'Stick it to the man' and other lessons from the Met Gala cocktails
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'Stick it to the man' and other lessons from the Met Gala cocktails
Kristen Stewart at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala in New York, Sept. 13, 2021. Nina Westervelt/The New York Times.

by Guy Trebay

NEW YORK, NY.- “Social media may yet save fashion,” Tom Ford was saying on Monday, early on at the Met Gala, sipping water with a slice of lime from a wine glass. “Everyone now stars in their own movie. Everyone dresses for Instagram.”

He wasn’t exaggerating — no look went undocumented during an assuredly self-branded and photo-ready night that, postponed by the pandemic, roared back to life, or a simulacrum of the same. There were fewer guests than in the past and stricter admission rules than ever, yet more costumes, more overt political gestures, more borrowed finery and more trains than you’d spot at a railway depot.

Often enough attendees are not dressing so much as messaging, and with little subtlety. Case in point: the model Cara Delevingne. A 9:30 red carpet arrival to a cocktail party that had begun at 6, she teetered up the museum stairs on skyscraper platforms, wearing a corsetlike vest lettered with the phrase “Peg the Patriarchy.”

“It means ‘stick it to the man,’” Delevingne deadpanned, before dashing away from the paparazzi to find an available restroom. The look was guaranteed to garner some so-called engagement, the endgame in what currently passes for American culture.

The Costume Institute turns 75 this year and was founded, its curator Andrew Bolton reminded an observer, with the mission statement of “celebrating American creativity, innovation and style.” For much of its existence, the institute tended to confine that celebration to the accomplishments of a limited sector of the populace. That is, the sector Delevingne may wish us to contemplate when reading her top.

“There is no monolithic American fashion,” said Bolton, who for “In American: A Lexicon of Fashion’’ radically expanded the curatorial brief to encompass “American fashion in all its heterogeneity.” So, too, did Anna Wintour, for whom the Costume Institute is named in recognition of the millions she has raised over the years ($16.75 million on this night alone, according to a museum spokeswoman). “This one was challenging,” Wintour said. And it was an event whose pandemic logistics were destined to test even her military-grade organizational skills.

A field marshal in a floral dress, Wintour had chosen for the evening a confection by Oscar de la Renta, made for her decades ago, recut this year and worn to honor the late designer who, with his wife, Annette, a longtime Met trustee, brought her into the fold at an institution whose Q score she may have surpassed.

“Excuse me, darlings,” James Corden, the host of “The Late Late Show,” said, barging past guests in the direction of two waiters, one carrying a tray of mineral water and the other bearing cocktails made from grapefruit juice, gin and pea shoots.

“You chose water?” asked an incredulous observer.

“Thirsty, my love,” Corden said.

An armada of stars began arriving in the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court of the museum — in get-ups so opulent, extravagant, outlandish and “Hunger Games”-ready that anyone old enough to recall when this annual event was the preserve of wealthy socialites who wore chic designer rags bought with their own money could sense the withering glare of Nan Kempner gazing down disapprovingly from on high, Marlboro Filter in hand.

But why gripe, as so many naysayers did online? The days of elegant social X-rays as Tom Wolfe termed people like Kempner and her chic ilk are long gone. Capital “S” society is cold and in the ground. We have lived to see the prophecies of The New Yorker writer and seer George W.S. Trow fulfilled. It is best to accept that we are now immersed in a context of no context.

How, otherwise, could anyone hope to parse the semiotics of a party at which Lil Nas X arrived and changed outfits three times, most notably into a gold robot suit designed for him by Donatella Versace, his host for the evening? “You know what? I can’t breathe,” the rapper told this observer as he struck poses for selfies with fellow guests pulling out forbidden smartphones. “But it’s worth it, it’s worth it! You don’t breathe for fashion.”

Gazing on the splendor in bemusement, Serena Williams concurred. “Fashion is not easy, but, you know, life is not easy,” said the tennis legend, who was dressed in a superhero bodysuit and multicolor cloak of molting ostrich feathers from Gucci.

Yet shouldn’t the point of the former be offsetting the grim truth of the latter, she was asked?

“The point of fashion is showing who you are,” said an athlete who has been in the public eye almost the whole of her life. “And who you aren’t.”

That fact is a hard-won lesson each of us would profit from learning. How do we get there? Maybe we do it by lifting our gazes from our own images reflected in the dead black mirror of our phones.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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