The Met Gala 2021: eight key moments from fashion’s big night

With crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters outside, and a vaccine mandate inside, the much-delayed Met Gala finally went ahead in New York on Monday evening. The event, usually held on the first Monday in May, was cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and rescheduled this year for the same reason.

The 2021 event was themed “American independence”, and co-chaired by singer Billie Eilish, tennis pro Naomi Osaka, actor Timothée Chalamet and poet Amanda Gorman – all Gen Z darlings.

The annual fundraising event for the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts has become simultaneously the Oscars and the Olympics of fashion. It also marks the opening of the institute’s major annual exhibition. That show, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, is more overtly political than usual this year. Focusing on a broad-ranging selection of often-overlooked designers, curator Andrew Bolton told the Guardian the exhibition “very much came out of the Black Lives Matter movement”.

Politics was overt on the red carpet too, with outfits that spoke to income and gender inequality – and even proposed some solutions.

AOC’s ‘Tax the Rich’ reveal

Typically, the politics of fashion is a subtle business, with colour or cut used to convey a message. So it was with the front of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ dress at her first Met Gala appearance. The gown was suffragette white, with tuxedo detailing more typically seen in menswear. But when she turned around, the message was loud and clear: “Tax the Rich” printed in bold, red typeface across the entire back bodice.

The dress was designed by creative director Aurora James of Brother Vellis. James is a vocal supporter of, in her words, “economic justice”. In 2020, she started the 15% Pledge – a call to major retailers in the US to ensure at least 15% of their shelf space is dedicated to black-owned businesses, a campaign that Sephora, West Elm and Vogue have already signed up to. On the red carpet, she told Vogue that the campaign had directed $10bn toward Black businesses to date.

But, as New York Times’ fashion editor Vanessa Friedman notes, the optics are complicated.

Ocasio-Cortez was not the only attendee in a slogan gown. Model and actor Cara Delevingne, also in white and red, had “Peg the Patriarchy” printed across her chest, while congresswoman Carolyn Maloney wore a gown in the full spectrum of suffragette shades (green, white and violet – for “give women votes”) that read “Equal rights for women” across two long trains falling from her shoulders. Unfortunately, the secretary of the interior Deb Haaland, whose use of fashion is the most skilful in US politics today, was not in attendance.

Bennifer share a masked-up kiss

The reunion of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck has caused significant, nostalgic delight. Wearing Ralph Lauren, Lopez’ outfit was also an exercise in remembrance, with a plunging neckline that harked back to her Versace Oscars dress (a look so widely sought-after, it prompted Google to invent image search) and a matching cowboy hat. Lopez’ association with matching cowboy hats predates Affleck – she wore a cream one at the 1998 VMAs, with Mark Wahlberg on her arm.

While the armchair fashion historians might praise this multitude of nods, the armchair epidemiologists will probably despair the kiss she shared with Affleck, since health advice on mask wearing suggests you should not touch the outside of them.

Lil Nas X pulls a Gaga

After taking home Video of the Year at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday in a lilac half-suit half-gown, American rapper Lil Nas X debuted at the Met Gala with an even more elaborate show, inspired by a coterie of great pop divas.

Dressed in all gold by Versace, the rapper arrived draped in a regal velvet cape (echoing Rihanna’s omelette gown from 2015, with a bit of King Henry VIII). He threw this off to reveal a reflective suit of armour beneath (Sweet Dreams-era Beyoncé, with a bit of Tin Man). Then, unclasped that to show off his final look: a crystal-studded catsuit (every popstar, at some point).

Lil Nas X told reporters on the carpet that the drawn-out show was symbolic of his “coming out of his shell” over the past year. Though show-stealing, costume changes are not an unprecedented move, with the rapper’s look being likened to Lady Gaga’s four-piece strip-down at the 2019 Met Gala.

Frank Ocean’s mechanical baby date

Frank Ocean brought a new meaning to “bring your child to work day”. Accompanying him was a ghoulish robotic baby whose head appeared to move on its own accord, meeting photographers with a steely, horrifying gaze. Not since Rosemary’s have we seen a baby this devilish; its face and skin a shock of lime green. Decked out in a printed onesie, the infant – whose name is Cody – matched its father’s freshly dyed buzzcut.

The soulful softboi (Frank, not Cody) is no stranger to red-carpet absurdism. In 2019, he arrived at the otherwise colourful camp-themed Met Gala in a very sober black-and-white set, drawing comparisons to valets and security guards, and immediately inciting furious debate about the definition of camp itself.

This year, the connection between a slime-hued baby and the gala’s America theme isn’t yet clear, but the theorising has already begun: a Shrek reference, a return to dadcore, or just this season’s hottest accessory.

Whoopie Goldberg on vaccines

The edict that all guests be vaccinated precluded at least one star from attending: Nikki Minaj. Minaj gained instant infamy for tweeted a story from a famously reliable source (a friend of her cousin) involving intimate swelling and a cancelled wedding, by way of explanation for her absence.

Whoopie Goldberg, on the other hand, was all for the vaccine mandate. In a red carpet interview, she said: “If you’re not going to get vaccinated you really have to question where you stand in the country.”

Kim Kardashian West covers up

For the second time this week, Kim Kardashian West wore an all-black, fetish-inspired outfit with her face fully covered. The first look, designed by Balenciaga, prompted speculation that the reality star and entrepreneur had reunited with her ex-husband Kanye West.

This, it turns out, was merely a dress-rehearsal, since her Met Gala gown was designed by West himself.

When Kardashian-West first appeared at the Met Gala in 2013, heavily pregnant in a tight floral dress, she quickly became the subject of memes, many of which compared her to a couch. In 2019, ahead of the last Met Gala, she tweeted that the stress and insecurity of that moment brought her to tears after the event, but that she eventually came to love the look. That resilience will serve her well, since her ability to inspire internet humorists certainly hasn’t waned.

Billie Eilish’s bargaining power

Continuing her recent run of references to classic glamour, Billie Eilish – one of this year’s four co-chairs – paid homage to Old Hollywood in a peachy Oscar de la Renta ball gown complete with a four-metre train floating down the famously hazardous stairs of the Met Gala.

The couture came with a caveat, though: that the fashion house stop using fur. “I find it shocking that wearing fur isn’t completely outlawed at this point in 2021,” Eilish – who is a vegan and animal rights activist – said in a statement to Vogue. “I am so beyond thrilled [to] … have made a change that not only makes an impact for the greater good for animals but also for our planet and the environment.”

There have been calls for the company in the past to stop using fur, including from Oscar de la Renta’s own creative directors, who questioned its contemporary relevance. But it wasn’t until Eilish’s stipulation that the brand’s chief executive, Alex Bolen, relented. “I have to surround myself with people with different points of view,” he told the New York Times.

Weighty questions

The subject of celebrities’ weight should probably be off-limits on and off the red carpet, but when it comes to the heft of their dresses, Simone Biles and Precious Lee were both happy to share. Biles’ crystal encrusted silver gown, from Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk’s label Area clocked in at 40kg (88lb). While the gymnast showed considerable strength in staying upright at all, she did have a team of six people helping her up the notoriously tricky steps.

Model Precious Lee, also wearing Area, shouldered a 45kg (100lb) burden of crystals with remarkable elegance too.


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