Given its track record for staging fashion spectaculars, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute does not shy away from controversy by any means. Its latest effort, ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’, which examines the influence of Roman Catholic imagery and symbolism in fashion, may have been polarising from the outset. However, installed within the museum’s galleries for Byzantine and medieval art, its Costume Center space and also uptown at The Met Cloisters, the historical context of viewing both ecclesiastical fashion and genuine religious garments bestows the exhibition with a palpable gravitas, whether you are a believer or not.

As the largest undertaking the Costume Institute has attempted to date, ‘Heavenly Bodies’ brings together over 150 garments, including 40 papal robes and vestments dating back to the mid-18th century, on loan from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy – an unprecedented move as some of them have never been seen outside of the Vatican exhibition space in the museum, the task was given to Diller Scofidio + Renfro to create a cohesive exhibition design to bring it all together.

‘We were really game to take on such a complex theme,’ says founding partner Liz Diller, who also oversaw the firm’s design for the museum’s Charles James retrospective in 2014. ‘The idea of bringing in all this modern and contemporary fashion with [objects] from the Vatican was a challenge to figure out how do. To do it both in the spaces of the museum and at the Cloisters – there was a lot that had to be thought through and resolved.’

‘We spent a lot of time in the early days talking about taking the subject matter seriously on its own terms, but also not being overly reverential and trying not to do anything campy or too narrative. Keeping a foot in the museum and then also [bringing] something more elevated was something we tried to get the right balance for,’ adds project lead Kumar Atre.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s display system maintains a fresh, continuous thread through its design variations. Photography: Brett Beyer

The exhibition opens in the Byzantine and Medieval art galleries, where ethereal creations from Dior, Givenchy and Valentino are situated alongside more austere, nun and clergy-inspired garb from Thom Browne and Yves Saint Laurent in its sanctuary-like setting.

DS+R specially designed a display system, made from concrete, steel and acrylic, that quietly adapted itself to the garments being showcased. From hovering platforms lightly suspended off the ground, to towering industrial pedestals and modern yet other worldly vitrines, the system’s variations maintain a fresh, yet continuous thread as viewers explore the various spaces.

Diller explains, ‘There was an existing museology in all the spaces, and so we had to intersect it in a way that was both respectful, but also give the show a coherence about it.’

From this historical backdrop, the exhibition moves on to the white-box Anna Wintour Costume Center, where the Vatican’s loaned objects are appropriately given their own moment. Papal robes are displayed in wide cases, while mitres and other accessories are shown in tall single vitrines, each visible on all sides so that visitors can appreciate the intricate embroidery and all its details.

The final part of the exhibition’s triptych strikes a more spiritual and contemplative note amongst the solitude of the Met Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park near the Bronx. Playing off the dramatic monastery architecture, creations by Rick Owens, Undercover and Gareth Pugh are presented in all their irreverent glory.

‘The show is in cooperation with other curators and a lot of other artifacts,’ Diller concludes. ‘There is a kind of thinking about all the links and a building of the choreography, but it’s also about taking advantage of and interpreting what’s already there.’