New Exhibit Explores the Virgin Mary as a 'Fashion Icon'

For more than 700 years, those faithful to the Catholic Church expressed their devotion to the Virgin Mary by adorning her image with timeless clothing and priceless artifacts.

Now those fashionable trinkets and dress trends have come to a museum in France in a new exhibit. The display titled “Fashion Icons” highlights the various garments that were used to show one’s devotion to the Virgin Mary from the 12th through the 19th centuries.

"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.

The practice of dressing the Virgin Mary in elaborate garments spread widely between the 13th to 15th centuries.

“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 worshiped in convents and household chapels,” Durand added.

However, when the Roman Catholic Church was the target of Protestant critics in the 16th century, some in the clergy became worried that statues of Mary had become indecent and inappropriate. Moreover, others might find the Virgin Mary not worthy of admiration and praise.

"The clothes people gave were always special, either precious or because they symbolized a key moment in their lives," Durand explained.

In 1530, Catholic authorities agreed the Virgin could be dressed with the stipulation because the clothes were not too revealing or close fitting. This practice flourished until the 1800s when the church reversed its position concerning the dress of the Virgin.

“People had become so used to seeing the statue clothed, they could no longer imagine her undressed," Durand said. "What had come to be considered sacred was the dress. The statue had become secondary.”
The show runs through March 25, 2012.