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The Missing Cultures at the Met Gala 2021

If you follow the fashion industry, or even just popular culture, chances are you know about the Met Gala. Each year on the first Monday in May, fashion's most iconic brands and the celebrity elite meet for the most exclusive party of the year, officially a fundraising benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for which a different theme is chosen every year.

In 2021, the decided prompt was 'In America: A Lexicon of Fashion', which provided a potentially powerful opportunity to celebrate the diversity behind American fashion and its influences after a politically turbulent 2020 surrounding racial injustice and the prevalence of white supremacy.

Unfortunately, this opportunity was widely disregarded, with the vast majority of guests instead referencing old Hollywood glamour, which begs the question: which culture are we actually celebrating?

A white-washed culture

Overwhelmingly, attending celebrities were dressed in ball gowns, dripping in jewels, and pulling from famed references such as Marilyn Monroe for Billie Eilish, and Audrey Hepburn for Kendall Jenner. Whilst old Hollywood is an iconic part of American history, there is so much more to be explored, leading to the undeniable feeling that something was missing.

A potential reason for the general reliance on the old Hollywood motif is to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation, as the Met Gala does have a controversial history regarding its so-called 'appreciation' of different cultures. The 2015 theme of 'China: Through the Looking Glass', led to many accusations of appropriation due to the lack of Chinese designers worn by Western attendees.

Avoiding cultural appropriation is obviously more ideal than committing it, but this does bring to light a serious issue with the Met Gala and its exclusivity: the complete lack of Black designers buying tables and dressing attending celebrities. With tables costing at least $275,000, and tickets estimated at $30,000, only the most elite fashion houses can afford to attend - most of which are European and dominated by white people. Therefore, the majority of celebrities were invited by and dressed in Prada (Gigi Hadid), Versace (Lil Nas X), and Dior (Kaia Gerber), instead of championing American brands and designers aligning with the theme.

Creating space

In direct anticipation of this issue, Sir Lewis Hamilton paid for multiple Black designers to attend, in order to help provide representation for the influence Black culture has over American fashion. Posting on Instagram after the event, Hamilton wrote "These designers - @Kenneth.nicholson, @theophilio, @jasonrembert - deserve this moment just as much as any other designer who attends the Met Gala".

Whilst Hamilton's intervention was much needed, it isn't enough, and the Met itself needs to take responsibility for why this was necessary in the first place and begin measures to create space for diversity and accessibility in the future. There were however some glimmers of representation for the influence of Black culture, as well as other political statements and references to important cultures that contribute to the overall American lexicon.

Black American poet Amanda Gorman, who most notably read at Joe Biden's inauguration in 2020, was a co-chair for the event and dressed by Vera Wang as a reimagined Lady Liberty - a commentary on the fight for freedom still experienced by Black Americans. Amandla Stenberg directly referenced Black culture and fashion through her hair, styling her braids into a durag. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a Brother Vellies gown, with the statement 'Tax the Rich' written on the back. Inadvertently commenting on the violence and gun culture prevalent in America with her 'Dune'-inspired look (designed by Iris van Herpen), Grimes carried a sword which was cast from a Colt-AR15A3.

A personal favourite look of the night was Quannah Chasinghorse, an Indigenous model, who was dressed by Peter Dundas in celebration of her Native heritage. This was notable both for the success of the look, and her singularity as Native representation at the Met, emphasising the disappointing lack of recognition for the original cultures of America prior to colonisation.

The Met moving forward

The 2022 Met Gala theme will be 'In America: An Anthology of Fashion', a direct continuation from 2021. Whilst two years of essentially the same theme is unusual for the Met, and potentially disappointing for fans, this does open up the opportunity for improvements, and for a more accurate representation of the diverse culture that has created American fashion.

Whilst I understand why certain fashion houses are staples at the Met each year, for the themes to be executed accurately and to their full potential, a considerable amount of designers and attendees should specifically represent what the event is claiming to celebrate.

Ideally, next year we will see an increased presence of Black American designers and motifs on the red carpet, as well as adequate representation for the significant contributions of Indigenous and Latin cultures to American iconography. But as long as extortionate prices continue to gate-keep entrance to the biggest fashion event of the year, this change is unlikely.

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