Opulence and Impossible Styles
The Met Gala is primarily a place for the rich and famous to come together in support of the arts. Actors, influencers, singers, fashion designers, heads of makeup brands, anyone who faces the public and isn’t too controversial is welcomed. The organization who throws the event, the Met, is actually a museum dedicated to the preservation of clothing, and the documentation of history through fashion. What better way to do that than to ask celebrity stylists to come up with new styles riffing on themes?
The Met Gala always has a theme. That theme is not always successfully met, but when it is, it’s incredible. “Heavenly Bodies”, the theme a few years ago, was both broad and specific enough that nearly everybody in attendance (everyone who modeled a look at least) understood the assignment, and most nailed it without accidentally copying other looks. “Guilded Age”, the theme a little while after, was not so successful, but still full of plenty of great looks. The lack of cohesion came from a mixup of “Golden Age” and “Guilded Age” by the people styling the attendees; the Golden Age of Hollywood was from the early fifties to somewhere in the sixties, the heyday of stars like Marilyn Monroe, while the Guilded Age refers to the last twenty years or so of the 19th century. Obviously wildly different, but still mostly a good showing. The year “camp” was the theme revealed that nobody who showed up knew what camp was, and many of the attendees only managed to hit it ironically. ‘Camp’ is difficult to define and even harder to achieve on purpose without stumbling into ‘tacky’, but it’s more than bright colors or strange silhouettes.
In recent years, the Met Gala has attracted some controversy in spite of a growing love online for runway-style fashion – why?
Karl Lagerfeld was a designer for Chanel, and the subject of this year’s Met Gala. He’s famous for both his impact on Chanel’s silhouettes and his somewhat unsupportive attitude after the #MeToo movement unearthed a lot of mistreatment in Hollywood. He also famously had a cat. Three separate mainstream celebrities (Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, and Jared Leto) went as his cat.
Lagerfeld is not an ideal choice in many ways. Critics on TikTok point out that Virginie Viard, a longtime collaborator at Chanel, was still around and might be a better choice. Additionally, the Met Gala already had a Chanel-themed gala while Karl was the head of Chanel about eighteen years ago, effectively giving him two theme years. He brought Chanel back from serious decline, yes, but he wasn’t the only big designer at Chanel in all that time between galas. Other, more serious controversies included several comments about women he considered overweight or ugly, and xenophobia relating to Muslims in Germany. He said in an interview that his persona was an act… was it? Nobody knows for sure which opinions he actually held and which ones were exaggerations or poorly received jokes.
Attempts to rebel without rebelling against the Met itself included wearing pink, which Karl famously criticized… but then also featured repeatedly in his shows, because his remarks about the color were not made seriously. How does one navigate this situation without sparking controversy? There’s no way out of it – either an attendee is on-theme and implicitly supporting Lagerfeld, or they’re not on theme and criticized by people who liked his style. The three people who showed up as cats were taking the theme as seriously as Karl himself took anything. Maybe that’s the only real way to win.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a beloved figure among young New York voters. She understands computers and worked retail, both of which are uncommon amongst her coworkers. Famously, she wore holes straight through her shoes going door-to-door campaigning. So, when she showed up to the Met Gala wearing a nice dress saying ‘Tax The Rich’ splashed in red down the back, some people were confused. Others got angry.
Unfortunately, the muddying of the waters between ‘Big on Twitter’ and ‘Big, and Posts to Twitter’ left many people uncertain of what role she was trying to fill by showing up wearing that dress – for an influencer, this whole debacle really would have been about hollow messaging, but for an actual real-life politician, that dress reflects her bringing her job with her. An influencer can’t show up to New York’s legislature and draft a bill about taxation, but AOC could. Twitter, where the worst of the fighting was happening, could not separate these ideas. The Met was caught in the crossfire, unable to quench the fire in 120 characters or less: New York politicians are invited to attend because some of them get a say in the Met’s funding, and the design house gave her the dress to wear for free because they supported her goals. She was there for fairly cheap, but Twitter did not care. Twitter got a picture of her in the dress with limited captioning and ran with it.
Letting Twitter and social media become such a critical part of their publicity during this event means giving a direct line of access to the general public, many of whom have no context for the Met, the Gala, or AOC herself. A combination of confusing symbols like AOC at an expensive party (but for free!) wearing a quality dress that asked the other attendees to pay more in taxes may as well have been a press release in Klingon to people who only go to Twitter for their news.
The Monroe Dress
The Met Gala may be beloved, but every organization dedicated to preserving history has an opportunity to do it wrong. They may record history with conscious bias, perhaps believing their home country’s culture to be superior, or they fail to return artifacts to the living relatives of people who never wanted their stuff in a museum. They mistreat their collection, fail to provide context, or don’t investigate their sources as thoroughly as they should. Every museum has to contend their collection with their idea of the culture that collection comes from. Anthropology especially is prone to bias. Things have gotten better, but not linearly, and not completely. Marilyn Monroe’s famous raindrop dress serves as a warning.
The Met doesn’t actually have the Monroe dress – Ripley’s Believe it or Not does. They should have never let the dress out of the case. Kim Kardashian requested the item for wear at the Guilded Age themed gala (once again, Guilded, not Golden!) and posed in it for pictures after an obviously difficult time getting into it on the carpet. This isn’t to dunk on Kim Kardashian or the shape she was in, but modern beauty standards are an exaggeration of what was in style back when Monroe was everywhere, and Kim had already been on an extreme diet to try and match Monroe’s measurements. It was an impossible ask. The dress was made for Monroe – she was sewn into it on the day she most famously wore it. It would have been a miraculous coincidence if Kim fit into it simply because it wasn’t made for her.
Everything about this dress, down to the choice of fabric itself, was made for Monroe. It wouldn’t have fit 99.5% of the population as a result.
So why even try? Why not pay an homage with the replica, and leave it at that? Kim wore a replica the rest of the night, also owned by the same company that had the original, and looked identical. In fact, the replica fit better – the museum only let her try on the original because the replica fit so well, and the original did not fit at all the first time Kardashian tried it on. Worse, the effort of getting her into and out of the dress on the big day put strain on the stitches, and caused some of the gems to detach from the fabric. This event has permanently altered the way the original looks, even now that it’s back in storage.
The entire thing was an ego-trip-slash-publicity-stunt that backfired badly on an organization that swore it was dedicated to preserving fashion history, especially now that people online are beginning to recognize what a tragically used figure Monroe was.
Is fashion inextricably tied to controversy? Can the Met get through a gala without tripping itself? Next year, we’ll see.