Gilded Glamour: The MET Returns with a Problematic Theme 

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Dripping in gold, decorated with feathers and smelling like newly minted hundred-dollar bills – that’s what we can expect from the MET Gala this Monday. 

But wait, didn’t wejust have the MET gala? It feels like we only just wrote an article about their,“In America: An Anthology of Fashion” theme. The last gala, held only 8 months ago and co-chaired by Timothée Chalamet, Billie Eilish, Amanda Gorman and Naomi Osaka, was split into two parts. This year, the second instalment returns to the first Monday of May. But will the more youthful take on a somewhat stuffy event make it past the initial injection of Gen Z star power? 

The return to the traditional timeslot also signals a return to normalcy (as defined by the MET). While the pandemic continues to rage and the shards of what is left of the “American Dream” still lie hazardous on the ground, the high fashion industry is keen to move along. What we thought would be the roaring twenties but with Wi-Fi and modern medicine has turned into something more closely resembling the seventh circle of Hell. Heedless of the thinly cast veneer, the MET would like to hold the kind of event that might have been, had that pesky pandemic not revealed everything wrong with America, and imperialism at large. 


The Theme


And so, this year’s theme is “Gilded Glamour and White Tie.” Curators cite the Gilded Age in America, which spanned thirty years around the turn of the 19th century (that’s the dawning of the year 1900), as the era to best represent where we are at in Western society. 

And they may have a point. The Gilded Age saw the rise of “new money” in the US, and a period of American fashion when industrialisation rapidly amplified the wealth gap. Business magnates took advantage of new technologies in railways, factories, and urban centres to make their fortunes, many of these families dominating New York social circles in the process. Among these recognisable names were Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller. 

The Rockefeller Family in the 1920s



French & Fancy (and Filthy Rich)


Fashion brand names were largely unknown at this point in history. Instead, ladies of wealth would travel to Paris and return with exquisite, distinctly French gowns to signal that they could not only afford custom tailoring and expensive fabrics, but also the trip to and from the distant city of Paris. It was the original flex which can now be recognised on influencer-saturated Instagram. While their names weren’t widely known, designers such as Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret and Madame Jeanne Paquin were favourites for dressing the high society women of America. 

Famously, Alva Vanderbilt threw a legendary housewarming rager to which she wore a Renaissance-style gown while her sister-in-law, Alice, wore the now famous “Electric Light Dress.” Made by The House of Worth, the dress was built with a concealed battery and a handheld torch. Vanderbilt posed for a portrait holding the light aloft in mimicry of the Statue of Liberty, the dress going down in society as the most cutting-edge, stylish garment of the era.

A Lesson in Looking Expensive


For the rich, fashion became complicated. While the modesty of the previous decades was still in vogue, women went to great pains to achieve the idealised shape using undergarments. Bustles, corsets, wire frames, shoulder cushions (an overzealous cousin to shoulder pads), and petticoats were layered to achieve the perfect silhouette. For men, the recently popularised tuxedo was worn to exude the scent of freshly minted class and money. 


The Real Theme: Everything That’s Wrong with Fashion 


While there are undeniable parallels between their historical context and ours, setting a theme which intentionally glamourises the disparity between the rich and poor proves that making the event more relevant to younger generations was a publicity stunt and nothing more. Unfortunately, the event still goes to great expense for the wealthy few and ignores wider societal issues which fashion isn’t just witness to, but instrumental in upholding.


Losing its Lustre


This year, queen of the MET Gala, Zendaya, won’t be attending. While she is busy acting in Hollywood’s next blockbuster, fans online have dramatically called for the event to be called off. Often working with renowned designers, some of Zendaya’s most iconic MET looks have been the light-up Cinderella dress (in which she also lost a glass slipper on the stairs) and the Joan of Arc look she wore for the “Heavenly Bodies” theme. With her notable absence along with a potential no-show from Rihanna, the relevance of the MET is called into question again. In the absence of the celebrities most admired by Gen Z, the MET loses a lot of its lustre, gilded in gold or not. 

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