The politics of the MET Gala: should it be written off?

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Every year, it takes me by surprise. I follow enough fashion pages on Instagram to be able to sniff out when it’s about to arrive, but it always ends up hitting me like a delightful truck. I can’t help it, guys; I love the MET Gala. 

I’m a politically aware person; I stay involved, connected and educated. I know full well the groans I get whenever I mention the MET Gala. I, sometimes more than my peers, know about class struggle. I’ve read Marx, I’ve read Lenin and I could pretty concisely describe dialectical materialism to anyone who’s curious. But boy howdy do I love a costume party. And a costume party with fantastic artists who have nearly unlimited resources and the most beautiful people on Earth to clothe? I’ll give that the honor of my critical gaze any day. 

I huddle around my little phone, switching between social media sites, hungrily skipping past anything that isn’t a beautiful outfit. I go crazy when I see Zendaya in not one, but two stunning, perfectly on-theme dresses by brands that I take pride in remembering the names of. I eat up every detail, every random fact about stitches and material, every cute story about construction, every new designer name that I didn’t know before. And at the end of it all, I know that there is a genocide happening in Gaza. I know that climate change is coming for us. I know that trans people are in danger in the United States. And I know, despite all the dopamine in my brain from looking at shiny fabrics, that the MET Gala is politically questionable, to say the least.  

It’s been well established that the MET Gala serves as a status symbol for exorbitantly wealthy celebrities and fashion brands. It’s a long, intense advertisement with every spokesperson in the book for luxury items that literally go in museums. Every year, there is a headline about how the tickets cost $75k apiece and brands pay upwards of $350k for a table. Every year on the day after the MET Gala, there is an onslaught of memes putting pictures of real, decked-out celebrities next to stills of Capitol residents from the Hunger Games movies. This year, this was a particularly poignant comparison, as those images were also set next to images of the destruction of Palestine: dusty, crying children next to Zendaya’s high fashion facial features and custom Dior gown. To this comparison, I have no criticism. I know very well the connections that can be drawn between the consumption inspired by these flagrant displays of wealth and war in the Middle East. American capitalism is as reliant as ever on its pet war machine so it can keep consuming as much as it can.  

My only ask is that art be recognized for its own sake. The MET Gala is a charity event for the MET Museum; in that sense, it could be considered almost definitionally art for art’s sake. Despite annual complaints about a lack of compliance with the dress code, there is incredible artistic value in so many of the looks that walk across that over-conceptualized little carpet. Whether they’re aware of it or not, these celebrities are wearing outfits that usually — when put in the right hands — embody interpretations of themes that seek to honor cultural treasures to the utmost degree. Since 2018, the first year I started paying attention, the gala has had themes referencing Catholic art, Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” American iconography (two years in a row, from two different perspectives), Karl Lagerfeld (a memoriam for the iconic Prada designer who also happened to be a deeply unsavory person, which I wrote about for The Lawrentian last year) and, this year, “The Garden of Time,” a cult J.G. Ballard short story. All of these themes have invited fashion brands and designers to put thousands of hours of work into conceptualizing and executing massive works of art that demonstrate not only incredible design, but also incorporate the designer’s perspective, the wearer’s personalized touches and an overall interpretation of the theme. Not only is the material product of almost every look impressively well-made, but the symbolism of the details — at least on the costumes worth looking at — is often layered and incredibly rich.  

For example, this year, Doja Cat wore a deceptively simple white t-shirt dress, which upon first glance seemed odd at the garden-themed event. But in interviews, she revealed that instead of a traditional flower, she opted for cotton, “the most-used flower” in the form of a “timeless” t-shirt. The added detail of her wetness, a controversial display of her nakedness underneath — not uncommon for Doja Cat — could be interpreted in a number of ways to fit the theme of finite beauty, especially considering her afterparty look that was merely a white towel wrapped around her.  

It is easy to forget, particularly amongst all the pageantry, celebrity drama and political unease of the day, that fashion is art, subject to formal interpretation and analysis just like any other medium. I understand that this year’s MET Gala has been particularly contentious, considering all of the events surrounding the war in Gaza and the protests surrounding it. The theme of the gala referencing a story where the rich expend resources to turn back time to stop an angry mob of peasants from reaching their villa is a brutal irony that is not lost on critical onlookers, including myself. The MET Gala is absolutely guilty of the elitism, consumerism and distraction from issues that it promotes. I do not wish to argue that it is a flawless thing worthy of all praise.  

I am a student of art history, and as such, I am an enjoyer of the annual art-historical moments and tributes that the MET Gala produces. To accept the event as entirely unproblematic would be incorrect, but to completely write off the magnificent cultural value of the art on display there, including within the context of the overall historical moment happening around it, just because of its use as a status symbol for the wealthy would be to miss something rich and beautiful.