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Fashion pieces, political statements and personal exploration: 2021’s Met Gala

Abi Ramsay explores the glamorous outfits, political outrage and acts of self expression seen at the 2021 Met Gala

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Image Credit: Image credit: Neve Iredale

The medium is the message. These are the words that have been reiterated time and time again after this year's delayed Met gala, as many publications and individuals have discussed the displays of political and personal messaging at the world renowned event, for the one percent. But when did the Met gala become a place that displayed political statements instead of fashion statements? Does this change in tone reflect a generation who are more aware of a need for change?

Since 1948, the Met gala has been a celebrated affair. Fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert created the Costume Institute Benefit at this time, a prestigious midnight meal that soon became the party of the year. In 1970, the then editor and chief of Vogue, Diana Vreeland joined the benefit as a consultant, until, in 1995 Anna Wintour took over what has since become known as the Met gala; an event which takes place on the first Monday in May, and allows for designers to push the boundaries with their creations, modelled on celebrities, and shared with millions worldwide. The Met gala is also considered to be a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, marking the opening of its annual fashion exhibition. Each year, the Met gala has a theme, allowing both the outfits and the interior of the Met to be moulded to a specific genre, displaying different and bold concepts to be shared with the public via the medium of fashion. Due to the esteemed nature of the event, all eyes are watching, meaning much of the fashion is scrutinised and critiqued by journalists, other designers, youtubers, and students, such as myself.

In the past, the Met gala has explored themes such as 2019’s ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’, 2003’s ‘Goddess: The Classical Mode’ and my personal favourite, 2018’s ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and The Catholic Imagination’, which saw divine and rich outfits embellished with intricacies and class. After 2020’s theme of ‘About Time: Fashion and Duration’ was postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, eyes turned to the Costume Institute to see what the 2021 reboot would be themed around, which, in typical American style, turned out to be America. This year, the theme was inspired by the question “who gets to be American?”, with over 100 pieces from American designers helping to display ‘In America: A Lexicon of Fashion’.

Many designers went for an old Hollywood approach, with Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, Yara Shahidi and Kendall Jenner being just some of the few inspired by the Hollywood classics of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Josephine Baker. Some went for a more relaxed approach, with Timothee Chalamet sporting converse and tracksuit bottoms, to highlight the comfort, and sometimes laziness, of American fashion. However, due to the theme encompassing America, a country with a complex history, we also saw a fair share of political designs, with AOC’s “tax the rich” dress causing the most controversy.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, more commonly referred to as AOC, is a US democratic representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. Although she has only been a representative since 2019, she is known for her activism in climate change, medical care for all and minority representation. This was her first Met gala, and since the event on the 13th September, she has hit the headlines time and time again with her dress and fashion statement.

Her dress – designed by Aurora James, founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, which compels retailers, such as Sephora and Vogue to donate 15 percent of their inventory to black owned businesses – was actually a rather simple gown, compared to some of the extravagances shown on the red carpet. Her design: a wool jacket dress with an organza train, was relatively plain from the front. However, when turned around, the words “tax the rich” had been emblazoned on the back in large red font. Taking to Instagram, Cortez put forward a question to her followers following on from the reception of her dress. Here she asked “How do we inject urgent conversations of race, class, climate and justice into an event that is both one of the largest spectacles of excess in the world, yet takes place in and benefits an institution that serves the public?”

And it is true. Since the event, both Cortez and James have received a lot of backlash from her dress, particularly from republicans and republican publications. Donald Trump Jr tweeted soon after the event “What makes @AOC a bigger fraud – the ‘tax the rich’ dress while she’s hanging out with a bunch of wealthy leftwing elites or the lack of masks after spending the past 18 months as one of the biggest authoritarian mask Karens in the country”. Of course, if Trump Jr had researched the event, he would know that you would not be able to attend without receiving both vaccinations, and that precautions were put in place to make the event as Covid secure as possible. However, his outrage at her dress, and the crowd her dress was on display to, was an outrage felt by many.

One of the biggest causes of outrage was the fact that a ticket to the Met gala costs $35,000; a surefire indication as to if someone has a disposable income. Cortez was quick to address this however, stating that ‘NYC officials are regularly invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing our city’s cultural institutions that serve the public. I was one of several in attendance. Dress is borrowed’.

It was also for that reason that James and Cortez decided to share the message at the Met gala. In an interview with The New York Times, James stated that “I think it is quite smart to deliver a message directly to the people that need to hear it…ultimately, what she [Cortez] is saying is that the one percent need to be taxed”.

Regardless of your personal views surrounding AOC’s dress, James and Cortez have shown that there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Even with thousands critiquing her dress, conversations are still being started all over the world about tax and the pay gap. Millions of people have googled AOC since the Met gala, exposing her ideals and activism to people she wasn’t able to reach previously. Whether it is love or hate, the dialogue is there surrounding tax, getting people interested in politics who may not have been before. So, could fashion be the way forward to share political and personal messaging? After all, as Cortez proved , the medium is the message., and this proved to be effective for her.

Dutch youtuber Nikki de Jager, more commonly known as NikkiTutorials, also used her dress to display what is important to her. After being blackmailed into coming out as transgender in 2020, de Jager has gone on to be vocal about trans rights, often including the trans flag in her outfits. The Met gala, which also happened to be her first Met, was no exception, with her dress paying homage to Marsha P Johnson, a prominent figure in the Stonewall riots, who helped to pave the way for much of the transgender community.

Broadway actor Jeremy Pope, used the event as a reminder that America was built on the backs of enslaved black people. With his outfit honouring their memory, he reminded people of the torture that faced many. His outfit, styled by Juliann McCandless, was made entirely of cotton, complete with a Broadcloth Picking Sack. He took to Instagram, writing “they planted seeds of beauty, tended to fields with unspeakable strength, & harvested a kind of excellence that would outlive them for centuries. So that we could one day stand up, stretch towards the sun, & tell their story.”

19 year-old Quannah Chasinghorse, an indigenous model and activist, also used the Met gala’s theme to expose the more controversial parts of American history. Embodying her indigenous ancestry of Hän Gwich’in and Native American Oglala Lakota, Chasinghorse’s outfit designed by Dundas X Revolve celebrated her history, with authentic Navajo jewellery from her aunt, and a gold cut out gown. Her simple makeup highlighted her Yidįįłtoo; traditional Hän Gwich’in face tattoos, which symbolise overcoming generational and personal traumas. Taking to Instagram, Chasinghorse, like Pope, paid recognition to those who had come before her stating: “I was able to showcase beautiful TRUE (native) American culture. I didn’t not celebrate American independence (nor will I ever), I celebrated my indigenous bloodlines”.

With a theme like “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, it is important for fashion to encompass all parts of American history. Many took the simple approach of highlighting great actors and actresses that came before, with old Hollywood dresses and simple black tuxedos. However, a more important use of the event was to highlight American history, with de Jager, Chasinghorse and Pope being just some of the few to show the violence and torture which lead to America being what it is today.

Other designers and celebrities chose the more political approach with Cara Delevingne, Carolyn Bosher Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez using their outfits to highlight areas for change; places where America could still do better.

With the Met gala becoming such a watched event worldwide, it is important to utilise the scrutiny to discuss and display areas that need change, or more historical recognition. The medium can be the message, and with social media becoming such a prominent part of where people find their information, it is key that celebrities continue to use their influence for good. All I can say is I’m excited to see how many celebrities and designers follow in the footsteps of those from this year’s Met gala, to further expand the messaging behind 2022’s continued American theme of “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.”

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