A fashion designer’s job is to predict the future, but of course they can’t control destiny. This year’s Met Gala’s “Gilded Glamour” dress code raised eyebrows when it was announced in early April, simply because we seem to be living in another gilded age, rife with income inequality, xenophobia and racism, and a barrage of images of unobstructed, ludicrous wealth. No one could have predicted that the sight of “the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” to quote a line from the class-conscious satire The Philadelphia Story, would unfold amid news that the Supreme Court is imminently planning to overturn Roe v. Wade, likely making abortion illegal in about half of the states.
This is one of the realities of fashion and one of the things that makes it most fascinating and occasionally downright chilling. I recall attending a Rick Owens show during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in 2018: suddenly, independent of whatever Owens had dreamed up, it turned into a declaration of the glinty steeliness of female power. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, most of fashion’s power players were abroad in Europe, sitting in the fall 2022 front rows and sipping gratis champagne; it was hard not to see Balenciaga’s snowbound show as a statement about the war, even though it could never have been planned that way. It’s a tough racket, making your life about beautiful things, because the impulse is often to apologize for it, even though aesthetic pleasure, self-creation, and the dueling needs of business and creativity (which is what fashion is about) are all as important as podcasts, sports, Marvel movies, prestige television, and other facets of culture that have been intellectualized ad nauseam.
Still, a little humility helps. What to make, then, of Kim Kardashian in Marilyn Monroe cosplay? She was the finale arrival at Monday night’s gala, wearing the exact dress worn by Monroe when she cooed “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy, Jr. (It is now in the possession of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and was last sold at auction for $5 million, in 2016.) Watching her inch up the stairs in careful, miserable calculation as I read in a parallel tab a leaked document that could strangle women’s freedoms, I felt queasy. Kardashian let out a nervous exhale when she reached the landing, as if in the midst of a marathon, and then told a reporter she didn’t fit in the dress when she first tried it on, “But I told them, give me like three weeks. And I had to lose sixteen pounds down today to be able to fit this,“ adding that it was “such a challenge,” in the bleak tone employed by celebrities offering a narrative of triumph. I haven’t heard a woman talk like that in almost a decade; body positivity and an obsession with working out means the emphasis is on accepting or sculpting the body rather than starving it. It was a bizarre note of total irrelevance. There’s nothing wrong with losing weight if you want to, but how did that become the story of the dress? If you’re going to carry the fantasy so far, you need to sell us on the dream.
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What about the rest of the crowd? Before the night curdled, there were actually some fabulous looks. I saw a number of observers this morning carp that few attendees kept to the theme. But I understand the urge to interpret ‘gilded glamour’ as broadly as possible. In these times, it may be a stronger statement for an attendee to look glamorous rather than indulge in the fussy bustles and drapework of the late 19th century, which would make almost anyone look costumed instead of dressed. And in these times, looking dressed rather than dressed up is a kind of efficacy. The subdued style of Kate Moss in a velvet tuxedo dress by Burberry, with her hair blown back and carefree, or Hailey Bieber in a Saint Laurent white halter dress that fell to a slip of ice white and wrapped in a marabou feather cape, looked free and cool. A sense of dressing for the occasion, with the atmosphere of the rest of the world in mind, is an achievement unto itself. What’s more, an almost maniac insistence on the immediately understandable and uncomplicated is extremely American.
Speaking of extremely American: Sarah Jessica Parker in Christopher John Rogers, a sprawling plaid gown inspired by the work of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a Black seamstress who made a number of dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln. Rogers knows the dress has to be good to carry off a story like that–a reality too few designers of any age understand–and Parker looked overjoyed, even if her ever-present fascinator was a gesture too far.
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As with last fall’s outing celebrating the first part of the In America exhibition, there were too few American designers present on the carpet. Still, there were some welcome choices. The Met Gala is intended to celebrate pure, unadulterated fashion, unlike other red carpets where a star’s ego or fear of public mockery might override more risque expressions. That means it’s occasionally a moment for an unsung or complex collection to have a moment in the spotlight–which is what happened for Nicolas Ghesquiere’s Spring 2022 collection, worn by Cynthia Erivo and Gemma Chan. That collection, which the designer imagined as a kind of crazy, borderline demonic 19th century ball, started with the idea of over-the-top gowns from that period and then ripped out the stuffing and underpinnings that made them enormous and exquisite traps, and replaced them with structures that make them bounce, even bound, through time. Only the Met Gala has this potential to put a designer’s highest concept fashion in front of zillions of eyeballs, because even as fashion shows become must-stream content, they simply don’t have the celebrity magnet.
If there’s been one big shift in sensibility, it’s that the gimmicks of years past (Katy Perry as a hamburger and a chandelier) are mostly gone. There weren’t even many garments-as-political statements, save for Eric Adams’s cringey anti-gun violence jacket, and let’s not even go there. The closest was Hillary Clinton’s merlot Joseph Altuzarra embroidered with the names of late women who have inspired her.
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The one exception is Blake Lively, wearing an Atelier Versace ensemble that at first appeared to be a deco column with a coral train trussed up into a bow-like pseudo-bustle. But once she ascended the stairs, it unraveled into a sprawling green expanse, the color of patinated copper. This sort of trick is Met Gala catnip and the kind of thing that makes people mock the fashion industry (“Blake Lively’s epic dress transformation is real life snapshot of unlimited possibilities in the metaverse,” read a press release I received this morning–what?!) But I adored it, in part because it was just beautiful, but also because of Lively’s attitude: her outrageous fashion statement, about the beauty of New York’s landmark architecture, especially the Statue of Liberty, was in deference to the party of which she was a host. You can see how she’s carefully taking on the mantle of Parker’s Met Gala fairy godmother role, able to effect a lack of vanity in a ridiculous dress; the act of wearing something exuberant is transformed into a kind of sacrifice to the gods of fashion. You get the sense that even with the hugeness of the train behind her, she probably had a fantastic evening. That’s a surefire way to wear a great dress.
This article has been updated.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.