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The wardrobe and the garden

Modern design reflects moral rebellion

Cardi B attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala in New York on May 6. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision

The wardrobe and the garden
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The Met Gala, hosted annually by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, happened on May 6, and my family had to subsist on toast and ramen while I digested listings of the Best and Worst Dressed. This year, the theme was “The Garden of Time,” taken from a short story by J.G. Ballard. Every day the hero picks a crystal flower for his elegant wife from his ever-diminishing “garden” which, for a brief moment arrests the inexorable progress of an army “composed of a vast throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganized tide.” It doesn’t end happily.

Most of the Gala party-goers clearly hadn’t read the story. The $75,000 ticket price didn’t draw New York’s literati so much as Kardashian copycats. I wasn’t too disappointed, though. There were some beautiful clothes, and enough ridiculous ones to make all the scrolling worthwhile. Cardi B, for example, wore an enormous concoction reminding some of a heavy spreading of mulch. And there was Kim herself in a dress cinched so tight everyone who saw her felt a wave of breathless pain. This she accessorized with a clumsy gray sweater. Lana Del Ray came clad in a mosquito net. And Tyla wore an effort made of sand, along with, in case you didn’t get the point, an hourglass clutch. She had to be gingerly lifted up the steps by four strong men because the outfit was so fragile. Finally, there was an assortment of men wearing dresses, gazing nonchalantly into the middle distance, as though unconscious of their shame.

Every time I watch the highlights and clips of such an event, I am transported to That Hideous Strength, hearing the delighted cries of Jane, Mother Dimble, Ivy, and Camilla as they plunder a wardrobe of dresses and jewels for the final dinner at St. Anne’s. As they search, they are perplexed to discover there is no mirror. “I don’t believe we were meant to see ourselves,” says Jane. Trusting each other, they are transformed.

Ivy Maggs is arrayed in green—“as a great composer takes up a folk tune and tosses it like a ball through his symphony and makes of it a marvel, and yet leaves it still itself”—and becomes “a pert fairy.” Camilla is clothed in “a long slender thing which looked like steel in colour though it was soft as foam to the touch.” “Like a mermaid,” thought Jane. Jane herself is doubtful about a gown of blue, thinking it “fussy,” but “when she saw the others all clap their hands, she submitted.” Mother Dimble—Lewis must have been hearing the call of Narnia as he imagined the scene—is transformed from a “respectable and barren woman with gray hair and double chin” to “a kind of priestess or sybil, the servant of some prehistoric goddess of fertility—an old tribal matriarch, mother of mothers, grave, formidable, and august.”

Shrouded in splendor, in jewels and light, they become more fully themselves, yet without the brand of self-knowledge assumed by women today to be the font of happiness and freedom.

The more comfortably a woman inhabits her clothes, and the more beautiful she looks in them, the more self-forgetful she is able to become.

No modern woman, I expect, would approve of Lewis’ view of the relationship of a woman to her wardrobe. Though it has taken me my whole adult life to appreciate it, Lewis put his finger on a disquieting paradox—that the more comfortably a woman inhabits her clothes, and the more beautiful she looks in them, the more self-forgetful she is able to become. This paradox is inaccessible in the age of social media, where to be fully human is to be wholly concentrated on oneself. The transformative power of self-forgetfulness is sold away for clicks. The result is a fractured and fake world of relational disintegration.

The very first time Jane visited St. Anne’s, waiting to see Ransom, “her eyes lit on the following words: ‘The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stranger than the god. To desire the desiring of her own beauty is the vanity of Lilith, but to desire the enjoying of her own beauty is the obedience of Eve, and to both it is in the lover that the beloved tastes her own delightfulness.’”

The whole point of the perfect dress for the perfect occasion is not to be seen and envied by others, not to halt inevitable dissolution for a fleeting hour, but rather to reveal the eternal consequences of redemption—a Bride coming down from Heaven, as rare as a jewel and as clear as crystal.

Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy has a BA from Cornell and an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary. She is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020), and blogs about current events and theological trends on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne. She and her husband Matt live in Upstate New York with their six almost-grown children.

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