After much anticipation, the 2021 Met Gala finally arrived on September 13th. The theme of the gala was “America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, a night to celebrate American trends, designers, and relevant cultural moments in fashion over the years. The Met Gala itself is essentially a fundraiser, supporting new exhibits for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is also where the gala is held every year. It’s an event for celebrities, designers, and brand ambassadors to dress according to the theme, which changes every year in coordination with the Met’s new fashion exhibits in the Costume Institute. Typically, the gala is held on the first Monday in May, but due to COVID it was moved to September this year.
Two exhibitions will open following the gala itself both related to the theme of the evening. The first exhibit, “A Lexicon of Fashion” will open on September 18th, while the second exhibit is set to open on May 2nd of 2022 and will feature an “American Anthology of Fashion”. While the public isn’t given an official list of celebrity invites, typically only A-list celebrities are welcomed to the gala. Prominent figures in pop-culture have the option of paying for a table, or – more commonly – are invited to represent a brand or designer, who then accommodates their table and outfit for the evening. Some Met Gala veterans, like Zendaya and Lady Gaga, were notably missing this year, which most people assume had to do with the date of the gala being changed. In their absence, social media influencers seemed to dominate a lot of the media attention surrounding the gala; Addison Rae, Dixie D’Amelio, and Emma Chamberlain were among the many Gen-Z guests, who were not especially well-received by viewers and critics.
The theme was intended to focus on celebrating American fashion, particularly the current “Renaissance” it’s undergoing in terms of gender fluidity and body positivity, as described by Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute. In an interview with Vogue magazine, Bolton expressed a great respect for American designers and their ability to adapt to the cultural climate, both socially and politically. In the same interview, Bolton says “I think young designers in particular are at the vanguard of discussions about diversity and inclusion, as well as sustainability and transparency, much more so than their European counterparts, maybe with the exception of the English designers.”
Though the theme had potential, some speculated that it was too vague, which would account for the lack of cohesion on the red carpet. “American fashion” was seemingly interpreted in several ways; some guests came simply dressed by an American designer, while some came dressed in symbols of American culture itself. The majority of viewers came away from the gala feeling generally underwhelmed, myself included. Despite the disappointment, a few standout looks were on display:
Quannah Chasinghorse, a Native model – Hän Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota – was one of the breakout stars of New York Fashion Week this year. She was dressed by Peter Dundas, and spoke exclusively to Vogue about how she values representing her Native heritage through the fashion she models. This felt like a perfect way to depict American fashion in a way that honors Native culture. The traditional turquoise jewelry she wore to the gala was borrowed from her aunt, Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw, a former Miss Navajo Nation.
It’s already so refreshing to see a man come to the Met Gala in something other than just a black tux, but actor Jeremy Pope also nailed the theme while looking incredible. This all white, off-the-shoulder look was designed by Dion Lee, while his long cape was designed as a visual reference to the sacks that slaves would use to pick cotton. Both a powerful tribute to an American tragedy and a beautifully designed look, Pope took to his Instagram to explain the meaning behind his outfit: “They planted seeds of beauty, tended to fields with unspeakable strength, & harvested a kind of excellence that would outlive them for centuries”.
Nikkie de Jager
Youtube personality Nikkie de Jager paid tribute to trans activist and icon Marsha P. Johnson, known for her work during the Stonewall riots of 1969. Both with her iconic flower crown and the ribbon on her hem — which reads “Pay It No Mind”, a phrase Johnson was known for — Nikkie perfectly represented the theme of American iconicism with this look by honoring a truly pivotal and influential figure for LGBTQ+ rights. In a gown designed by Edwin Oudshoorn Couture, she was also one of the few guests that managed to balance an aesthetically stunning look while staying true to the theme of the gala. As a proud trans woman herself, Nikkie explained the meaning behind her gown on Instagram, saying “Marsha P. Johnson paved the way for so many of us, and I hope I made my community proud tonight”.
In one of my favorite looks of the night, Barbie Ferreira wore a pearl-draped gown designed by Johnathan Simkhai. The dress, makeup, and hair were all reminiscent of Old Hollywood glamour, especially the extra thin eyebrows, which makeup artist Kali Kennedy said were inspired by 1920s burlesque fashion. I was shocked that this was Ferreira’s first Met Gala, because she truly knocked it out of the park with this look. In an interview with Emma Chamberlain for Vogue, Ferreira explained how she wanted her dress to look “opulent” to fit her roaring 20’s aesthetic – nothing says opulent like thousands of pearls covering your entire body!
Actor Dan Levy went all out in a Jonathan Anderson designed Loewe outfit. Anderson himself explained the inspiration for the outfit on Instagram, where he shared the source material, a David Wojnarowicz pro-LGBTQ+ art piece that depicts two men kissing surrounded by ocean water and map paper. Levy asked Anderson to design something “a gay superhero might wear”. Some viewers criticized the look for being over the top, but I think the Met Gala is the perfect place for a visually outlandish look like this. With the hand-stitched beaded details and dramatic puffy sleeves, the garment itself is stunning, and Levy pulls it off wonderfully.
