Opinions Staff Writer
Art by Maizy Goerlitz
Every year since 1948 (even in the throes of a pandemic), Americans of all artistic tendencies have watched in anticipation- overcome by equal parts horror and ecstasy -to witness that season’s most scandalous, subversive, and altogether shocking couture, set to an elaborately thematic red carpet in the middle of cosmopolitan New York City. The Met Gala, the climax of New York Fashion Week, is, doubtless, the vanguard of Western high society; this only serves to make it all the more ripe for the most scathing critique Twitter has to offer. But it is time to cut through the paparazzi noise: who really won best dressed this year? After all, 2021 offered a great bounty of memes, discussion on praxis, and, of course, Kardashian family drama. Yet, buried underneath these threads are the real gems: the true queens, kings and everyone-in-between of American fashion.
Lil Nas X: Best in American Opulence
Pop culture’s newest darling could not be satiated with simply platinum: he had a craving for gold. Or, as Christian Allaire wrote for Vogue, “One grandiose outfit was simply not enough, so Lil Nas served three.”
With a three-course red carpet-exclusive menu of lush satin, sparkling gold plating, and designer crystal-printed Versace, Lil Nas X gave the inner circle of America’s high society a taste for the extravagant flair that so sharply characterizes his rise to hip-hop fame. His boldness for claiming what is rightfully his is put on full, glorious display. His bigger-than-platinum persona is only further bolstered by the flash of cameras that seem only to be reflected right back at his audience: the glow of the spotlight isn’t embraced, it’s redirected.
At the heart of American fashion has been, and always will be, an unquenchable thirst for opulence. To not only show-off, but to live life like a show. With a golden touch, Lil Nas has proven, and in an artistically avant-garde innovation on the rap tradition of braggadocio, that he is the “true mastermind of the modern art of attention.”
Gemma Chan: Best in Hollywood Homage
Hollywood and modern fashion are two inextricably linked American cultural ecosystems: you cannot have one without the other, and whatever happens in one sets off a radical chain of trends and patterns in the other. Some are immediately explosive (think of the ubiquity of Coco Channel’s “little black dress,” for instance); others take time to simmer below the blinding flash of the press.
Gemma Chan embodied this phenomenon in her Prabal Gurung dragon-sequined, black mini dress, complete with a timelessly elegant pastel, seafoam green train. Her braided, ornately done-up hair and refined yet simple green eyeshadow echoes the unspoken strength of cinema trail-blazer and the “world's best dressed woman,” Anna May Wong.
Together, Chan and her Nepalese-American designer referenced historical archives for photographs of Wong’s most famous looks: the celebrated silent film actress had many of her indelible looks featured in a previous Met Gala exhibition in 2015, titled China: Through the Looking Glass. “Back then, Westernized ideas of Far East dressing might have come from a naive place, but the fusion often yielded fantastic results,” wrote long-time fashion reporter Rebecca Johnson. “The clothes she wore became nothing less than a tool of visual expression.”
Amanda Gorman: Best in Poetic Justice
From the poet laureate’s custom silver swarovski crown of victory, to the directly-inspired Emma Lazarus clutch, to the luscious chiffon folds of her blue evening train, Amanda Gorman showed the country what Black excellence looks like: beautifully evocative of the Statue of Liberty she so reverently embodies, the very woman who has represented our history for a century and a half.
One would be remiss to simply describe her poetically deep-blue look as an “on-the-nose” allusion, both to Lady Liberty and her title as National Youth Poet Laureate. Rather, her multilayered personification of the utility of language and the diverse, symbolic meaning it has the capability of expressing truly captures the deeper, more hopeful spirit lying within the notion of “American Independence.”
However stunning her classic crystalline evening gown is, her words speak for themselves: “Fashion is its own form of language, its own form of rhetoric.” Gorman imparted a powerful lesson on the significance of American lexicon: our fashion trends are not just an extension or representation of the Black experience, but speak to the deepest truth of it.
