LYON, France – A new exhibit in the French city of Lyon displays an elaborate wardrobe for the Virgin Mary and her child, created by Catholic faithful as an expression of their devotion to the Blessed Mother for 700 years.
The show, playfully entitled “Fashion Icon,” explores how clothes, from the 12th to the 19th centuries, were cut to adorn the Virgin, sometimes becoming objects of worship in their own right.
“When you clothe a statue you give it a powerful presence — and since the fabrics used were extremely precious, you also introduce a distance,” explained Maximilien Durand, director of the Lyon fabric museum and curator of the show, which runs until March 25.
“Clothes were cut for all kinds of statues — from great icons in sanctuaries and the mannequins used in religious processions, down to the tiny statues of Mary worshipped in convents and household chapels.”
The practice spread massively from the 13th to 15th centuries, but the clergy started to worry that the statues of Mary had become indecent when came the 16th century, with the Roman Catholic Church under attack from Protestant critics.
“They were dressed like real women, like fashion icons, with real hair, wigs, even make-up,” Durand said.
In 1530, Catholic authorities ruled that the Virgin could be dressed — so long as the clothes were not too close-fitting — allowing the practice to thrive until the 19th century when the Church turned against it. When Marie-Antoinette’s eldest daughter was born, the French queen asked her dressmaker to fashion a costume for the Virgin in Monflieres north of Paris, from one of her own dresses.
“Today it is the only surviving dress known to have belonged to Marie-Antoinette, since her entire wardrobe has since been lost,” said Durand.
Meanwhile, the exhibit features a wardrobe of tiny statue dresses from Marie-Antoinette’s day, cut from a man’s waistcoat or a court apron. Other costumes were specially made, embroidered with flowers that in the 17th and 18th centuries suggested the virtues of the Virgin: violets for modesty, lilies for purity, roses for charity.
The show spotlights the wardrobe of one particular statue — the black Virgin from the Daurade basilica in Toulouse in southwestern France — with more than a dozen metre-high triangular robes and matching baby Jesus outfits.
The first dresses date from the 18th century, up to the present day with a collection created for her two years ago by eight fashion designers, including Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Franck Sorbier. The Virgin’s changing dress mirrors the colours of the Catholic liturgy, with white for feasts, green for everyday, red to commemorate martyrs, purple for Lent and black for mourning.
The contemporary costumes are also rich in metaphorical meaning. Castelbajac clothed her in camouflage print above a glittery band suggestive of a snake’s scales, an allusion to depictions of the Immaculate Conception in which the Virgin tramples the serpent underfoot. On the other hand, Sorbier chose metallic-looking materials, echoing the gold and silver fabrics traditionally offered to the lady of Toulouse, according to records kept by French monks.
Mfrances is a staff writer for CatholicFavors.com that deals high quality Catholic related jewelry including affordable gold rosary bracelets, silver rosary bracelets, and Catholic gifts of the Holy Spirit.