspired H&M Conscious Collection dress.
Munn was hardly alone. A surprising number of women opted for chain mail and armor motifs. While the trend could easily be seen as a symbolic reference to the medieval Crusades (a dark chapter in the church's history if ever there was one), Michelle Williams (in Louis Vuitton) and Zendaya (in Atelier Versace custom-molded gunmetal chain mail with Swarovski crystal embellishments) tipped the scale in favor of a full-on Joan of Arc vibe. And what better heroine to reference in the #MeToo era than a warrior woman who, after being burned at the stake at age 19 was later canonized as a Roman Catholic saint.
The church is nothing without its choir of angels to spread the good word (the word "angel" comes to English from the Greek word for "messenger"), and the Met Gala's worker bees were out in full force. Preacher's kid Katy Perry was the evening's fine-feathered focus-puller in this department, arriving in a custom-made Atelier Versace look that paired a gold chain mail mini-dress with angel wings so super-sized she had to arrive in a convertible. At the opposite end of the spectrum (make that pew) was Kate Moss, who made her return to the Met Gala as an angel of darkness in an inky black mini-dress, her bare shoulders graced by the sparest jets of black ostrich feathers.
Others did their angelic best by rocking riffs on the halo, ranging from Lily Collins' subtle semicircle to Cardi B's bejeweled Moschino headpiece, with some regal-looking crowns in the mix for good measure (Mindy Kaling, Lynda Carter and Madonna). And we don't even know where to start with Sarah Jessica Parker's towering Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda topper that seemed more like a music box than any kind of headgear.
For those not wanting to get caught up in the coded messages of religious iconography (think of them as the four-times-a-year churchgoers), a simple solution was to go with either an all-white look (Kendall Jenner in Off-White, Hailee Steinfeld in Prabal Gurung are two that come to mind) or an all-black one (Solange in Iris van Herpen and Bella Hadid in Chrome Hearts). A few other outliers appeared like window dressing — almost literally — by choosing designs that evoked the look of stained-glass church windows, such as Gigi Hadid in an Atelier Versace gown, or church decor: Ariana Grande in a custom strapless, silk organza ball gown that depicted scenes from Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
But perhaps the evening's best symbolic use of color came courtesy of writer and "The Chi" creator Lena Waithe, who won the evening — and threw no small amount of shade at the Catholic Church in the process — by hitting the 2018 Met Gala arrivals red carpet in a black tuxedo, which she wore under a voluminous custom Carolina Herrera cape designed to look like the rainbow-striped gay pride flag.
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6:05 p.m. May 8: This article was updated with additional details.