This year’s Met Gala brings us misguided and successful outfits that embody what fashion and culture mean in America.
The Met Gala is an annual fundraising event established in 1948 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is beloved by fashion enthusiasts and pedestrians alike: some come for the jaw-dropping designs and discover new designers, others to see their favorite celebrities walk the red carpet. It is a beautiful collaboration between influential models and revered designers, brought together under the guidance of a theme with the watchful eyes of the globe awaiting their attire.
The theme for the 2021 Met Gala was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” a look into American influences, popular figures and culture. With the 2020 Met Gala being canceled due to the COVID-19, the anticipation for the event was doubled. However, it seemed that little to none of the wealthy affluents in attendance could take advantage of this wide and extremely interpretational theme, nor could articulate how the designs chosen fit with the mood of the night. It seems that instead of an American approach with rich vocabulary and history in fashion, the Met Gala was riddled with disjointed European influence paired with the lexicon associated with celebrities and many extreme examples with a few exceptions. I believe these examples and exceptions can tell us about the attitudes that Americans hold to their own culture.
The most apparent case of ignorance towards the theme was Kendall Jenner, designed by Matthew Williams. The model wore a stunning sheer, crystal Givenchy dress that at first glance appears like Hedy Lamarr’s dress in “Ziegfeld Girls” as an homage to old Hollywood, similarly to Emily Blunt’s shimmering star-spangled dress. However, upon interview, Kendall made it adamantly clear that the gown was a ‘naked dress’ take on Audrey Hepburn’s dress in “My Fair Lady,” a film starring the English actress, set in England about English politics. In other words, not very American.
Something similar can be surmised about Lil Nas X’s three-piece attire designed by Versace: a large, golden royalty-inspired overcoat with golden armor underneath. It brings forth images of King George and European knights, both of which have very little to do with American culture — a country built in rebellion to these ideals. The artist’s interview did not lend itself to clarifying how these choices fit with the theme; he instead chose to highlight how the shedding of each layer symbolized his own personal journey. And lastly and most disappointingly, given her reputation as ‘The Princess of the Met Gala,’ Rihanna’s large black Balenciaga overcoat worn with a black beanie did not hit the mark. The overcoat was inspired by vintage Balenciaga balloon dresses, and has more Spanish and French influence than anything else. The same can be said for most celebrities who took pride in their foreign designer brands.
On the other hand, there were extraordinary Met Gala looks that fit perfectly within the theme and were truly works of art. For example, Lupita Nyong’o’s denim Versace gown was clearly inspired by the role jeans played for the working class throughout American history. Her styled afro was in reference to American artist Lorna Simpson, spotlighting that the color indigo was historically harvested by the hands of enslaved people. Ciara Wilson chose to highlight the role that sports, or particularly American football, has had in our culture and entertainment, donning a bright green jersey gown with a train highlighting Russell Wilson’s jersey number and was designed by Peter Dundas. Lorde’s set, a white skirt and jacket with upcycled charms from the 1950s and 60s with a headpiece to match, was designed by Collina Strada associates. This outfit had the ideas of the playful yet poignant era of the 70s and counterculture: recycling, individuality and exploration. And last but most definitely not least, model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse’s Native American heritage inspired attire designed by Peter Dundas was one of the most impactful looks of that night. A gold lamé dress paired with authentic Navajo jewelry served as a reminder to the history of Native Americans within this country and an accurate representation of these true Americans.
With this year’s Met Gala, I and many others are left questioning about what it fundamentally means to be American and what American culture truly is. Designers for the Met Gala had a plethora of material to draw influence from such as the Roaring 20s, the Pop Art Movement, diners, landscapes, The Space Race, The Old West, American gothic literature, The Gold Rush, superheroes, surfing, streetwear, proms, dolls and the list goes on. American culture plays a dominant part of the world, so why were so many attendants wearing attire tied elsewhere? I think the former statement gives us a clue. When Chasinghorse was interviewed about the inspiration behind her look, the activist told Vogue Magazine, “It’s extremely important to represent and bring authentic and true American culture to this year’s theme, as Native American culture has been appropriated and misrepresented in fashion so many times.” I think in America, like Chasinghorse pointed out in her statement, there exists a larger issue of appropriation born out of egotistical values, the mix of cultures due to immigration and general ignorance. This issue is unfortunately a part of American culture. The 2021 Met Gala is an inadvertent, but excellent case study of these biases at play. And thus in a backwards way, maybe all the attendees fit the theme after all.