Amid a global economic downturn and worsening inflation in America, critics had described the theme for this year’s Met Gala – Gilded Glamour and White Tie – as “out of touch”.
Though one might argue it was incredibly apt; poverty was rife in late-19th century New York, even while elites on the Upper East Side continued to hold “patriarch balls”, in order to create “a circle of elite New Yorkers at the top of the city’s social hierarchy”, as Sven Beckert wrote in his 2003 book The Monied Metropolis.
It was Mark Twain who coined the term The Gilded Age in his 1873 work The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Twain’s novel was a satire of the greed and corruption that pervaded a time when some Americans successfully pursued the American dream to become very rich very quickly, while others lived in poverty. The title was a nod to the thin gold gilding that Twain said made the era seem more golden than it was.
The Met Gala theme presented an opportunity for guests to emulate Twain’s commentary, or bring it up to date for today, yet the opportunity was almost unanimously bypassed. Riz Ahmed was the one attendee to notably acknowledge the wealth disparities of the Gilded Age era, telling the press that his outfit was “a love letter to those blue collar workers, those immigrant workers” who kept the country running during the period.
Kim Kardashian paid a sort of fitting tribute, wearing the dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “happy birthday Mr President” to John F Kennedy Jr, which was auctioned in 2016 for $4.8m. It’s a dress so expensive, none of the previous owners could wear it and even Kardashian had to remove it once she got to the top of the stairs and get into a replica, one might even say gilded, version.
But that was sort of it. There were a few other nods to inequality, mostly from politicians themselves. Hillary Clinton made her first appearance at the Met Gala in two decades, wearing a Joseph Altuzarra gown with the names of 60 historic women sewn subtly into the fabric, including Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. A relatively pared-down look when compared to Congresswoman Carolyn B Maloney’s bold “equal rights for women” dress in 2021. Meanwhile New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, wore a black tuxedo designed by the Brooklyn-based artist Laolu Senbanjo and embroidered with “end gun violence”. The outfit sparked widespread criticism online given the mayor’s emphasis on increasing policing in the city: according to the NYPD, in March 2022 New York City reported 115 shootings in comparison to 99 shootings reported in March 2021.
Yet the greatest tribute to the age seemed to be a relative silence from those at the top of New York society as living costs spiral and hard-fought-for human rights are taken away. As celebrities lined up to be photographed, a leaked decision from the supreme court suggested that Roe v Wade would be overturned within weeks, the justices who overturned the landmark abortion ruling more effective in taking America back to a bygone era than anyone showing up in haute couture.
Phones were banned at the event so attendees may not have received the supreme court news, but it was more surprising that Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill and the widespread rollback of trans rights in states across America didn’t provoke any response. In 2018, Lena Waithe wore a Carolina Herrera rainbow cape to signal support for LGBTQ+ rights. Last year Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy wore a Loewe outfit featuring an illustration by artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz of two men kissing as a statement for queer love, while footballer Megan Rapinoe carried a placard that read “In Gay We Trust”. This year, the topic was seemingly avoided.
The question of whether the Met Gala is the stage for such political statements divides critics. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress sparked a debate over whether the red carpet of a glitzy and elite event seemed to contradict her socialist message. AOC responded, telling Vogue: “We can’t just play along, but we need to break the fourth wall and challenge some of the institutions.”
But this year, most attendees chose to do neither, avoiding a full embrace of the theme, or an interesting subversion of it. They showed up in designer dresses that looked lovely and uneventful.
Even the Met’s own head of costume has said; “I think the power of fashion is that it can reflect the zeitgeist”. So what does last night’s Gala tell us about the time we’re living? Ironically, by saying nothing as the world burns around them, the guests gave a very clear sense that we’re still living in a gilded age.