Putting our personal feelings about her aside, there’s no denying Jenner looks breathtaking in this nude silk and chiffon Givenchy gown. Jenner explains that her look was a slightly modernized take on this Audrey Hepburn outfit in My Fair Lady. When people questioned how this very European-inspired look fit the theme of American fashion, Matthew Williams, who designed the look for Jenner, explained that it celebrates “that connection between French couture and American culture.” Given that Hepburn herself was a huge fan of Givenchy, and frequently wore outfits designed by Hubert de Givenchy himself, it felt fitting that the house would dress Jenner for this event.
Tyler Mitchell — the photographer who was hand selected by Beyonce to shoot her 2018 Vogue cover — is wearing New York-based brand Bode, in a suit that showcases America’s national pastime in a jersey-style red satin suit. This extra-preppy look is perfectly tailored to Mitchell, and I think he upped the standard for men at the Met Gala by going further than just a plain tux. This outfit is on theme and eye-catching, but still classy. Mitchell was one of the few guests who chose to pay homage to American sports with his gala outfit — a true homerun.
English actress Emily Blunt wore a custom Miu Miu gown and a sparkly star-and pearl headpiece. The look was designed to evoke Hedy Lamarr in the 1941 film Ziegfeld Girl, a movie about the Vaudeville scene on Broadway during the 1920s. Blunt’s hair stylist, Laini Reeves, also commented that the headpiece and hairstyle took some visual elements from the Statue of Liberty. The design of the dress was imposing in its own right, with crystals covering the entire bodice and skirt. But I love that she drew inspiration from the Broadway follies of the 20s — given their significance to American beauty and fashion — which I think made this a perfect fit for the theme.
When I picture a dramatic, Met-worthy look that encapsulates American fashion, this is what I picture. Actress Lupita Nyong’o reimagines the classic American denim in custom Atelier Versace. The juxtaposition of the denim with the bead work on her skirt is adventurous, but Nyong’o carries it off flawlessly. Her hair was shaped to echo the look of delicately folded tulle, inspired by Brooklyn artist Lorna Simpson. Some viewers theorized this dress was a nod to the Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake look from the 2001 American Music Awards, though this wasn’t confirmed by any of Nyong’o’s stylists. The whole ensemble is decidedly feminine, but imposing, and above all, a great representation of an American lexicon of fashion.
Okay, let’s tell it like it is: this outfit is crazy. German musician Kim Petras showed up to her Met Gala debut with an entire horse head strapped to her chest, and for that, I can only respect her. A lot of people thought this look was too weird, but the Met Gala is not for playing it safe! I think this was a campy, fun way to interpret the theme, giving us full cowboy Western, complete with an impossibly long ponytail (pun intended). The full look was designed by Hillary Taymour for Collina Strada, who took some inspiration from Animorph book covers of the 90’s. I love the color palette of the look, especially in the coordination of the baby blue eyeshadow to the blues in her skirt fabric, which reminds me of updated chintz. If Petras’ goal was to represent the “horse girls” of America, she certainly did them proud!
Actress Megan Fox wore a look she described to Vogue as “gothic”, and “inspired by Dracula” by Bram Stoker. The dress itself – designed by brand Dundas – was hand embroidered and beaded by over 50 people and shipped to New York in pieces. Her hair reminded viewers of Bettie Page, American pin-up icon. Although it did not fit the theme of the gala in an obvious way, I had to include it in this list; not only because the look was so memorable, but because Fox herself has become something of an American symbol. She spoke to event host Keke Palmer about this topic on the red carpet, addressing her status as an American sex symbol, and asserting that she’s not afraid to be sexy, saying “a woman who is intelligent and also knows how to weaponize her beauty, there’s nothing more dangerous than that. There’s nothing more powerful than that”. Let’s be honest, this woman could wear a burlap sack and still look gorgeous.
Model Anok Yai’s gala look was inspired by Josephine Baker, a French-American activist and entertainer. Yai wore a custom Oscar de la Renta to the gala, described as a “skimming celestial crystal gown” embroidered with silver moons and stars. Specifically reflecting on this iconic picture of Baker, her trademark short hairstyle and feather boa are beautifully translated into this outfit on Yai. This look was a natural choice for the American theme, given Baker’s status as an American entertainment icon of the Jazz Age. Between the plunging neckline and the subtle pop of color from her jewelry, I think this look is an instant classic.
Ultimately, the Met Gala gave viewers some stand-out looks that we can all admire. Some designers were able to create really fun and daring looks while still taking the theme into account, but it felt like the majority left viewers confused and underwhelmed. Regardless, the Met Gala is always an example of how fashion and modern art can serve as a way to shed light on social causes. Sometimes generating buzz around an outfit is a great way to get the public talking about what the outfit set out to represent. The Met has confirmed the 2022 gala will happen on the first Monday in May as usual. To those who were disappointed: there’s always next year!