The Met Gala hosts the red carpet of the season, where attendees dress in their own interpretations of the theme of that year's Costume Institute exhibit. While the themes have varied over the years, there were times where the Met Gala should have been more political. Fashion isn't just aesthetics; it's also an outlet to tap into our zeitgeist and either highlight or critique a certain aspect — whether social, political, or economical — that might be wrong. For example, a big part of the reason we have a punk style is because twenty-somethings were fed up with the economic hardships their government put them into in the '70s. The impetus of the mini skirt trend was a sexual revolution in the late '60s that helped propel women into independence. Having said that, it wouldn't be misplaced to a see a more political stand on fashion's most buzzed about red carpet.
While Met attendees aren't actually required to follow the theme — it's merely encouraged — there were times where it would have been interesting to see A-listers really commit to the exhibit and help flesh out what it was trying to say. Because with politicized costumes and outfits comes an opening to have a conversation or, at the very least, a moment of thought. Ahead are the times where the Met Gala could have been more political!
1Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology
In 2016 we were treated to a red carpet full of cyborg arms and chain-link silver dresses, where celebrities expressed their own version of the future. But while the word "machina" brings to mind stylish robots, the point of the exhibit was to show how haute couture houses — which traditionally pride themselves in making works of art by hand — are beginning to embrace technology and new materials to create their masterpieces. "Technology (machina) is not replacing the hand (manus); rather, the two are collaborating as never before, stimulating innovation and expression," The New York Times explained.
This was the perfect platform to not only choose dresses that went far outside of the box (which many did,) but to also show how fashion can use new and sustainable materials, without losing status or craftsmanship. For example, Emma Watson wore a black and white Calvin Klein ball gown made from recycled plastic bottles, Margot Robbie's silk dress had zippers made out of recycled materials, and Livia Firth's dress was made out of up-cycled duchess silk, showing eco-friendly is very much haute.
While there were many ways to interpret the theme, it would have been amazing to see designers and A-listers alike grabbing this platform as an opportunity to show the possibilities of sustainable fashion.
2China: Through The Looking Glass
In 2015, "China: Through the Looking Glass" was meant to display the West's ideas of China through the 19th and 20th centuries, highlighting how China was peered through a "looking glass" and interpreted with a dose of fantasy, not reality. As Lia Wang from Wellesley College's Asian & Asian American interest magazine, Generasians, explains, "The main curator of the exhibition, Andrew Bolton, made it clear that it was less about China and more about the 'collective fantasy of China' and its representation in Western fashion and culture." Here A-listers were welcomed to highlight how designers pulled on Chinese culture to find inspiration. But, as you could have guessed, a lot of people tread into murky waters (a la Lady Gaga wearing a Japanese-style kimono,) which was probably why most opted to dress less expressively so as not to accidentally offend.
But really, all it would have taken was a bit of research — and reaching out to actual Chinese designers. Seeing how Asians are under-represented in media and fashion, this red carpet could have been a real tribute to their work and mastery. As Wang pointed out, one person who really nailed it was Rihanna. "Rihanna was one of the few celebrities who honored the theme by doing her research and going to the source of the exhibition’s inspiration — Chinese design itself. She wore a lavish gown by Guo Pei, one of China’s most respected couture designers." Here Rihanna didn't try to pull apart fashion from its culture and use it as a costume, but honored it by keeping the two together.
Granted, RiRi was later poked at for wearing a "giant pizza," but getting political isn't always going to be met with welcoming arms — it's still important to do it.
3Schiaparelli And Prada: Impossible Conversations
This. Had. So. Much. Potential. Both Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada share an affinity for the weird — Schiaparelli from the '30s created coats with beetle buttons and hats that looked like high heels, while Prada is the mother of Ugly Chic. But one thing they have in common (other than their aesthetic) is their belief that beauty has more than one definition, and one woman has many multitudes. A woman can be girly and masculine, career-oriented and motherly, strong and soft, pretty and ugly all at the same time, and that's perfectly OK.
The Met Gala exhibit perfectly highlighted that as well, with displays like, "Ugly Chic," which showed how "both women subvert ideals of beauty and glamour by playing with good and bad taste;" "Hard Chic," which studied how both designers were inspired by menswear to create clothing that both suppressed and magnified femininity; and "Naïf Chic" which showed how they used overly-girly pieces to stick a middle finger ,to age-appropriate dressing.
It could have been a feminist red carpet, with women showing how they could break out of the molds and expectations of what a "real" or "appropriate" woman looked like.
4American Woman: Fashioning A National Identity
The same could be said for 2010's theme, which was "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity." The exhibit explored how American women pushed style revolutions through the 1890s to 1940s, which mirrored the political, sexual, and social freedom they were trying to win at those times — and how those outfits helped to shape the public opinion on women during those decades, and how those same opinions follow them still today.
There was a lot to work with — rowdy flappers from the '20s, mini skirted feminists of the '60s, career women of the '80s, pant-wearers of the '70s, sensual screen sirens from the '50s, and the list goes on. Now granted, there are plenty of ways to rebel in dress — and sometimes dressing ultra feminine is a rebellion in itself — but it would have been interesting if the red carpet took a more political stance on the images of women and how some of their identities were seen as improper and unacceptable. For example, it would have been amazing to see a Madonna-circa-Manus-x-Machina outfit here, where she showed up in a thong bodysuit with her boobs in a cut-out bra (both thumbing her nose at how women's bodies are seen as scandalous and her age.)
While plenty showed up in beautiful ball gowns, there were some that took a more political statement. For example, Alexa Chung wore a tuxedo, which was representative of the waves Yves Saint Laurent's first female tuxedo made in the '60s (a socialite was barred from entering a Manhattan restaurant while dressed in it!), Iman wore a disco-era catsuit, and Blake Lively had an itty bitty mini. If more of those kind of looks were circulating, a clear message would have been made.
5The Model As Muse: Embodying Fashion
Does fashion create the woman, or does the woman create the fashion? Do women allow fashion to change the way society views and treats them, or do they push fashion to help them achieve this image they had in their head? The idea behind this 2009 exhibit was to explore the reciprocal relationship between fashion and changing beauty ideals, led (and inspired) by the models that designers used.
Tons of celebrities crushed the theme — from Anna Hathaway showing up like a Dolly Bird from the '60s (which changed the ideal from "housewife" to "single girl,") Rihanna donning an exaggerated '80s powersuit silhouette (representing women's more active role in the work sphere,) and Gisele Bündchen in a teeny '90s mini (which had more women embracing their sexuality.) These examples showed how the changing political climate for women also changed the beauty ideals that were attached with their previous images — more freedom (whether sexually, financially, or politically) led to a different look.
6Superheroes: Fashion And Fantasy
While it would have definitely been cool to see an attendee roll up in a Superwoman costume, the theme wasn't actually that literal. According to the Met, they wanted to take a look at out-of-the-box couture, military clothes, and inventive sportswear through the lens of the superhero and see how they can be "metaphors for sex, power, and politics." From looking at Catwoman's catsuit (and seeing sexual prowess) and Superman's unitard (and noticing his physical power) to taking note of Captain America's and Superwoman's costumes (political statements,) one can draw a line to how these notions influence fashion today. For example, many people put on certain costumes in order to feel powerful (an aggressive suit,) sexual (a slinky dress,)or political (not "dressing your age" or being unconcerned by nipples.)
While often times themes are taken literally at the Met Gala red carpet (and that's entertaining and enjoyable to watch), it'd be interesting to see some more thoughtful interpretations. Especially in terms of the female guests, they could have taken advantage of the theme and showed how dress can be used as a shield, to assert power, and take autonomy back when it's concerned with their bodies (if you want to get political.) For example, Amber Valletta's dress had a faux-cape attached, but its structure and inflated shape gave it a sense of strength. She looked like she was in a permanent power pose. The same went for Iman's red dress — the boned bodice gave an appearance of strength, the ruby shade spoke of power, and the low cut neckline was both political and slinky. All of which a superhero's costume mirrors.
7Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion And Furniture in the 18th Century
In 2004, the Met had an exhibit that showcased fake modesty. During the 18th century, propriety was king. Everyone had a strict set of societal rules they had to follow, where women were innocent and modest, and men pursued them with dignity and aloofness. But just because that was how it looked on the surface didn't mean what was how people were behaving behind the scenes. As the Met explained its set of displays, "The artfully composed scenes include: a woman sitting for her portrait while her husband flirts with her friend; a man being granted an audience with a woman in a peignoir who is having her hair dressed; a vendor embracing the wife of an old man, his back turned, examining a table for sale; a girl receiving more than a harp lesson from her teacher, while her oblivious chaperone reads an erotic novel."
While society pushed its players to dress and behave conservatively and chastely, people went in an entirely different direction when others weren't around to judge — something that still happens today. So it would have been fun to see attendees thumb their noses at the same idea, like wearing modest ball gowns with plunging necklines, or turtleneck dresses with shocking cut-outs. And some did — like Jennifer Lopez with her Victorian mourning dress with sheer lace bodice. Making a political statement doesn't always have to be shocking or upsetting — sometimes it can be fun and downright clever.
As this year's Met Gala is quickly approaching it's going to be interesting to see how those that RSVP'd will interpret the Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons theme. While it will be perfectly fine and beautiful to see the literal interpretation of that, here's to hoping some will scratch beneath the surface and give us a statement that will send us thinking.