The 2021 Met Gala — A Hollow Lexicon in Fashion

Illustrated by Anasthasia Shilov

After a pandemic-induced hiatus, everyone’s favorite ostentatious display of luxury and absurdity in fashion returned this year… and I can’t help but say that I was disappointed. In past years, the Met Gala has brought innovative, provocative, and downright gorgeous designs to the forefront of fashion (think Janelle Monae’s 2019 camp dream or Zendaya’s 2018 modernized chain mail for the Heavenly Bodies theme). A showcase of the world’s most sought-after designers and their couture creations, the Met Gala always faces international scrutiny, with fashion experts and enthusiasts around the world waiting with bated breath to bear witness to pure costume excellence. The Gala itself serves as a yearly fundraiser for new exhibits in the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the 2021-2022 two-part exhibit on September 13th was themed “In America: A Lexicon in Fashion.” Unlike past successful themes like “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” or “Manus X Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” this year’s theme was not unified by a singular time period or fashion signature. However, making the theme more general provided creative freedom for designers to show the development of fashion throughout American history, popular or otherwise. With such a broad range of influences and inspirations to draw from, it was disheartening to see the final results underwhelm expectations. 

First and foremost, for a theme centered around American fashion, there was a noticeable dominance of non-American designers and brands. Among 200 sponsored guests, half of them represented foreign luxury labels, highlighting the ever-present Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Versace, Dundas, Moschino, and Loewe. However, compared to past years, there was a greater variety of American designers including Zac Posen, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Thom Brown, and Vera Wang. These designers dressed the likes of Billie Eilish (an event co-chair), Paloma Elsesser, Chance the Rapper, and Kacey Musgraves. Though the preeminence of international brands can detract from the theme’s credibility, many would argue that there is nothing more American than the felt presence of globalization. Coming from a country built off of the backs of immigrants, American fashion has integrated global influence since the ’90s. Furthermore, international brands outwardly expressing their American influences indeed aptly reflects the theme. However, foreign and American designers as a whole could not give justice to the theme, as the American influences they utilized were limited in scope and many did not even hit their mark. 

While browsing through the various presentations, (Old) Hollywood Glamour materialized as too prime of an inspiration. And though many of those looks were marvelous in their construction and translated their influences well, the lack of diversity itself became a glaring disservice to the theme. We had stars like Billie Eilish (Oscar de la Renta) and Kendall Jenner (Givenchy) paying homage to Hollywood darlings like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn in custom gowns with classic silhouettes. The construction and execution of these looks were flawless but they lacked the diversity of influence, unlike looks by Yara Shahidi (Dior) or Gemma Chan. Shahidi referenced the great Josephine Baker, and Chan teamed up with Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung to pay homage to the first Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong. While Barbie Ferreira (Jonathan Simkhai) and Megan Thee Stallion (Coach), like many others, incorporated burlesque and ’20s and ’30s  influences, Halle Bailey (Rodarte) and Tracee Ellis Ross (Balenciaga) showed later inspirations from ’70s divas like Diana Ross and Tina Turner, respectively. In contrast, stars like Lupita Nyong’o (Versace), Pharrell Williams (Chanel), and Jennifer Lopez (Ralph Lauren) merged denim and Western components with their cosmopolitan event wear. However, rural elements were largely absent from the red carpet. This goes to show that the agrarian and industrial roots of American history are rarely thought of as having fashionable potential — and this notion is not only anti-American but completely devoid of creativity. Furthermore, so many more instrumental and iconic decades of American fashion were nowhere to be found. Missing were the disco-inspired bell-bottoms from the ’70s or shoulder pads or acid-washed denim from the ’80s, but the biggest exclusion has to be the lack of hip-hop and adjacent influences from the ’90s and early 2000s.

The Met Gala carpet has seldom pushed the boundaries of fashion by shining a light on “non-luxurious” elements. For example, the most highly-regarded Gala theme is considered the 2018’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination—a theme that only emphasized the glitz and glamour aspect of fashion. Consequently, many designers may feel limited with regard to what kinds of costumes will be applauded and revered and may fear their designs being overlooked if they incorporate more unlikely elements. Compare the press coverage of Lil Nas X’s Versace three-piece venture to Nyong’o’s beautiful denim gown; the world was raving about X’s gold, regal fantasy, but Nyong’o was the one who presented a true integration of American fashion. 

