For those of us who keep an eye out for Fashion, the Met Gala simultaneously represents the best and the worst of the art we love.
If you’re not in on the workings of distant places and their sparkly functions, the Met Gala is an annual themed ball held ostensibly for the benefit of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City since 1971.
It is currently overseen by one of the biggest names in fashion, Vogue’s famously frosty editor Anna Wintour, said to be the inspiration for Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Around 600 hand-picked guests are invited to an evening that ought to be about, well, charity, but is more usually associated with glitz, glamour and hobnobbing with the most famous names in the entertainment industry. And if you’re the few chosen ones, you better cough up: tickets cost 30,000 dollars, an astronomical amount even for today.
The reason that Fashion’s eyes should be on the glittering bash is to find the most creative, innovative and aesthetically pleasing interpretation of the year’s theme, assigned with the aim of encouraging fashion designers to think out of the box. This year, the theme was Technology and Fashion in the Future, and designer Zac Posen won universal acclaim by dressing actress Claire Danes in one of the loveliest gowns seen in recent memory.
The beauty of the gown truly took my breath away and its effect was so mesmeric that it suddenly put not just the Gala but the art of fashion itself into perspective for me.
For a long time I have struggled with my liking for fashion. It acquires a bad name: there are accusations that it is frivolous, classist and sexist and exists only to exacerbate misogynistic double standards in society. To like it is somehow to become hollower as a person. There is an existing binary between paying attention to the intellect and paying attention to one’s appearance in social perceptions as they stand today, especially for women.
How, then, as a primarily intellect-oriented feminist, could I justify liking an art that has been considered to be so damaging to so many? Is it an art at all? Am I accepting and propagating harmful cultural norms and economic implications by liking it?
The catch about these accusations is that most of them are justifiable: in a world where the trickle down economy is a myth, most people do not have the ability to afford the creations of fashion; workers of high-end fashion are often poorly paid or, worse, from poorer sections of developing countries and subjected to exploitation; much of fashion is obsessed with outward appearance rather than creation, putting enormous pressure on those involved in it to look or act a certain way, especially the women.
But, as Alexa Chung recently put it in her documentary series for Vogue, while fashion encounters all of these problems and more, it need not be defined by them, especially not in today’s world where inclusivity and intersectionality is slowly but surely becoming the norm rather than the exception.
That’s where the problem with the Met Gala rears its unfashionable head.
Given how high-profile an event it is, with the focus as much on the fashion aspect as the star power, the event has the potential to project the best of what fashion and, indeed, any art can be: beautiful creations presented in the service of a higher end, whether that end is of social justice or of any other particular cause.
However, like much of “high-profile” culture, a term which in itself is fraught with classism and elitism, it lost the way to what it could be a long time back. Even keeping the problems of charity-culture and the capitalist apathy that such a culture endorses, aside, the event has become increasingly problematic. It is more about being seen than the problems of the unseen. Its very exclusivity bars it from the masses and it thus ceases to be about the masses, creating a hierarchy based on commerce. The attention on it is more about the voracious appetite of celebrity culture than anything meaningful, such as the creations. This attention is disproportionately fixed on the women, thus further propagating one of the most damaging aspects of the industry.
The Met Gala is just one in a long series of fashionable events that has ceased to be about the art and the cause (think Coachella) and has ultimately lost its conscience.
Whatever it means to the fashion world or whatever it intends to be, in pop culture at least it has become very much about the very worst of fashion.
The truth is that fashion itself was never, at its heart, just about the art. It was very much wrapped up in a Narcissus-like need to show off; it existed and continues to exist due to the patronage of the wealthy and the powerful; it is often incredibly shallow.
But here’s my point: is there any art form that is completely free of any of these?
And has that stopped artists from continuing to create based on purer motives aimed at purer things?
And if we spot this fault, should we let it stop us from pursuing that art, or ought we to step in and introduce to the art what is missing from it: inclusiveness, intersectional issues, an alternate perspective?
As a recent interviewee of Humans of New York put it, fashion creates beauty.
The industry supports hundreds of thousands of people from a mind-boggling variety of fields who are passionate about what they do and passionate about creating that beauty. Teams of people put in the effort to create one beautiful thing, referring to and being inspired by a host of sources, just like in any other art form. And once it has been created, how can you look at their efforts and ideas and the skill it took to render them and say, “This is not art”?
That the final item is commercialized and sold as a capitalist product is a flaw that is not limited only to fashion: just take a look at the auction prices for the last Dali painting. How many ordinary people can afford to buy an original Picasso?
In the world we live in, capitalism is pervasive in every art form. Perhaps the problem is that in fashion, it is more visible than in most other fields.
This is the dilemma I experience when looking at the pictures of this year’s bash. The dress created by Zac Posen triggered in me the realization of what the Gala could be: innovation and beauty meeting a cause, if innovation and beauty are not considered enough of an end in themselves.
But the fact that I was looking at the dress at all (on a gossip website, no less) triggered the already-simmering awareness of the utterly inane superficiality that the ball- and fashion itself- has come to stand for.
So what does one do about it? Where does art end and hollowness begin in fashion?
I can’t answer these questions. All I know is that I’m not ready to give up on it yet. As an industry, it suffers from many faults, like most industries, but its redemption lies in the potential of the art it creates.
I can only hope that in the future, the glaring flaws will begin to change; as part of a generation that is more aware of itself and the world’s problems than ever, I hope that those of us who go into the industry will be conscious of the power to catalyse that change and put it to good use.
In some spheres, it is already happening; Ashley Nell Tipton’s win on Project Runway last year brought a great deal of visibility to plus-size fashion; Winnie Harlow’s inclusion brought in beauty of an alternate kind; and the 2016 Pirelli Calendar made waves for its tradition-breaking representation of women.
But from an economic and social perspective, so much more needs to be done for the art to truly redeem the industry.
The story surrounding the Met Gala has not joined the paradigm-changing narrative of inclusive fashion which continues to be more offbeat than mainstream.
The magnitude of the event could have helped to shed light on the changing culture within the industry; by embracing this, not only would it have shown itself to be adaptive and aware but ready to recognize and rectify its faults as well. It would have been a presentation of art imbued with a conscience.
As matters stand thus, however, it seems to represent only the machinery of the most frivolous aspects of fashion and culture. And that is where my disappointment lies.