‘In America’, The Europeans—And A Horse—Won

You’d think that with New York Fashion Week just concluded, attendees would have so much to choose from to meet the dress code that, on the invite, read, “American Independence”. But on the steps of the Met Gala, who really cared? Why choose American when they could have European?

Two extremes: Kim Kardashian (top) in Balenciaga. Photo: Getty Images. And Billie Elilish in Oscar de la Renta. Photo: Shutterstock

By Emma Ng

The Met Gala is where, for one time in a year—even a pandemic year, you can look ridiculous and everyone will call it fashion. I sometimes wonder if Anna Wintour organises the event and encourages everyone attending to “dress up” so that she could have a good and hearty laugh later. There is something juvenile about the idea of the Met Gala—it’s, to me, fashion folks’ prom night. Fashion is, of course, not important as long as you’re the belle of the ball, or whatever you call Saweetie’s I-don’t-have-enough-fabric-for-a-saree look. In fact, I do think that it is under Ms Wintour’s watch (since 1999!) that the Met Gala is the circus of the ridiculous that it is today. In fact, if you Google Met Gala and ‘ridiculous’, you’ll get at least six links in just one page (‘outrageous’ is in there too). The ridiculousness, sometimes teetering dangerously close to tackiness, is augmented by the chair’s and co-chairs’ outfits—often so bland and proper, they seem calculated to make everyone else look like they didn’t get the memo.

Queen bee Ms Wintour and her four worker-bee co-chairs—all more than half her age younger—were in clothes, not quite the costume that has come to characterise the Met Gala. The “most powerful woman” in fashion was in a predictably pretty, tiered, floral Oscar de la Renta dress (was she attending a wedding at a country club?). Amanda Gorman was in a short, studded Vera Wang bustier-thingy, with a sheer overlay; Timothée Chalamet in a satin Haider Ackermann tuxedo jacket, and Billie Eilish in a cotton candy of an Oscar de la Renta gown, probably her first-ever floor-sweeping dress and of this volume (a truly sharp contrast to the black and baggy tunic-and-skirt combo by Takahiromiyashita The Soloist that she wore at the VMA a day ago). Only Naomi Osaka looked the Met Gala newbie and fashion victim in a combo by Louis Vuitton that supposedly celebrated her heritage. I was expecting all of them to lead (or set the standard) by example, but I did not see the American-ness in anything they wore, least so Ms Osaka, with the un-American obi belt, deliberately tied askew.

Anna Wintour in Oscar de la Renta. Photo: Getty Images

Perhaps, I took the theme and the dress code too seriously and literally. But why would I not. What was the point of a theme and dress code if not to abide by? Could the attendant exhibition at the Anna Wintour Costume Center and other parts of the Met, then, be a very chin chai affair too? Would Andrew Bolton gasak buta with A Lexicon of American Fashion? The American attendees looked to me devoid of wit and irony (okay, the latter not so trendy anymore) in the choices they made that were supposed to honour the American heritage of fashion (let’s just say, for now, there is. Jeans are, to many Americans and non-Americans alike, a very real and iconic American fashion item). But, of course, country themes are tricky when the brands that can afford a (USD) six-figure table—or two—are mostly from out-of-country—European, specifically French and Italian. Common knowledge, at least in the US, would remind us that the stars and celebs do not buy tickets; they are invited by brands (and approved by Ms Wintour). Invitees, therefore, will be required to be outfitted by the brand doing the inviting.

Yet, according to Vogue’s own pre-event reporting, “the theme for this year’s Met gala is a celebration of American Fashion.” E Online earnestly called it “a deep dive into American ingenuity.” Yes, the livestream was quite early in the morning, but I was wide awake watching it. What celebration, what ingenuity? Although there was the discernible presence of Thom Browne and, to a lesser degree, Prabal Gurung (his deplorable excuse of a dress for Diane Kruger made me want to strike him out), I thought the Europeans won the night, in particular Iris Van Herpen, Valentino (even Ms Wintour’s daughter Bee Carrozzini, expecting her second child, was dressed by the house), and Balenciaga. And, as Vanessa Friedman pointed out via Twitter, Cartier.

But, perhaps, it was Balenciaga who may have enjoyed the last laugh and a clear win when Kim Kardashian appeared incognito, completely swaddled in a black fabric, a look attributed to Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, and believed to be conceived with Ms Kardashian’s (estranged, is it not?) husband Kanye West, who was also there on the Met Gala steps, in all-black, the kuroko (stagehands in traditional Japanese theatre) to the missus—the leading lady—(he was seen assisting her and adjusting her dress). Rihanna, the last to arrive, wore Balenciaga too, but it was the two Ks who stole the show with their black nothingness. Was Balenciaga mocking the excesses of American red carpet looks? Some Netizens think the couple were mourning the death of American fashion. I think they were merely acknowledging that it does not exist.

The Co-Chairs

Clockwise from top: Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka, Amanda Gorman, and Timothée Chalamet. Photos: Getty Images

Her fans are not wrong. Billie Eilish, in her Met Gala debut, “killed it”. She did not come ready to be filmed for TikTok, but, with her old-Hollywood styling (Marilyn Monroe is really rather close), she could be filmed for a major movie role. She truly played a—and her—part. Would she be invited back again? I’m not sure if that would be in the affirmative if the question is posed to Amanda Gorman and Naomi Osaka. Ms Gorman might be disappointed that few saw the poetry in her Prom Store dress and Ms Osaka might be similarly let down to learn that her fussy outfit and the amateur kabuki makeup were no victories for her. Timothée Chalamet bravely tackled more than one brand for his total look. Apart from the satin Haider Ackermann tuxedo jacket, he wore a Rick Owens turtleneck under that, and unidentified sweatpants. On his feet were Converse Chuck Taylors. There were even some 1920s Cartier brooches pinned to the sweats. Okay, that’s a bit much. No pin should ever go so near there!

The Show-Stopper

Lil Nas X in three different costumes. Photos: Film Magic, Wire Image, Film Magic

Someone had to do it. Why leave it to only Rihanna when just as willing was Lil Nas X, the fashion sponge who’d wear anything, and would come wearing everything. Lil Nas X is not one to shy away from an outfit that looks like a haberdashery fell on it. At his Met Gala-as-VMA appearance, he was inspired by Met Galas past. Either that or he forgot that Lady Gaga already did multiple costume changes back in 2019 (she revealed four, while he showed three), that the exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination (2018) is over, ditto for Manus ex Machina (2016). The only look that the Met has not quite paid tribute to is Michael Jackson as Catwoman. So Lil Nas X, with the help of Atelier Versace, did the most fashionable thing: at the end of the strip-down, he wore a derriere-enhancing, exotically-patterned catsuit.

The Actresses

Clockwise from top left, Kristen Stewart, Yara Shahidi, Sienna Miller, Lupita Nyong’o, Hailee Steinfeld, Indya Moore. Photos: Getty Images

For Kristen Stewart, it’s all in a days work, in Chanel. It is not a bad look if she was going shopping at Bloomingdale’s. Or lunch nearby. Actresses are not pop-stars—no day is the Grammy’s. So safe is the best dress. When an actress turns to the present-day Dior, safe is what she seeks, and safe was what Yara Shahidi got. And secure in the body-skimming Gucci was Sienna MIller, in a colour so safe, it’s called nude. Or, match-the-carpet! Conversely, Carey Mulligan braved a bright-pink Valentino, but looked just as safe, if not safer. Some actresses try. Lupita Nyong’o opted for denim and some bling by Versace and appeared rather like Wakanda royalty, not American. More challenging was Hailee Steinfeld’s Iris Van Herpen mini-dress with wispy leaf shapes, arranged artfully, revealing almost nothing, even if it came this close to a nude dress. Indya Moore, in Saint Laurent, clearly wore shorts (with a velvet bow as waistband), but it’s hard to be certain if she had anything else under that coat.

The Models

Clockwise from top left, Kaia Gerber, Cara Delevingne, and Kendall Jenner, Imaan Hammam, Gigi Hadid, Winnie Harlow,. Photos: Getty Images

