Met Gala 2021: American Independence not so great

The optics of celebrating American Independence at a time like this is myopic.

The MET Costume Institute’s Met Gala returned this year on the second Monday in September. With Anna Wintour presiding over the soirée’s guest list, consisting of actors, designers, artists, models, politicians, royalty, and now billionaires and social-media personalities, it’s an insight into one of the most powerful rooms in the world at any given time. Someone ought to figure out the degrees of separation. 

The Gala’s unsung maestro is Andrew Bolton, Curator-In-Charge at the Costume Institute, the mastermind behind the topical exhibitions that set the tone for the theme: this year, American Independence, corresponding to Bolton’s exhibition, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.

My initial thought at hearing the first utterance of the theme was “Why America?” To which a friend also concurred and added, “America isn’t really it right now.” And we weren’t the only ones. Model attendee, Precious Lee, said it was a “polarising subject,” to put it mildly, while Grimes said “I love America, but I know you’re not supposed to say that.” Followed by a muffled plea through her chromatic mask “Please let me have my green card, President Biden.” We did it, Joe? 

But what does a theme that celebrates a contentious country from an elite global art institute have to say? 

The optics of celebrating American Independence at a time like this is myopic and doesn’t convey the same sentiment of the exhibit. It’s a juxtaposition of messages. The very notion of American Independence, personally, evokes a whiteness that flagrantly parades its privilege of red, white, and blue, built off of the oppression of others through imperialism, colonisation, and enslavement. It’s a reminder of its history towards Native Americans and of colonists’ unrelenting pursuits of land ownership and trading wealth, and by extension fuelling the transatlantic African slave trade – memories still alive in Black communities today. 

To propose American Independence as a celebration in the shadow of the obscene amount of injustices towards black lives lost at the hands of police brutality, hate crimes against POC and marginalised communities, the dysfunction of the Trump era, and so much more, is to celebrate a country divided and receding in global standing. When sartorially expressed through motifs and iconography, American Independence has the potential to be tone-deaf and lacking any substance. Instead of bringing forward critical discussions of issues in contemporary America, it makes for an unsavoury and gauche perpetuation of “American greatness” – it was a missed opportunity to represent the ethos of Bolton’s exhibition.

However, one should approach the theme of the Met Gala and the theme of the exhibition as two separate entities. 

Bolton’s exhibition heralded a new phase in American fashion driven by American designers that have propelled a Renaissance of sustainability, transparency, inclusivity, and diversity in the fashion industry in recent years. It’s commemorated in tandem with the Costume Institute’s 75th anniversary, wherein Bolton revisits the Institute’s founding ethos of supporting American designers to reinvent and self-reflect. Pieces on display aim to upend monolithic interpretations of American fashion, invoking former senator Jesse Jackson’s metaphor of America as “like a quilt – many patches, many pieces, many colours, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” A white cotton-poplin dress from Prabal Gurung (spring/summer 2020), combines American pageant dress with traditional Eastern design. With the triangular waist cut-out, it references the wrapped construction of the saree and gathers a bouquet at the waist, donning a “Who gets to be American?” sash, reflecting Gurung’s immigrant identity and path to citizenship. 

The exhibit’s entrance piece is Sterling Ruby’s Veil Flag (2020), a black-washed denim wrap, referential to the American flag in its palette and patched form, made during the social justice movements of 2020, to which he wanted to explore the flag “as a signifier in flux and how our relationship to it may change when it is activated as a veil.” It’s a poignant statement that lends itself as a snapshot of the American identity, at a time of mourning of a regressive and unrecognisable America.

The message is clear: Bolton’s In America offers hope in direct response to the year that was, championing diversity, inclusivity, transparency and sustainability. It establishes a revised modern vocabulary for American fashion that reflects its diverse and multifaceted communities, and puts American designers at the zeitgeist of advancing the perennial political discussions the country faces. 

Now the perennial debate – did anyone follow the theme?

As is art, the Met Gala’s themes are always a subjective interpretation for the designer to articulate. Whilst most were in Old Hollywood glamour, star-spangled sequins, or gilded sci-fi skin-suits, the most successful guests, in the taste of your humble fashion critic, embodied their own identity within the prism of America with nuance.

Initially a breath of fresh-air to Gala menswear, Jeremy Pope referenced the uniform of African slaves in an all-white ensemble, consisted of an off-the-shoulder boned corset by Dion Lee, cotton broadcloth picking-sack cape by James Flemons, and Maison Martin Margiela tabi boots – the cotton cape and corset entrenched in the pain of slavery and tabi boots as the commodity of black bodies – “so that we could one day stand up, stretch toward the sun, and tell their story.”

Although mistaken for my sleep paralysis demon, Kim Kardashian in Balenciaga haute couture, in the most anti-fashion black body covering, was self-reflective in how she has navigated her body and influence in America – arguably, the modern Venice de Milo. Saweetie celebrated her biracial heritage, draping the Filipino flag and Black American Heritage flag in a ten million hand-placed crystal gown by Christian Cowan. Indigenous activist and model, Quannah Chasinghorse, was resplendent in a gold lamé Peter Dundas cut-out gown and her aunt’s collection of authentic Navajo turquoise jewellery. 

My personal favourite was Natalia Bryant in a demi-couture creation by recent Central Saint Martins graduate, Conner Ives, from his The American Dream collection. This finalé piece, dubbed The Couture Girl, saw a bubble gown of deadstock white silk organza, embroidered with thousands of recycled plastic floral sequins – a reinterpretation of the American debutante. Originally to be an exhibited piece in In America, it was removed by Anna Wintour for it to be chosen for Bryant’s Gala debut – tearfully, the debutante herself introduced into society.

The general consensus for American Independence was met with lesser-enthusiasm compared to themes of Gala’s past, myself included. Mainly because American sartorial culture is difficult to visualise and intellectually engage with, and is understood through principles of simplicity, practicality, and functionality – a purely consumerist and capitalist model. However, what Bolton and on-theme attendees presented was a revision of America that reflects an intimate relationship between wearer and garment that examines one’s own identity and place, and critically engages with discussions their communities face. It allowed for a theme of emotive substance unseen in American fashion – truly a Renaissance. 

Filed under: