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Big fashion returns with NYFW and the 2021 Met Gala, but does anyone care?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/16/2021 Anika Reed, USA TODAY
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NEW YORK – Fashion – and New York – is back in full swing.

Intricate designs were abound Monday night at the Met Gala, the annual fundraising event for the Costume Institute exhibit hosted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which wrapped up a whirlwind week in the city that included New York Fashion Week and the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday in Brooklyn.

The annual gala's red carpet – which is typically held on the first Monday in May, but was postponed due to the ongoing pandemic – is billed as fashion's biggest night, and Monday's event featured Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian and more dressed in looks from top designers, posing amid camera flashes on the steps of the museum.

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But all the bright lights and glitz raise questions: Is the Met Gala what it once was? Do people still care? And should they?

The answers are complicated.

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This year's theme of "American Independence" is paired with the first of the two-part Costume Institute exhibition "In America: A Lexicon of Fashion," which "uses the organizing principle of a patchwork quilt" and "serves as a metaphor for the United States and its varied cultural identities," according to The Met's description. The Met Gala theme was largely ignored or misunderstood (like it is most years).

During NYFW, hints of Americana were sprinkled throughout in subtle ways leading up to the main event. Brandon Maxwell's show opened with the song “Be Your USA” by EASYFUN feat. Iiris, and his finale featured “And the Healing Has Begun” by Van Morrison.

Designer Prabal Gurung's show had the Statue of Liberty as its backdrop, and he asked in the show notes, "What is American? And who gets to be it all – or none of it?" For many attendees, the resounding confusion was clear and disappointing – though it was an accurate depiction of where we are as a country, failing to speak the same language of equity.

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Yara Shahidi in a wedding dress: Yara Shahidi attends the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the "In America: A Lexicon of Fashion" exhibition on Sept. 13, 2021, in New York. © Evan Agostini, Invision Yara Shahidi attends the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the "In America: A Lexicon of Fashion" exhibition on Sept. 13, 2021, in New York.

Fashion has proven to be a form of escapism and luxury, a necessary outlet for imagination and joy through inescapably tough times. Fashion and its major players and influential figures have also helped illustrate the widening of the gulf of inequity, elitism and racism as the pandemic continues and as the country is engulfed in a variety of tragedies.

ASAP Rocky et al. standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Rihanna and A$AP Rocky attend The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021, in New York City. © Theo Wargo, Getty Images Rihanna and A$AP Rocky attend The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021, in New York City.

What could have been a night of subversive fashion statements instead felt frivolous in the face of the world imploding around us and ultimately underwhelming, illustrated in part by police arresting protesters just outside the Met while celebrities traipsed into an evening of opulence. 

Few attendees went beyond uninspired (yet beautiful) looks. Outfits adorned with crystals, fashions featuring fur and feathers and quasi-prom dresses were the norm on the Met Gala carpet.

The bright spots included Lupita Nyong'o, draped in a denim Versace dress and sporting a hairstyle inspired by Brooklyn-born conceptual artist Lorna Simpson; Yara Shahidi, channeling Josephine Baker in a beaded, vintage-style Dior gown; Indigenous model Quannah Chasinghorse, whose presence – and turquoise and silver-adorned look  – brought representation to the gala; Gemma Chan, whose Gurung-designed outfit paid homage to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong; even Lopez and Maluma, leaning into the yeehaw agenda with Western-themed looks by Ralph Lauren and Versace, respectively.

a group of people posing for the camera: Gemma Chan attends the 2021 Met Gala celebrating "In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 13, 2021, in New York City. © Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images for The Met Museum/ Gemma Chan attends the 2021 Met Gala celebrating "In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 13, 2021, in New York City.

Fans and critics alike tuned in to watch the red carpet and see images of the night on social media, though they were of mixed mindsets with what they saw.

On Twitter, user @parasocialyte wrote that "overall, this year’s met gala was simply underwhelming. the theme was vague, the outfits were all over the place, and it just did not measure up to the past two galas, besides a few standout outfits." Another tweet from user @vxctorvale called the Met Gala "the biggest confidence booster cuz next time yall feel ugly in your clothes just remember what a-list celebrities wore today."

There was still some excitement for the event: @veryrare1717 tweeted, "i love seeing everyone’s outfits for the met gala it’s like a celebrity prom." Twitter user @CynthetikGaming wrote, "Not going to lie, I never look forward to it (mostly because i completely forget about it), but damn do I really enjoy Met Gala. Looking at all the crazy gowns and outfits is so much fun."

When fashion isn't saying something of note or creating a moment of meaning, it's not at its best – and people shouldn't have to engage with fashion that skews boring or rote, especially if it doesn't add anything to the conversation.

The fashion industry has long touted its exclusivity, and the Met Gala is no different. But the most inventive fashion moments have often happened on the fringes of society, rather than at an event often centered around wealthy, cisgender white people. The Met Gala has always had its shortcomings, but people are taking more notice through the dissection of the event on social media.

Maluma et al. wearing costumes: Colombian singer Maluma arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 13, 2021, in New York. © ANGELA WEISS, AFP via Getty Images Colombian singer Maluma arrives for the 2021 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 13, 2021, in New York.

The "Lexicon of Fashion" exhibit is meant to look forward to the generation of designers and a newer understanding of fashion, which has veered toward more accessibility, inclusivity, and egalitarian ideas about who gets to enjoy and benefit from fashion.

Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton put his money where his mouth was, shelling out the cost of a table at the event (where individual tickets can go for more than $30,000) and inviting emerging Black designers Kenneth Nicholson, Theophilio and Jason Rembert as his guests. Billie Eilish used her platform to convince Oscar de la Renta to stop the use of fur. With their presence, NikkieTutorials, Barbie Ferreira, Leyna Bloom, Valentina Sampaio, Precious Lee and Elliot Page championed size inclusivity and trans representation, which have been historically excluded and ignored at the gala.

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To praise and some criticism, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Carolyn B. Maloney sparked conversations about privilege with their statement-making dresses (AOC's dress was emblazoned with a statement reading "tax the rich" while Maloney's dress demanded equal rights for women.) Cara Delevingne and Dan Levy wore outfits that pushed back against the patriarchy and heteronormativity.

The next Met Gala in May will tap into the past, corresponding with the second and larger part of the exhibit "In America: An Anthology of Fashion." In looking back, organizers and guests would do well in noting where fashion has succeeded in creating a dialogue around what it means to be American – not just for an elite few at the top, but for all.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Big fashion returns with NYFW and the 2021 Met Gala, but does anyone care?

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