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Some Thoughts on the Met Gala

I always greet news about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute [Met] Gala with a weird mixture of emotions. Held every May, though this year delayed to September, the annual event almost acts as a who’s who of relevance and fame amongst the mostly anglophone cultural elite. As BBC Newsround most succinctly put it; ‘The Met Gala…is an event where lots of celebrities show off fabulous and flamboyant fashion with outrageous outfits and sometimes unusual designs.’ It is, from my admittedly limited experience of flicking through Instagram the following day, a glittering and beautifully orchestrated affair. But whilst it does serve an admirable function in promoting and raising money for the museum and its costume institute, it also garners its fair share of controversy, and perhaps deservedly so.

The first time I felt some disillusionment with the Met Gala was in 2018, whilst watching footage of that year’s event which sported the theme ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’. The fashion on display was, undoubtedly, breathtaking, as we were greeted by row upon row of highly embellished, glitteringly ornamental costumes. But I distinctly remember also feeling disappointed, even a little repulsed. The amount of wealth being displayed was phenomenal and all while dressed in the guise of saints. There was something deeply uncomfortable about people, many of whom are very privileged, adorning themselves in religious paraphernalia in a way that almost seemed almost tastelessly self-aggrandizing rather than purely for the love of fashion or art. Indeed, that year was met by criticism from people who felt it was a form of cultural appropriation. 

But I also have to acknowledge the good that comes from the Met Gala. Hosted by one of the world’s foremost cultural institutions, the ball is, for many, a celebration of art and culture, where the boundaries of fashion are crossed and played with to new and exciting extremes. It has been argued, for example, that the Catholic Imagination exhibit was significant in helping to facilitate the exploration of the ‘complex and sometimes contested’ (Andrew Bolton, Costume Institute Curator, as quoted in Vogue) history of fashion’s intersection with the Catholic faith, which is an important academic inquiry. It is also notable as a charitable affair, with an estimated $15 million being raised in 2019.

Picture Credit: teenvogue.com

This past year, the US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [AOC] wore a gown emblazoned with the statement ‘Tax the Rich’. There was an immediate response. Many applauded the move, whilst others criticised Ocasio-Cortez for what they considered the hypocrisy of her actions – enjoying such an expensive and exclusive event whilst making a political message. But personally, I thought this statement was extremely important. As AOC asked in a later Instagram post ‘How do we inject urgent conversations of race, class, climate, and justice into an event that is both one of the largest spectacles of excess in the world, yet takes place in and benefits an institution that serves the public?’. And is it not possible that some of the discomforts her statement aroused were due to the fact that a sphere that perhaps acts as an echo chamber of privilege had been breached? A room full of the wealthy is after all the very sphere that this message should be conveyed to. We forgive the cultural elites their, in some cases, obscene amounts of wealth because of the joy their art brings into our lives. But images of the Met Gala depict a very small cohort of privileged

Fruzsina Vida is the Arts & Culture Editor at The Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at arts@theyorker.co.uk.