Models, like actresses, are drawn to safe. They are supposed to be better at fashion since fashion is basically their job, but safe is chicer than sorry. Kaia Gerber, in Oscar de la Renta, looked like she prefers the taste of girls who won’t (can’t?) grow up. Cara Delevingne, in Dior, seemed like she was on her way to fencing class, but changed her mind. As for the red text—“Peg the Patriarch”—on the vest, there’s no doubt it’s a political message. If you were hoping for her to throw some light on what “peg” means, she said to an interviewer that people should look it up “because I’m not going to explain it, right now”. If an explanation is needed right now, pegging is, simply put, a sex act in which a cis woman plays the role of the opposite sex in a heterosexual union. Okay, that’s far enough! Kendall Jenner did not look like she the pegging sort. She wore a nude dress by Givenchy that, to me, flashed 2015, the year both Beyonce and Kim Kardashian wore see-through gowns to this very same event. Not to be outdone was the Dutch model Imaan Hammam in vintage Atelier Versace. And similarly see-all were also on Zoe Kravitz in Saint Laurent and Irina Shayk in Moschino. Gigi Hadid did safe too—old-Hollywood safe—in Prada. Vogue.com reported that she “offered a modern take on Audrey Hepburn”. I saw not. It was more like a modern take on Julia Roberts. Which brings us to Winnie Harlow in Iris Van Herpen. Even when I still do not see America, what’s there not to like?

The Singers

Clockwise from top left: Olivia Rodrigo, Teyanna Taylor (photo: Shutterstock), Jennifer Lopez, Megan thee Stallion, Rosé (photo: Wire Image), Jennifer Hudson. Photos: Getty Images

Super-young pop star Olivia Rodrigo wore a Saint Laurent lace catsuit with a wide marabou fichu, looking every bit the teen that she is, testing the dangerous waters of sexiness. Ms Rodrigo does not have a powerful breakout look as Billie Eilish did, so this was far enough for an 18-year-old newbie to show her granny knickers. Going the other extreme was Teyana Taylor, who wore so little in the Prabal Gurung that I hesitate to call the held-together-with-cords clothing. Surely there’s a difference between dress up and dress not? Surely the Met Gala deserved more cloth than rope, more dress than train? Even Jennifer Lopez, the one-half of born-again Bennifer, had to show cleavage and thigh, which I remember to be her very thing. But getting Ralph Lauren to do sexy is like asking Bob Mackie to do preppy. Surprisingly, Megan thee Stallion chose sweet, but Coach gave her part shrink-wrapped strawberry cheesecake, part dalgona froth. Blackpink’s Rosé, escorted by Anthony Vaccarello, was one of the few Asians in attendance, which was unexpected, given that this is the year of Shang Chi. In Saint Laurent, Rosé looked the ingenue I never thought she could be. By contrast, Jennifer Hudson picked an AZ Factory gown and a massive matching coat only for them to be underwhelmed by her bigger, bubbly personality. At some point on the stairs, Ms Hudson removed the coat to pose. Unfortunately for her, somewhere in the crowd, Isabelle Huppert, in Balenciaga, was in a similar fish-tail dress.

The One-Names

Rihanna, Grimes, Lorde, Maluma, Saweetie, Rosalía, Photos: Getty Images

Rihanna was the last to arrive, as expected, but there was no equivalent of an omelette to be seen. In fact, she was cocooned in Balenciaga couture of rather intense black. While the shape of cloak is beguiling, Rihanna needed heavier clothes for her to conquer those cumbersome stairs (that omelette coat was 25kg!). Grimes chose Iris van Herpen; she looked less a couture wearer than a cosplay newbie. Lorde had an unusual look. Her gaping Bode two-piece (interest-arousing also because designer Emily Bode is a menswear designer), with the floral appliques, was fetching, but why the headwear? Spanish pop star Rosalía’s Rick Owens heavily-fringed shawl wrapped more fetchingly than some dresses. Case in point: Saweetie. In Christian Cowan, she really showed how she punished her misbehaving boobs, and saw, I believe, many did. The Colombian singer Maluma wore a red leather Versace trucker jacket that was studded and fringed. There were matching pants and shoes too. Okay, no rhinestone cowboy here, but definitely a strutting Beng gaucho.

The Athletes

There has not been this many athletes at the Met Gala. Maybe it’s the Olympic year and athletes are making the news. But many sports people are not necessarily fashion folks. Sure, Lewis Hamilton bought a table and invited designers of colour, but they did not make the scene (Mr Hamilton curiously wore a sheath of café curtain on his right leg). It would take Serena Williams in a Gucci cape of ombre feathers to trail the spotlight on athletes, reminding us that, like her rapper sisters, sports stars enjoy OTT clothes too, especially those not made of plain fabric. As with Ms Williams, Simone Biles (fellow gymnast Nia Dennis attended too, outfitted in blue bodysuit to do cartwheels!) enjoyed relief work on the surface of her bustier-gown, which she wore over a floral (were they sparkly snowflakes?) bodysuit. The silver embroidery of the former reportedly weighed 40kg. The design team at Area X Athleta that put the outfit together might have forgotten that Ms Biles is a gymnast, not a weightlifter.

