Gilded Glamour: An Awkward, Yet Apt, Met Gala
The optics are weird, but this is fashion.
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The Met Gala is coming up and it will feel weird again.
Last year it had to occur in September instead of May and have a smaller guest list because of the pandemic. But it still happened, despite the Delta Covid wave raging in the background. This year it will occur May 2, during both a pandemic and the war in Ukraine, assuming both of those horrible things continue, as news reports strongly suggest. Celebrities and industry titans will ascend those steps in a reminder that they are them (chosen, rich) and you are you (not chosen, not rich).
Google “met gala 2022” and you’ll see that the SEO Met Gala Hunger Games are well underway. This suggests that websites need clicks, sure, but also that the masses are downright excited to witness this event, perhaps even more so than something like the Oscars. One thing you can always say in favor of the Met Gala is that it’s thankfully just a red carpet and not a red carpet plus a long, boring telecast, making it perfect for the TikTok age, when many of us have the attention spans of gnats.
Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times tweeted that the Gala’s theme this year is “Gilded Glamour.” (Why this broke in one of her tweets and not in Vogue is unclear.)
The Costume Institute exhibit this Gala opens and honors is In America: An Anthology of Fashion, a continuation of last year’s, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion. It will take place in the Met’s period rooms, indicating that “Gilded Glamour” likely refers to the Gilded Age. For many, this will bring to mind the HBO show, old money snobbery, new money social climbing, and Cynthia Nixon’s curly updo. But it will also bring to mind extreme class and wealth disparity, abject poverty, and racism. These would seem to be uncomfortable adjacencies for a newly inclusivity-minded Vogue magazine and the fashion industry it covers with love and blinders.
While the Gilded Age, circa 1870 to 1900, was a time when obscenely large and ornate mansions were built as “summer cottages” for the rich on the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, it was also a time when millions of people were immigrating from Europe and Russia to America, only to take jobs in sweatshops and live in tenements under abhorrent conditions. Googling “met gala 2022” won’t reveal much on that but “gilded age poverty” certainly will. PBS has examples of the highs:
Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once threw a dinner party to honor her dog who arrived sporting a $15,000 diamond collar.
And the lows:
In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line.
Helping bring the exhibition to life are eight directors, who will create vignettes to accompany each period room’s theme. Janicza Bravo will take on the Rococo Revival Parlor and Gothic Revival Library; Sofia Coppola is paired with the McKim, Mead and White Stair Hall, and Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room; Julie Dash will be in the Greek Revival Parlor and Renaissance Revival Room; Tom Ford is in the gallery showcasing John Vanderlyn’s panoramic 1819 mural of Versailles that will touch on fashion’s own Battle of Versailles; Regina King will design the vignette in the 19th-century parlor from Richmond, Virginia; Martin Scorsese is coupled with a 20th-century living room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; Autumn de Wilde is with the Baltimore and Benkard Rooms; and Chloé Zhao will create a work based on a Shaker Retiring Room from the 1830s.
Sure, the not-gilded Shaker Retiring Room is in the mix, but not, say, a tenement recreation. That said, the theme leaves room for attendees to use fashion as social commentary, the way Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did last year when she wore a white Aurora James gown scrawled with “Tax the Rich.”
It’s possible Anna Wintour, who plans the party every year with a bevy of cohosts, knew “Gilded Glamour” would be just the right amount of controversial to drive interest in an event that has, for many reasons, become increasingly vexed. Her editorial lens — among the most successful of all editorial lenses — has long mixed fashion, art, and politics. And as I report in ANNA: The Biography, she has knowingly waded into controversy a number of times over the course of her career. She could very well realize that while some attendees will use the red carpet to be simply sparkly and gold, others will use it the way AOC did last year, fueling commenters for days or more.
However, Anna and Vogue have also accidentally waded into controversy. For all it’s done over the last few years to be more inclusive, the fashion industry hasn’t done that much to address the disparity between the people working in sweatshops to make clothes (yes, even designer clothes) and the wealthy consumers who wear them. It barely even acknowledges the human labor that goes into what we wear, and in fact does this on purpose so that if factory conditions are found to be objectionable, brands can say they didn’t own them and didn’t know.
The world of fashion is its own Gilded Age of sorts. The industry is one of billionaire titans like Bernard Arnault of LVMH, François-Henri Pinault of Kering, and Amancio Ortega of Zara. Ascending to the fold is Fashion Nova CEO Richard Saghian, who isn’t a billionaire, but just spent $161 million on an L.A. mansion; his company’s clothes have been found to be made by people earning illegal wages of a few bucks an hour. (But maybe in 140 years, when it has its own historical society comprised of the geriatric descendants of YouTube stars, that house will seem charming and historic in retrospect?)
Also, while styles change, fashion has arguably never been ritzier, never better at cordoning its clientele off from common people. Luxury companies have been raising prices simply because their wealthy customers have been fine with paying them. Some of us are now pained to find that it costs nearly $80 to fill the gas tank of a Ford Explorer, while the wealthiest shoppers are buying Bottega Veneta’s new fringed skirts for a casual $29,000. There is not just a velvet rope between these two types of people — there is also a guard, a stone wall, a giant garden, and at least one unnecessary lawn sculpture.
Then there’s Met Gala itself — the most important fashion event of each year, which is a modern version of a Gilded Age society party. John Jacob Astor’s fortune, made partly from the fur trade, was passed along to his grandson, who married Caroline Schermerhorn, who became the famous socialite known as The Mrs. Astor. During the Gilded Age, she was the gatekeeper to New York society, using parties to denote who met her standard, and who was “in.” Gotham reports:
From the 1870s until the 1900s, Mrs. Astor presided over thousands of parties at her opulent mansions on Fifth Avenue, only open to those she deemed worthy (later known as ‘The 400’)…
Her home at which these parties took place was lavish, including peacock feather rugs and an art gallery that doubled as a ballroom. Like Anna, she had specific ideas about who should attend her parties and how guests should behave at them. One imagines that Mrs. Astor, who supposedly didn’t like body parts discussed at her soirées, would, if back from the dead to confront the modern age, have a negative reaction to people coming in and being preoccupied with posting TikToks instead of mingling.
However, she also stands apart from Anna. She was known to wear a diamond tiara to her parties, which Anna would never do. Her bob is, of course, its own showpiece. But also, she’s been the editor-in-chief of Vogue and the leader of the fashion industry since 1988, and hosting the Met Gala since 1995. She doesn’t need a crown for everyone to know she’s the queen.
The army of people with opinions on the internet serving as omnipresent critics of everything Anna and Vogue do will surely call the event’s theme and mere existence insensitive given world events, the same way they accused influencers of being insensitive for attending fashion week. The only time aside from last year that the Gala was canceled since Anna started running it was in 2000, because Karl Lagerfeld decided to pull support for the planned Chanel exhibition, citing a “patronizing” phone call from the museum’s director “saying there would be no artists.”
Fashion has never been particularly great at holding itself to a strict moral standard. It’s great at telling stories to the public about who and what is in, making the public covet material things, and then charging as much as possible for it. The Met Gala could be seen as a pretty important part of marketing that story, especially this year. Why would the industry shy away from it for fear of optics, especially when it has car-priced skirts to sell? Any controversy will only drive impressions.
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