The Man Loves the Extra Publicity

By Helen Lewis
Jeff Kravitz / Theo Wargo / Jamie McCarthy / Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty

The Met Gala is a barometer of fashion. Not in the boring “What is the hemline of the moment?” sense, but on a grander scale. This benefit dinner is pure spectacle, an event that exists only to be photographed, a sequined media mirage. Look at the pictures from the after-parties and you’ll see that many guests change out of their red-carpet looks as soon as humanly possible. These are clothes for posing in, not wearing. They are statements.

Until recently, that statement was simple: I am thinner and hotter than you. Then came the rise of the “stunt garment”—Rihanna’s omelette dress, Billy Porter’s sun-god palanquin—as celebrities realized that merely looking hot in a nice outfit had very little currency at an event where everyone looks hot and is wearing a nice outfit. This is an arms race with literal arms: The musician Grimes turned up yesterday carrying a sword made from a melted-down AR-15. (Perhaps she thought the dessert would be a really big cake.)

Last night’s Met Gala theme was “American Independence,” which in an earlier era might have resulted in people coming in various riffs on Uncle Sam (but make it fashion), cheerleaders, bald eagles, and, for the earnest but tasteless actress trying to look socially conscious, Pocahontas (but make it fashion). Because this is 2021, however, seducing the rest of us lumpen Morlocks into buying your perfume or watching your films is no longer enough reason for you to attend a $35,000 dinner in a museum. The headlines generated by yesterday’s gala were about a new trend: activist couture.

[Read: End times at the Met Ball]

A viral tweet rounded up the four most notable examples: the model Cara Delevingne’s Peg the Patriarchy vest, the soccer star Megan Rapinoe’s In Gay We Trust purse, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney’s suffragette gown, and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Tax the Rich dress. “Think we can all agree that activism is kinda over and generally embarrassing tbh,” declared a commentator who goes by @thomasfreeboy.

The backlash was stoked by a wider disenchantment with performative, corporatized activism. The Met Gala occurred only days after Deadline reported on the existence of a new CBS reality show called The Activist, in which the hosts Julianne Hough, Priyanka Chopra, and Usher will lead teams competing to advance their causes. The prize will be a chance to go to the G20 summit and get ignored by world leaders, as Greta Thunberg does. The inevitable blowback to this announcement led to the producers releasing a statement declaring, “This is not a reality show to trivialize activism. On the contrary, our aim is to support activists everywhere, show the ingenuity and dedication they put into their work, and amplify their causes to an even wider audience.” The wounded-professional tone of this statement is peak 2021. How dare anyone think a reality-TV show would fail to do justice to the gravitas of an important subject? Somehow, I was reminded of the British reality series The Farm, which promised insight into the challenges of rural life, but is now mainly remembered for the scene in which David Beckham’s former personal assistant masturbated a pig. That’s edutainment.

Inevitably, the most divisive Met Gala outfit belonged to Ocasio-Cortez, because the right loves to hate her—and she is therefore the kween of the Twitter left. How can anyone bear to jump into this Discourse when the positions are already staked out so clearly in advance? On one side, you have the dismissive argument that wearing a dress won’t solve poverty, sweetheart; Soviet communism did not begin with Lenin wearing designer trousers embroidered with COLLECTIVIZE THE FARMS. On the other, AOC’s defenders bristled with the sure knowledge of patronizing dunk tweets to come, and were ready to argue that catchy slogans have always been an important part of politics.

Like all good internet disputes, both sides are half-right. Ocasio-Cortez has fired up her base, raised her profile, and reminded everyone that she is the standard-bearer for today’s activist left. What politicians wear does matter—many of AOC’s right-wing critics spent the 2008 election arguing for the vital importance of flag pins as a symbol of patriotism, as if the future of the republic rested on the adornment of Barack Obama’s lapels. Your empty gesture is my potent symbol of solidarity. In Britain, the suffragettes were pioneers of branding, handing out medals to their hunger strikers and printing postcards of their attractive young leader, Christabel Pankhurst. Today, the ubiquity of the rainbow flag is a visible sign of LGBTQ acceptance. The power of seeing how many people support a cause is one of the reasons marches are such a staple of political movements. We are social animals. We like doing what other people do.

[Read: The Met Gala and the honest red carpet]

At the same time, the Met Gala is essentially a costume ball, which removes the potential for actual subversion. In the words of The Wire’s Omar Little: All in the game. In 1973, Marlon Brando sent a young performer named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his Oscar for The Godfather and to make a speech about Native American rights. It was an act of calculated rudeness to the Hollywood establishment, a deliberate snub to make the point that some things are more important than acting awards.

But the Met Gala red carpet is now an arena where people go to make statements, which inevitably robs those statements of their power. No one here is rebelling against the Man. The Man loves the extra publicity; it helps sell more $35,000 tickets to socialites who love a frisson of revolution as long as it’s safely divorced from the threat of actual tumbrels. In 1970, Tom Wolfe famously used the term radical chic to describe a New York party held by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein to fundraise for the Black Panthers. (Wolfe’s account of the party in New York magazine included a photo of the snacks. The accompanying caption asked: “Do Panthers like Roquefort morsels?”) The Met Ball is now the heir to this tradition, a safe space for political statements that all attendees will applaud, regardless of whether they truly believe them. In a decade’s time, the wheel will turn again, and this Met Gala will look as outdated as fashion’s previous attempts at social commentary via the medium of clothes affordable only to the 1 percent. (John Galliano’s “Haute Homeless” collection, I’m looking at you.)

Rapinoe’s purse is a prime example of the toothless nature of activist couture. It was cute, sure, but it bears no comparison to her decision to support the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by taking a knee before a National Women’s Soccer League game in 2016. That protest was brave and powerful because viewers all understood the stakes: Kaepernick had suffered huge professional consequences for his anti-racist protest, and Rapinoe followed his lead despite knowing that she risked a similar backlash. But no one gets booed, or thrown out, or shunned by their peers for wearing an ensemble supporting any progressive cause to the Met Gala. Everybody there would probably pay lip service to “taxing the rich,” for example, even as they do absolutely nothing to address the legislative gridlock that makes progressive tax reform politically impossible. So what is the risk of wearing a sloganeering outfit to the Met Gala—giving Tucker Carlson more palpitations with which to fill his airtime? For Ocasio-Cortez, that’s just a day ending in a Y.

The most striking thing about yesterday’s Met Gala, to me, was what didn’t happen. Awards ceremonies and red-carpet events have traditionally been followed by best- and worst-dressed lists—a shabby, nitpicking roll call of self-appointed tastemakers cackling with schadenfreude over an exceptionally attractive woman whose bad dress sense has resulted in her going out looking merely like a very attractive woman. A decade ago, I would have expected to see the Met Gala outfits forensically and cruelly dissected on blogs such as Go Fug Yourself and Perez Hilton—both of which have toned down their criticisms since their respective heydays.

That harsher style of commentary is now out of fashion. We are more comfortable analyzing celebrities’ moral choices—their past remarks, their insensitively named shapewear lines, their fake-pregnancy photos—than their ill-advised decision to wear an A-line skirt when they’re a bit heavy on the hips. Where the public once bullied A-listers for a bad nose job or a frumpy neckline, these days we instead scrutinize their political outlook and find it equally objectionable. Body-shaming has been replaced by soul-shaming.

In that light, the celebrity embrace of political statements makes perfect sense. We have to talk about something. If the Met Gala is just hot people in nice outfits, what’s the point of that? Activism is now the height of fashion.


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