The Met Gala, officially known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit, is one of the most highly anticipated black-tie events occurring every first Monday of May in New York. Its humble roots can be traced back to 1948 where guests only paid 50 dollars per ticket to raise funds for The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum.

It started becoming a spectacle when Eleanor Lambert called it “The Party of the Year”. Now, the Met Gala is supervised and under the care of Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

Since the Met Gala is one of the most sought-after balls in history, the guest list is carefully chosen by the organizers. High-end fashion houses are always invited to join the Met Gala and some upcoming and underrated designers are scouted for the event. Each one of them chooses their own muse— a model or a celebrity— to wear their own interpretation of the year’s theme.

If not invited through that route, each ticket sells for $30,000 and tables roughly cost around $200,000 to $30,000.

The Met's Great Hall decked out for the 2008 Met Gala celebrating the exhibition Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy. Image courtesy of Billy Farrell for PatrickMcMullan. Retrieved via The Met Museum.

From a Charity Event to a Media Circus

In recent years, the Met Gala has been a crossroad between the art world and pop culture. The changing landscape of celebrity culture has opened the doors of the gala to famous reality stars, YouTubers and social media influencers.

Steven Stolman, a fashion design student at Parsons in the 90's, recollects his experience in the Met Gala as one of the attendees;

“I miss the old Met ball. These days, the gala is a highly commercialized, celebrity-driven media circus that celebrates sensationalist preening by individuals who couldn’t be less interested in the museum, the exhibit or the mission of the Costume Institute.”

Although the gala started as a fundraising event, over the years it has weaned away from its roots. Celebrities and brands use the event as a scapegoat to present their status and enormous amounts of wealth to the masses.

“They want to get their pictures taken and, in many cases, make a beeline for the back door to a waiting Escalade. Looking at the photos of those who choose to stay for the actual dinner, it all looks rather sloppy: a movie star frat house,” Stolman added.

These actions diluted the focus on the collection curated specifically for the occasion and transferred the fixation on the sensationalization and romanticization of the night.

Rihanna on the red carpet of the 2015 Met Gala. Image retrieved via The Met Museum.‌‌

Admittedly, the appeal of the Met Gala can be attributed to the stunning and jaw-dropping outfits created by these respected fashion designers. However, meme culture has played a significant role in popularizing some of the most controversial outfits. Under the panopticon, immense observation and critique are given left and right.

In hindsight, these incidents might discourage the invitees to come but it only fueled brands to fund the event. After all, bad publicity is still publicity.

Media personality Kim Kardashian at the 2021 Met Gala. Image courtesy of Theo Wargo. Retrieved from Harper’s Bazaar.

A Theme of Classic Fashion and Modern Politics

Although the Met was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, it was pushed through this year which happened in two separate nights— one was in May, and the other in September.

This year’s theme is In America: A Lexicon of Fashion drawing inspiration from American fashion throughout the ages while highlighting identity politics and the minorities’ quest for visibility. In an interview with Vogue, Andrew Bolton, the Met curator, said “I’ve been really impressed by American designers’ responses to the social and political climate, particularly around issues of body inclusivity and gender fluidity, and I’m just finding their work very, very self-reflective.”

The question remains, did the celebrities really embody the theme of this year?
Representative for New York's 14th congressional district Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Designer Aurora James. Image courtesy of Mike Coppola via Getty Image. 

Representative D-NY 14th District Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) wore a white mermaid tail evening gown with “Tax the Rich” written in a big bold red colour spread across the lower back. This call did not appear out of thin air since AOC floated the idea of a 70 percent top tax rate on incomes over $10 million. This attempt can be linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Decent Work and Economic Growth.

To simplify, the taxation of rich individuals is directly proportional to the wealth hoarding problem. By taxing the rich, the state can earn more revenue to fund schools, medical facilities, research and other essential commodities.

If AOC’s goal was to raise awareness on the issue, then she was able to resourcefully utilize the gala to make her point. Out of curiosity, people would search about the slogan. Thus, raising the consciousness of the collective and letting individuals engage in discourse. Literally, everyone is talking behind her back.

After all, she used a communication theory called “medium is the message,” in her Instagram caption which means to focus on the content and not the form. She is urging everyone to redirect their attention to the issue rather than to the dress itself.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Image courtesy of Kevin Mazur via Getty Image.‌‌

However, even if her intentions are good, critics still find her gesture performative. Critics argued that she could have stayed with the Black Lives Matter protest outside than with the rich people she is actively campaigning against.

