The Stained Dresses of the Met Gala

Photographs by Christopher Polk and NDZ/STAR MAX/IPx & Graphic by Nanette Zhang

Every year on the first Monday of May, multitudes of celebrities and icons gracefully make their way down the red carpet of the glamorous Met Gala. However, more recently, the representation of the Met Gala serves as a catalyst in exploring deep tragedies and sociopolitical issues of the United States—evading the gala’s original purpose of fundraising for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. Within the two most recent Met Galas, reporting has begun to fixate upon simultaneous sociopolitical undertakings beyond the elaborate fashion.

In 2021, the Met Gala theme seemingly celebrated “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” where some celebrities and politicians arrived with bold messages decorated across their outfits proclaiming against the abuses of the United States’ sociopolitical atmosphere. More apparently though, these celebrities celebrated their ignorance of the real and pertinent tragedies traversing through America at the time. The theme emphasized the epitome of American ideals through somewhat selfish and vain individualism. Service workers were the only ones wearing masks while New York had been the longstanding epicenter of the pandemic where the working class and essential workers struggled on the daily. According to Bethany Mandel, what the Met Gala really teaches us is about power dynamics in the country: the people with power, the people without, and ultimately how power is expressed. As the author of The Melancholia of Class—Cynthia Cruz—presents it, “[e]xisting within the margins, the fissures, the ruptures—the working class haunts contemporary culture, a specter.” Upon further inspection, the Met Gala portrays this exact statement as the privilege of Met Gala attendees are juxtaposed with the working class hidden and spectating in the corners of the event and ultimately the margins of society. As they put themselves at risk to earn a wage to support their livelihood and families, others in privilege so freely exact their power while undermining those struggles.

One of the most notable outfits of the 2021 Met Gala came from New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her “Tax the Rich” dress encapsulated the divides of economic power between the upper class and working class. Increasingly, the Met Gala has been used as a platform of activism to amplify societal criticism such as these. However, many activists have called these actions of celebrities and other notable figures merely as performative activism and inherently ironic. As the 2021 Met Gala commenced, protests were occurring right outside as activists advocated for Black Lives Matter, the housing and homelessness crisis, the pandemic, and New York’s allocation of government funds. As protesters made their way down the streets, one can most distinctly hear activist Ella Dior’s words calling out the Met Gala participants as she declared, “Black and Brown people are on the brink of homelessness. We cannot go back to normal. Where was your rage last year? 35 thousand dollars for a fucking ticket to show your fucking wealth while our people are still dying.” This declaration spurred on the conversation: to what extent do individuals knowingly contribute towards tragedy and mask it with their supposed support? While AOC’s dress serves as an important call to action upon specific issues, there is still a general lack of the government and society’s ability to push towards generating genuine and substantial reform.

Within the 2022 Met Gala, the sequel highlighted “Gilded Glamour—In America: An Anthology of Fashion” which celebrates a time of grandiosity, excess, and lavishness. Ironically, this theme once again centralizes around the idea of the privileged as other historical participants of the Gilded Age are swept underneath the Met Gala’s extravagant red carpet. The Gilded Age served as a facade to the real issues within the late 1800s-early 1900s United States, where the nation suffered its highest level of wealth inequality (which is parallel to modern day’s), child labor abuses, and brutal working conditions (Walker). However, celebrities such as Gabrielle Union and Riz Ahmed, called attention to these marginalized classes by donning outfits that symbolized the “unsung Black Americans of the Gilded Age” and “19th century immigrants” respectively (Hills and Andrew). As the Met Gala continues to centralize its theme around “In America”, individuals and society must recognize the parallels of history with current sociopolitical conditions to truly transform circumstances for vulnerable demographics. Analogous to the issues brought to light by the protests outside the 2021 Met Gala, the leaked draft to overturn the Roe v Wade decision by the Supreme Court has now become innately intertwined with the theme of the 2022 Met Gala. For many, this leaked draft reminded them of a reversal in history as society begins to progress backwards beyond the throwbacks to fashion in the Met Gala’s “Gilded Glamour.” As the Met Gala continues to propagate orbs of past history, its significance needs to further drive conversations about current sociopolitical conditions in the elaborate dress up of celebrities and notable figures.