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Met Gala underwhelms due to disorganization

2021 edition of annual star-studded event was more about personality than fashion

While the Met Gala is usually an opportunity to indulge in the pure aesthetics of wealth and fame — the red carpet flooded with celebrities and ridiculous costumes — this year’s theme, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” demanded more than a quick glance.

The Met Gala is the annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The Gala marks the opening of a new exhibit at the institute, this year’s being the double exhibit “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” and “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” While the Gala was canceled last year due to the pandemic, past themes and their corresponding exhibits have included “Camp,” “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” “Fashion and Fantasy,” and “Jacqueline Kennedy.”

As much a spectacle of celebrities as it is one of costumes, this year’s Gala encompassed the past two years of pop culture. Kim Kardashian arrived without Kanye. Addison Rae and Dixie D'Amelio made appearances. The menu was plant-based. YouTube stars were some of the first to debut on the red carpet. Vaccines were required.

Perhaps the biggest change to this year’s Met Gala was how celebrities’ personal lives have begun to overshadow their sartorial selections. Jennifer Lopez’s Ralph Lauren Western chic ensemble — complete with cowboy hat and faux fur — seemed secondary to her masked kiss with new (and old) boyfriend Ben Affleck. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrived in a white gown with red “TAX THE RICH” lettering. And in perhaps the most memorable moment of the night, Nicki Minaj announced she would not be in attendance due to the Gala’s vaccine requirement, her absence making more of a show than any outfit could have.

Each outfit seemed to be an expression of each person rather than a remark on the (albeit vague) theme of “America.” The Gala did not compose a moving, intentional exhibit as it has in other years. Instead, it seemed like an awards show, with each nominee tailoring their look to their own celebrity, desperately vying for a “Best-Dressed” (or an even more desperate “unforgettable”) title the next morning.

Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, predicted the theme’s dissolution before the Gala began, stating, “American fashion isn’t just about clothes, it’s about the life you live inside them.” The clothes were just a hoop to jump through; the star’s presence — their being there, at the Met Gala, as a star — was the actual statement. Of course, this meant there were beautiful gowns on beautiful people — Hunter Shafer in a metallic Prada set and Lupita Nyong’o in a complex, denim Versace stand out — but there wasn’t much else. 

The “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” theme becomes even more sinister considering this disparateness. If American fashion is about the lives lived within clothes, it’s about people. And if it’s about people, what falls outside of its purview? 

Naomi Osaka, tennis star, wore an extravagant Louis Vuitton piece that featured Koi fish, a reference to her Japanese heritage. That would fall beneath the lexicon of American fashion. AOC’s loud political statement, a direct affront to a country that refuses to adequately tax the rich, would belong to American fashion too. Kim Kardashian’s no-costume costume — a skin-hugging black gown that mummified and masked one of the most recognizable faces — is also American. 

If all of these costumes fall under Bolton’s definition of American fashion, then is anything remotely anti-American? Does anything work against the American status quo, the Western beauty standard manufactured and dispelled by the very attendees? Can there be a counter-fashion, a new model of clothing that rejects conventions and reinvents the art of dress? 

Judging from the Met Gala and its assortment of individualistic and uninspired models, fashion is suffocated by this empty corpse of “Americanness.” Bolton’s model, whether he is promoting or merely noting it, seems to have taken hold. All it would take for a revival would be a belief in something stronger than a nationalist theme, one that affirmatively creates rather than accepts. But the current celebrity apparatus seems more focused on making an appearance, staking their claim to the Met Gala inheritance, and promoting their individuality. Here, maybe Bolton is right. There’s nothing more American than that.


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