Other critics claim that AOC’s statement was bold enough at face value but not to an extent that her peers in the Met gala will ostracize her.

Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic;

“No one here [the Met gala] is rebelling against the Man. The Man loves the extra publicity; it helps sell more $35,000 tickets to socialites who love a frisson of revolution as long as it’s safely divorced from the threat of actual tumbrels.”

Subvertly, the rich may even pay lip service, commending her bold actions without even actually doing anything to address the wealth disparity in the US. After all, wealthy people love a good performance to keep them entertained.

Representing advocacies in corporate systems can be misconstrued as assimilation to these institutions who they deemed antithesis of their belief. Accusations of virtue signaling and performative activism are always on the table.

Additionally, the response to AOC’s appearance can be interpreted through the lenses of misogyny. In a society that values men’s opinions, a man can just walk into a room and everyone automatically sees them. Meanwhile, a woman has to earn the audience’s attention before she is seen. When a woman creatively uses the space she is in to express herself, she is still bombarded with criticisms.

Model and Actress Cara Delevigne. Image courtesy of Patrick McMullan

More Fashion Controversy in the Spotlight

Cara Delevigne’s outfit was supposed to be empowering but critics argue that it caused more harm to the LGBTQ+ community than good. She sported an all white ensemble with a white bulletproof vest embossed with the “Peg the Patriarchy,” slogan in bright red.

The term pegging is often used by straight couples, specifically straight men, to differentiate themselves from queer sexual practices. The associations she made with “pegging” and equating it to emasculation perpetuates some stigma in the queer community.  

Moreover, the term “Peg the Patriarchy” was trademarked by a queer woman of colour named Luna Matatas who was not given any credit during the gala. Microcosmically, this seemingly harmless action is often disregarded. Its implication, though, tolerates the ongoing stealing, and appropriation of minorities’ contributions.

Scratching the surface-level sentiment, what does it truly mean when a white privileged woman wants to “peg the patriarchy?” Is she speaking for everyone or her own class because she is informed by her own social reality? Besides, how can the minorities— people who suffer at the forefront of patriarchy— benefit from such a term?

It is time to reassess these quirky taglines and reevaluate the message being sent. During the pandemic alone, recent data and reports from those on the front lines detected an increase in  violence against women and girls. About 37% of women aged 15 to 49 living in developing countries have experienced violence from intimate partners.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality has magnified the need to pay attention to the needs of women and opened the conversation about how patriarchy has disproportionately affected women.

Unjust COVID-19 Response Solidifies Class Division

The pandemic caused the gala to downsize its invitees and to implement strict rules to ensure the guests' safety in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the safety precautions, the gala still seems to be out-of-touch with reality, health protocols and science. This photo of Billie Eilish and her team encapsulates the Met gala experience through this precarious time in history. While workers are asked to wear masks and cover their faces, celebrities and other influential guests can parade without one. The event only solidifies the class division between the two.

Pop Singer Billie Eilish. Image courtesy of Mike Coppola via Getty Image. Retrieved via Cosmopolitan Magazine

Furthermore, the rich and privileged playing dress-up without addressing any of the social and political unrest, intensified racial violence and the worsening climate crisis was considered a tone-deaf move.

Rohitha Naraharisetty wrote for Swaddle “The idea signals a larger tectonic shift in celebrity culture: nobody has patience for the vacuity and narcissism of fame anymore. It now appears that people who are given a platform need to earn their right to keep it.”

The cognitive dissonance is highly evident among participants. Some of them actively campaign for different advocacies and feel passionate about various causes yet they remain silent during the gala.

Actress Indya Moore. Image courtesy of Cindy Ord via Getty Image. Retrieved via Huffington Post. ‌‌

The aftermath of the gala left participants a time to reflect. Indya Moore stated on Instagram “This will probably be my last Met Gala. I had to really think about if it is truly in alignment with what I care about because I think it is possible to be an artist and a creative and simultaneously not invest in make-believe during a time make believe is weaponized against the truth, during a time where honesty and transparency is more important than ever.”

In the end, everyone has to reevaluate the type of lives they live and what they stand for. Drowning into hedonistic principles feels easier in a time of moral confusion and collective panic. Rising above the occasion to contemplate on reality might feel hard but an inevitable occurrence to check what type of privilege we possess.

If interested, here is a list of organizations that are dedicated to helping fight the pandemic. For more information, click here.

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