Arts and Entertainment

Met Gala 2021: A Lexicon of American… Confusion?

An overview of the 2021 Met Gala.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Cadence Li

Fashion’s biggest night made its extravagant return on… the second Monday of September? Despite being postponed due to the pandemic, the 2021 Met Gala—a fundraising gala for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute—made headlines. In honor of the Met exhibition “America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” this year’s prompt was to define a version of American Independence.

Co-chaired by Grammy-winning singer Billie Eilish, Academy-award-winning actor Timothee Chalamet, American inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, and tennis champion Naomi Osaka, the 2021 Met Gala attendees are remarkably different from previous years. Exemplified by the age range of the co-chairs themselves, some of whom made their Met debut at the gala, many of the invites this year have been offered to the younger side of the fashion and influential world spectrum. As seen with the attendance of figures like Emma Chamberlain (a fashion YouTuber), as well as other rising stars on the red carpet, there is a new focus on Gen-Z influencers, perhaps implying that American fashion lies in the next generation.

Nonetheless, the ensemble of the co-chairs together create a striking image. Eilish continued her “Happier Than Ever” (2021) album aesthetic with a flowing, pink organza-corseted ball gown and platinum blonde curls reminiscent of American icon Marilyn Monroe. Chalamet sported a crisp white suit coat paired with white sweatpants and converse, a refreshing blend of formal and streetwear. Osaka turned heads in her eye-catching braided updo and unique Koi fish-patterned dress in silver, blue, and purple with floor-length, black ruffled sleeves—a tribute to both her Japanese and Haitian ancestry. Last but not least, Gorman turned heads in a strapless royal blue gown as the Statue of Liberty, reimagined. A vision in her own right, the crystals embedded in her dress and splatter of stars across her face truly achieved the American flag constellation in motion look she was inspired by. The symbolism of her silver laurel crown and a blue book, emblazoned with “Give Us Your Tired” instead of the stone tablet, paints a vivid picture of the new colossus and a new era of American fashion.

On a red carpet filled with celebrities sporting sleek finger waves or retro curls, Old Hollywood glamour was by far the most popular interpretation of American independence. Some references admittedly missed the mark, with Kendall Jenner wearing a gossamer and embellished version of Audrey Hepburn’s iconic gown from “My Fair Lady” (1964) which, despite being a beautiful rendition, was a film that featured Hepburn in a British role. Gigi Hadid, another frequenter of the Gala, wore a strapless, white gown with a boned bodice, in an effort to opt for American “simplicity.” Though the gorgeous combination of her periwinkle eyeshadow and long rust-red ponytail updo made for a dramatic appearance, any relevance to American Independence that could have been incorporated became wasted potential. Barbie Ferriera also dazzled in a sparkling silver mini-dress with pearl detailing that draped off the shoulder and near her waist as well as pearl fringe trailing over the skirt paid an homage to the 1920s era flapper style. By far the best reference of the night was worn by Yara Shahidi, who honored the American-born French artist Josephine Baker in an ethereal beaded metallic gown complete with matching elbow-length gloves, and a golden tulle veil and train.

Other attendees chose to embrace American multiculturalism, with the likes of Gemma Chan paying homage to Chinese American actress Anna May Wong’s iconic cheongsam-inspired black gown with a golden dragon embroidered across the dress. A work of Paul Gurung, Chan’s ensemble included a modernized black mini dress decorated with a bejeweled dragon and long pastel green train. Chan’s hair was styled into ornate circular braids, channeling Wong’s character in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940). Though the reimagined dragon itself was a beautiful touch, as it was stenciled from a Qing dynasty handscroll in the Met Museum, the outfit overall was a bit unfulfilling compared to the original, lacking the effortless elegance and powerful aura that make Wong’s fashion moments eye-catching today. The most striking moment of the night, however, went to Quannah Chasinghorse, an Indigenous model and activist. Empowered by her Native American heritage, Chasinghorse wore a flowing golden lamé dress, layers of turquoise jewelry crafted by Navajo artists, and facial tattoos called Yidįįłtoo. In a sphere that is newly welcoming to Indigenous models and designers, she hopes to provide greater visibility to the beauty of her culture.

In such polarizing times, politics were bound to make an appearance at the gala. Many guests let their outfits speak for themselves. One of these stars was actor Dan Levy, who wore a Loewe suit resembling the globe. In the center of his shirt were two men kissing, an image inspired by art from David Wojnarowics, an artist who passed away from AIDS in 1992. Other attendees sported direct quotes on their dresses for the audience to see: Cara Delevigne was notably spotted wearing a Dior vest with the message “PEG THE PATRIARCHY.” The most discussed political statement of the night was worn by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Her simple, off-the-shoulder white gown, made by Aurora James, a Black American immigrant, had the words “Tax the Rich” written across it in large red letters. Critics of Congresswoman Cortez found it ironic for her to be flaunting this statement at an event where ticket prices range from $35,000 to $300,000.

Another topic of the night was the controversial guest list of this year’s Met Gala. Known for its exclusivity, the Met Gala has recently begun inviting more and more “influencers'' who gained their fame quickly and through non traditional routes. TikTokkers Dixie D’amelio and Addison Rae are two examples of celebrities who rose to prominence almost overnight—making their attendance pale in comparison to high-profile gala regulars such as Rihanna or Jennifer Lopez. YouTuber Emma Chamberlain’s attendance was also much anticipated, and albeit glamorous, there was, unfortunately, nothing Americana about Chamberlain’s asymmetrical gold Louis Vuitton dress. In pleasant contrast, Dutch beauty Youtuber Nikkie de Jager’s turquoise tulle Edwin Oudshoorn gown was not only on par with the theme but a moving tribute to transgender activist Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson.

While the interpretative nature of each Met Gala theme is what makes the event so memorable, it is also what makes it so disappointing when celebrities miss the mark. Kim Kardashian arrived in a head-to-toe black ensemble by Spanish brand Balenciaga, in which her reference to American independence was more confusing than the look itself. Others, like Grimes in her “Dune”-inspired sheer gown, had just as vague references. In Grimes’s case, her message was only further clouded by her elven ears and western European sword replica. There were surprisingly few references to classic American films (outside of the ones done by British actress Audrey Hepburn), icons such as Jackie Kennedy, or artists such as Andy Warhol. For a country rich in pop culture, many looks felt underwhelming—even with their extravagance, like Lil Nas X’s gold robe and armor or Megan Fox’s Dracula-inspired red dress.

Despite this year’s theme being largely up to designers’ interpretations, many outfits fell short of expectations: whether they were making lackluster statements or ignoring the theme altogether. The Met Gala may be fashion’s biggest night, but the 2021 Ball seemed confused about what it was trying to embody. Perhaps that’s the most American thing of all… not knowing what it means to be American.