Nikkie de Jager: Best in Queer Fashion
The ‘P’ in Marsha P. Johnson stands for, “Pay it no mind.” And, certainly, Nikkie de Jager paid no mind to those who sought her downfall: in spite of black-mailing, outing and transphobia, her poise and grace earned her a ticket to the most recognized ballroom circuit in all of New York City: the 47th Met Gala.
The spring-in-fall baby blue tulle Edwin Oudshoorn Couture dress was a lovely tribute to the queer activist who was, all-at-once, a gender nonconforming icon, a famous street queen and a grassroots queer activist. Although de Jager does not completely put Johnson's fiercely bold personality on exhibition for the gala (the same Stonewall veteran who threw the “shot glass heard around the world” at a cop’s head), she does display the touching beauty and sentimental power of drag fashion that the trans activist so adored, from the soft glam make-up look to the 18-karat gold leafing and handmade silk flowers. The finishing touch was a ribbon inscribed in rich yet poignant gold: “PAY IT NO MIND.”
There is a conversation to be had, however, about the appropriation of Black queer couture by a white woman whose net worth is valued in the millions, for the largest convention of wealthy celebrities from around the globe- only mere blocks from the chintzy gymnasium and back-room stages where the underground ball culture came into vogue. (Jameela Jamil, anyone?) Nonetheless, de Jager’s tribute went beyond red carpet high fashion: at the West Piers on the Hudson River, where Johnson was tragically found dead in 1992, the make-up artist personally laid flowers in honor of her legacy.
Quannah Chasinghorse: Best in Indigenous Vogue
No one truly understood the assignment like Quannah Chasinghorse did.
The Hän Gwich’in and Ogala Lakota modeling star served a head-turning fashion statement with her gold lamé dress from the Peter Dundas x Revolve American Dream collection, featuring stunning chain accents and the breathtaking centerpiece of her absolutely gorgeous look, layered turquoise jewelry handmade by Indigenous artists from across the American Southwest.
The intimate connection she has with, and the deep love for, American Navajo culture was glamorously put on display by the rising star, who wore exquisitely set pieces from the personal collection of her aunt and former Miss Navajo Nation titleist Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw. But what undoubtedly brings the ensemble together is Chasinghorse’s Yidįįłtoo, or facial tattoos, traditional hand-poked designs done by her mother in commemoration of this magnificent milestone in her career as a model and life as an Indigenous woman. With her glistening train flowing behind her like ephemeral wings, Chasinghorse did nothing less than take the Met Gala- if not the entire city of New York -by storm.
In sum, her look? Simply divine.
“It’s almost as if she has just flown down from the heavens,” said her red carpet stylist, Tabitha Simmons. One can’t help but assume she had.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Best in Conversation Starters
“Tax the Rich.” The three words that, for lack of a better phrase, ‘broke the Internet.’
Twitter responded: “your ticket was 35,000 dollars [sic].” Or, “I’m sorry, but this is the most performative stunt I’ve ever seen.” Or (my personal favorite), the Hoefler font text of a Wikipedia summary for English philosopher Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? superimposed over the now infamous photograph of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It is the most perfectly facetious, yet, paradoxically, multi-faceted high fashion political commentary of the evening- and a great topic starter for your evening dinner conversation. Is it “weaponizing marginalized identities” to defend her choice of designer brand by labeling James Aurora, a millionaire, a Black “immigrant” (even if she only ever emigrated from the suburbs of Toronto)? Is it hypocritical to criticize the rich elite of the country, and then attend the Met Gala, where tickets cost $35,000? Should Ocasio-Cortez have even gone at all? Is it ironic that Aurora (allegedly) owes thousands in unpaid taxes in multiple states? Is this actually a textbook example of Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism?
I don’t know. I never purported to have the answers. But as Judith Thurman from The New Yorker so eloquently summarizes: “What constitutes protest fashion? That, I think, is the real question the Met brouhaha raises.” In that case, then, it might be better to look towards Carolyn Maloney as the true “Best in Protest Fashion.” For now, Ocasio-Cortez will have to settle for just that- a conversation starter.