Along with a lack of diversity in references and inspirations, there was a glaring lack of BIPOC designers on the carpet, one that the Met Gala and its associated brands refuse to acknowledge. This lack of representation can particularly harm Black Americans, as it disregards a group that has inspired so many trends and staples in American fashion. The director of the Met, Max Hollein, stated, “… fashion reflects evolving notions of identity in America and explores a multitude of perspectives through presentations that speak with powerful immediacy to some of the complexities of history. In looking at the past through this lens, we can consider the aesthetic and cultural impact of fashion on historical aspects of American life.” In direct contradiction, not only did the red carpet lack Black American influences, but Black American designers were few and far between. The Met may claim to want to “explore a multitude of perspectives,” but their system of tables and tickets costing $275,000 and $30,000 each, respectively, stands as a testimony to the fact that they do not actually want to represent all kinds of “aesthetic and cultural impacts of fashion,” especially those which have been historically marginalized. Because of this, lesser-known designers, often people of color, who have innovative and introspective designs to bare to the world are never given a chance to do so. This year’s Met Gala could have been the perfect time for celebrities to stand for diversity and inclusion (considering all of the events of the past two years), but instead, they resigned themselves to the standard option—get your ticket paid for by the wealthy European brand and be encapsulated by their limited perspective. 

There are of course those who wish to bring about change; Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton used his invite and table to bring along four young, emerging black designers to uplift them in the world of fashion. Alexandria Ocasió-Cortez, who wore arguably the night’s most controversial piece, brought along her designer, Aurora James, who was one of the few black female designers represented on the carpet. This diligent form of advocacy shines a light on the gravitas of the social issue at hand, and as a willful senator who is always vocal and proactive in her stances, it’s disappointing then to see Ocasió-Cortez and others take part in action that is more performative. Whether it be Ocasió-Cortez’s tone-deaf “Tax the Rich” embroidered gown or Cara Delevignes’s “Peg the Patriarchy” printed vest, messages without action portray a false picture of the issue at hand, instead glamourizing the fight against the issue itself. Not only does Ocasio-Cortez’s “activism” come off as only performative, but the direction she took to present her stand gives few reasons for viewers to think that she actually cares about what she is saying. One of my biggest critiques of explicit/literal “messages” in fashion is the blatant recitation of the message itself on a blank canvas. Fashion as a form of art should be inspired, introspective and interpretative, and a lack of creativity behind a powerful message imparts only indifference and lack of passion for the message itself. When contrasted with these efforts to shine a light on social issues, Rihanna’s brilliant commentary on the negative stereotypes of Black Americans was not only refreshing but highly avant-garde. She proudly stated, “I wanted a look that seemed very powerful, yet feminine, yet like a Black hoodie, which is usually the thing that we are incriminated by as Black people.” 

True activism is hard to come by at the Met, and it’s one thing that’s never been its strong suit. However, the messages sent after the event can often be more impactful. Indya Moore, attendee, and star of FX’s brilliant drama Pose vowed to not attend the Gala again. They declared, “We organize millions for a museum, on stolen land that black and brown people suffer on unless white supremacy thinks they are exceptional—but not for the people? Can’t we be substantially generous in ways that alleviate suffering and poverty?” And somehow, this decision speaks volumes over the performative activism witnessed on this night, especially as BLM protestors were arrested outside the museum. To not attend the event solidifies Moore’s fervent passion for their stance, and makes me believe it with them. 

The disparity between the activism of Ocasió-Cortez and Moore represents the Met’s true problem—I didn’t believe in the Met Gala this year. The lack of inspiration and introspection proved visible in so many of the garments, but even more so, the lack of reflection on the current affairs and conflicts in America, as well as the absence of recognition for all that makes America America left me with dissatisfaction. Oh well, here’s some hope for the next one. 

Here are some of my favorite looks of the night, whether it be a brilliant interpretation of the theme or just pure chic excellence: Naomi Osaka, Lupita Nyong’o, Iman, Grimes, Tessa Thompson, Rihanna, Yara Shahidi, Anok Yai, Paloma Elsesser, and Alton Mason.

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