The Guys

Guys on the red carpet are usually no news, but on the cream carpet of the Met Gala, the guys are a braver breed. Surprisingly, the more unusual look didn’t come from a celebrity, but a techie, specifically Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, who wore a Bode suit with diamond-shaped pieces stitched to the bodice and arm. Others who abandoned the tuxedo, I’m not sure, did so for better choices. Poor A$AP Rocky—Rihanna was looking all couture-serious, but he appeared to have been dragged out of grandma’s bed. I think only Rihanna knew why he saw it fit to turn up at the Met Gala in a blanket made by ERL, the abbreviation of the name of the LA designer Eli Russell Linnetz, collaborator to Lady Gaga and Kanye West, who, by the way, was there, and equally blacked-out as his (former yet?) wife. Aussie, Troye Sivan, in choosing a slinky dress that Kim K might have worn 20 years ago (with cut-outs on each side of the waist!), continued to push the non-binary agenda on the red carpet—okay, cream. But the most begging-to-be-understood look went to Dan Levy, in Loewe. I don’t know why, but the getup, with puff/balloon sleeves and a map of the world in the shape of two men kissing (powerful message, no doubt), made me see a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I don’t know why, but I did.

The Designers

Clockwise from left, Donatella Versace, Vera Wang, Tory Burch, Virgil Abloh, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Tom Ford. Photos: Getty Images

Designers often take the bow at the end of runway shows in very nondescript, practical work clothes. But I think deep down inside they want to dress up. Some designer dress others better than they can dress themselves. I mean, look at Vera Wang. Did she spend too much hours making the bloomers that she had time only for a curtain as the rest of the outfit? Donatella Versace, on the other hand, dresses others as she would dress herself: not at all subtly. Tory Burch wore an interesting dress, but she looked too eager to please. The guys might score a tad better. Tom Ford couldn’t break away from black tie (it’s also safer), playing the suave charmer he has cultivated himself to be. Kerby Jean-Raymond, in a red Pyer Moss suit held in place with a matching hybrid vest-harness, was beaming with designer-to-watch energy. I’m just surprised he didn’t come in a peanut butter jar. Wouldn’t that be American? Meanwhile, Virgil Abloh, presumably in Louis Vuitton, came as the Easter bunny, lost in a party he shouldn’t have crashed.

The Others

Clockwise from top lfet, Whoopie Goldberg, Iman, Erykah Badu, Kim Petras, Debbie Harry (photo: AP), Ella Elmhoff. Photos: Getty Images

Whoopie Goldberg does not really wear dresses, so when she does, the world takes notice. Her yurt of a gown by the esteemed house of Valentino was, to be sure, not the same tent that Carey Mulligan wore, both flanking Pierpaolo Piccioli when they arrived. While Ms Mulligan was predictably saluting pretty, fashion iconoclast Erykah Badu took a different route: she abandoned her famous towering turbans in favour of a top hat and a lace face-screen that, together with the tuxedo skirt-suit and quilted cape, was designed by Thom Browne, seemingly the most worn American designer name of the evening. Ella Elmhoff, famous for being Kamala Harris’s stepdaughter, wore Stella McCartney to prove that the WFH look, even if more amped up, was still relevant, however glamorous the occasion, no matter how many women still preferred trains for evening wear. The biggest outfit of the night went to Iman. The former model wore a massive hooped cage that was the result of the collaborative effort of Dolce & Gabbana and the young, Central Saint Martin alum Harris Reed. With the just-as-large hat, she looked like some African fertility goddess. Rock star (still!) Debby Harry also wore a hooped cage (by Zac Posen), visible under a crinoline made of panels of fabric that, together with the deconstructed denim jacket, represented the colours of the American flag.

Perhaps nobody does America better than a foreigner. German singer Kim Petras (now based in LA) certainly expressed herself. In a wearable—aka piñata—by the sustainable brand Collina Strada, Ms Petras seemed connected to her animal spirit. The dress came complete with a face of a horse (could it be a donkey?) with eyes strategically covering the breast, pannier for the animal’s body, and hair styled as a long pony tail to represent the beast’s tail. Frankly, I could not tell where the head began and the tail ended. Or, was this the night’s best visual lexicon of American fashion and designers—heads or tails, they’re just horsing around?

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