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A Patchwork of Declarations: The 2021 Met Gala

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Monday marked the return of “fashion’s biggest night” as the 2021 Met Gala welcomed an array of personal, patriotic, and politically-charged red carpet looks. Hosted by Amanda Gorman, Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka and Timothée Chalamet, the finale of New York Fashion Week shined a spotlight on a conglomerate of young designers.

The highly-anticipated event was preceded by speculation over the false influencer-studded guest list, as well as communal confusion over the night’s theme: American Independence. While spectators predicted ensembles by American designers, the Gala still featured looks by the usual European fashion houses who invited many of the attendees. In honor of the Costume Institute’s new exhibition, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, the statements that emerged celebrated history, heritage, and all things Americana.

Old Hollywood emerged as a common theme throughout the night as stars such as Emily Blunt and Kendall Jenner paid tribute to the glitz and glamour of Hedy Lamarr and Audrey Hepburn. Yara Shahidi similarly drew inspiration from an iconic historical figure with her strapless, delicately beaded custom Dior gown, which she paired with a matching pair of opera gloves and a braided cap that honored Josephine Baker. As a civil rights activist and entertainer, Baker was a leading voice of Black American culture in the 1920s, making Shahidi’s tribute fitting for the theme and her own position as an actress and activist. Shahidi’s simple silhouette and flowing gauze train highlighted the power of emerging young voices.

On the other side of the carpet strode Gemma Chan, whose studded gown was an homage to a 1920s Chinese American trailblazer Anna May Wong. Partnering with Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung, Chan walked the beige carpet in a sequined little black dress adorned with an image of a dragon from a Met Museum Qing dynasty scroll. While worn with a pastel green train and braided updo, Prabal Gurung’s message extended even further than the carpet on Monday evening as his “Who gets to be American?” sash is featured in the museum’s exhibit open to the public on September 18th. In a night dedicated to defining American fashion, his inquiry and Chan’s look speak to the imagery of America that hasn’t always been visible.

In addition to historic icons, other notable interpretations of Americana garnered attention. Western accessories and denim dresses were on theme with Jennifer Lopez in Ralph Lauren and Lupita Nyong’o in Versace. Lopez’s brown beaded dress featured a feather trim paired with a cowgirl hat in true, showstopping American fashion while Nyong’o channeled the return of Y2K fashion. Futuristic Iris Van Herpen designs were also at the forefront with the subtle symbolism of change in Gabrielle Union’s custom dress. And no Met Gala analysis could be complete without the mention of Little Nas X’s Versace iconic transformation. Shedding his regal cloak at the base of the steps to reveal a gold suit of armor, the singer compared the moment to the deconstruction of his own barriers when he entered the industry. Ending in a bedazzled bodysuit, his Met Gala debut was a stunning tribute to his personal journey.

The somewhat disjointed collection of 2021 Met Gala looks were puzzling to those nostalgic for 2018’s Heavenly Bodies—yet the patchwork of green robots, pearls and black suits are fitting with the exhibit itself and perhaps the very fabric of America. The overarching unified message of the night? New York fashion is back—albeit fully vaccinated and rapid-tested.

While fans found the first-ever September issue of the Met Gala somewhat lackluster, the event anticipates a full-scale return for the second installment of American fashion, In America: An Anthology of Fashion, in May 2022.

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