Nina Westervelt/The New York Times

September 20, 2021

A (Somewhat Tame) Return to Fashion’s Biggest Night

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On Sept. 13, the Met Gala was finally held after cancellations due to COVID-19. “Fashion’s Biggest Night” was highly anticipated after a year-long hiatus, yet personally, I felt that it left much to be desired. Unlike previous years, the theme of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” was much more open-ended, celebrating the past, present and future of American culture through fashion. Naturally, I enjoyed the classic (and expected) red-carpet glamour of Billie Eilish’s blush Oscar de La Renta look, and Yara Shahidi and Anok Yai’s celestial homages to silent film star and activist Josephine Baker. 

However, for every elegant nod to old hollywood, I wanted to see more fashion that reflected American absurdity and practicality. American style is impossible to pinpoint, but I believe that the theme also left untapped potential to highlight the chaos and kitsch of the masses. I loved Kim Petras’ Collina Strada horse dress, in all of its campy intensity. It felt like a high fashion, fever-dream, hyper-realistic animal T-shirt that you would find at a gas station on the side of a highway. To me, that reflects American fashion much more than the pared-back, distant French silhouettes seen on celebrities like Kaia Gerber

Personally, I had hoped to see more kitschy craft be elevated to couture. The exhibit opens with a quote from a Jesse Jackson speech: “America is not like a blanket — one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size, […] America is more like a quilt—many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” A$AP Rocky literally embodied this, wrapped in an ERL quilt that was partially designed by a quilter specializing in burial and memory textiles. The rich tradition of quilting in the United States goes back to colonial times, when women made memory quilts and kerchiefs for deceased loved ones and made friendship quilts to record the members of the community. Most notably, the AIDS memorial quilt of 1984 is both a haunting memorial and a beautiful showpiece of American resilience. A$AP Rocky wore one of my favorite looks; aside from the cultural context, I loved the contrast of the soft, hand-labored patchwork with the stiff 1980’s-ish suit beneath.

I was also very surprised to see the near absence of denim, save for Lupita Nyong’o’s perfectly tailored indigo gown by Versace. Maybe it was low-hanging fruit, but a good pair of jeans is an established staple of the “classic” American wardrobe and of American manufacturing history. With the prominence of American denim in mind, I was especially curious to see what direction the menswear would take this year. My hopes of couture cowboys and cowgirls were dashed — minus Rosalía’s wonderfully dramatic burgundy leather look from Rick Owens. 

However, most of the menswear I saw played the theme fairly safe. Instead of Timothée Chalamet’s afterthought Converse, what if he had channeled the iconic pressed suits of the 1930s? On the topic of suits, I also hoped to see a high fashion zoot suit, which would have been out of place in any other context, but celebrated here. The flamboyant and colorful cuts of zoot suits were a staple of Mexican American youths in Los Angeles, and lent their name to the racially-charged “Zoot Suit Riots” of 1943. An expertly tailored zoot suit would have been not only a reclamation of what was once seen as a symbol of criminality and a tasteful homage, but also an exuberant and memorable addition to the usual lineup of black tuxedos. 

To get an outside opinion on the Met Gala, I spoke to Nik Martin ’25, a Fashion Design student, and we both agreed there was a missed opportunity for activism at such a public, high-profile event centered around America. Despite his favorite looks by Billie Eilish and Iman, he noted that “we could have had commentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, on fast fashion in the US, on Native Americans who are still facing issues…While some people were able to make commentary on this, I feel like, as a whole, celebrities really didn’t adhere to the theme.” Martin made an exception for “Nikkie de Jager, with her dress that was inspired by Marsha P. Johnson and an homage to her.” 

Despite these flaws, the Met Gala certainly proved that American fashion is alive and well after COVID-19, if not a little timid.

Violet Gooding is a freshman in the College of Artand Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].