Interlude: The Emperor's Wardrobe Malfunction
What a week. It’s been a torment both collectively and personally, for me at least. There’s just so much to talk about, but let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. When it comes to abortion, it should be safe, legal, free at the point of service, available on-demand, without question, and beyond that, I don’t have much more to say. Unfortunately, because I’ve been so busy with family stuff, I’ve had little time to ponder all of the other stuff I’ve been itching to write about. However, before it was swept from the media cycle before the red carpet had even finished, I was planning on talking about the other big event of the week, the Met Gala, so let’s start there.
It seems that no one at the Met Gala understood the assignment, so much so that the phrase “understood the assignment” must be retired from internet usage forthwith. There are no more assignments. School is canceled.
This year’s theme was the Gilded Age, a choice that makes me wonder how much of that new NYC dispensary weed these planners were smoking when they chose it. I suppose that, on the surface, it makes sense to choose an era much like our current one—rife with poverty, extreme inequality, a government largely controlled by corporate interests, and a recession-prone economy. That is to say, it would make sense if anyone had any point to make about any of the myriad associations between the two periods.
Worse than off-theme, the ‘fits were boring, and not just because Beyonce, Rihanna, Zendaya, and other favorites decided to skip. (Vogue has a pretty comprehensive photo gallery) With few exceptions, the once sparkling red-carpet-ready celebs were giving naught. It’s not even so much that the looks lacked flair, it’s that they lacked significance. In an era when companies like Shein can produce a knockoff in less than twenty-four hours, a beautiful gown is not enough. Where is the spectacle? Where is the vision?
Like the Oscars, the whole thing felt like another failed attempt to hold on to cultural relevance in an era in which taste is being increasingly democratized. Have designers lost their boldness? Have celebrities become so beholden to the whims of the peanut gallery that they’d rather play it safe. So few outfits (exception: Lizzo) spoke to either the personality of the wearer or conveyed a clear sense of artistic vision. Even looks that were intended to signal some deeper meaning ended up broadcasting nothing but static.
Consider, one of the few aspects of the Met Gala to make it into the news cycle, Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress. The whole ordeal was supposed to be a spectacular moment in fashion history. Kim wore the $5 million dollar dress, the most expensive dress ever sold at auction, just long enough to make it up the red carpet (though not without stepping on it) and then slipped into a replica.
She dyed her hair platinum blonde—though she stopped short of the beauty mark—and lost a bunch of weight for no reason except to trigger a bunch of teenagers’ eating disorders because she still didn’t fit into the dress. In the end, it was incredibly underwhelming, like someone covering a Whitney Houston song. Why would you ever invite that comparison?
Then there’s Oscar Isaac, who came sporting a tuxedo “dress”—though I think to call something like that a dress is insulting to every dress ever made. It’s basically the dress equivalent of a tiny mustache tattoo—it’s borderline cowardly.
The exercise seems to be part of a long-running attempt to pitch Isaac as an open-minded gender-bending, queer-baiting hottie a la Harry Styles. Yet, while Styles seems to have wholly embraced his feminine style in ways that reflect or emerge from his artistic persona, Isaac seems pressed into the role. Never has someone looked so uncomfortable saying the word “comfortable” as Oscar Isaac does talking about his suit dress.
It’s a tragedy to see someone so handsome look so insecure. If you want to wear a dress, wear a freakin’ dress. Unfortunately, it seems more like Isaac (or at least his PR team) is more interested in checking off the “daring to wear a dress” box than in the experience itself.
That kind of box-checking seems to be at the heart of this year’s Met Gala efforts. It’s as if the signifiers of things have replaced the things themselves. The je ne sais quoi of celebrity allure has fallen to the cult of data science. Metrics have replaced intuition. Jennifer Schaffer calls this “Karisma,” a “synthetic substitute” driven by algorithms, duck lips, and dance routines cribbed from lesser-known creators. Because being invited to the Met Gala has become a rite of passage into the upper echelon of celebrity status, it seems the invitees feel no pressure to make meaning out of it. In effect, the Met Gala is just another line on their celebrity CV, and all that matters is that they’re there and they don’t disappoint or otherwise court controversy. Celebrities are fast becoming empty vessels, decorated in the regalia of their respective brand collaborators and pushed by their PR teams to fit into whatever mold social media data tells them will most satisfy their target audience.
The result is , obvious fashion statements (see Cara Delevingne’s masterclass on how to make topless look boring) and fakery. Culturally, I think what we are witnessing is the equivalent of going off the gold standard—not in that what is happening is bad, but that without a paradigm shift in the way we think about culture-making, American culture will spiral further and further from any grounding the supposed art forms that are its foundation.
This is the issue I want to explore more fully in next week’s newsletter. For now, I’m left with the hope that future history books will see the 2022 Met Gala or the awards season more generally, as the moment the facade of the American ruling class was finally dissolved.