The message of the Met gala

Updated 11:13 AM EDT, Wed May 6, 2015

Story highlights

The annual Met gala is a star-studded event of celebrities in creative costumes

Peggy Drexler: For the celebrities or fashion careerists, it's their job to put on a good show

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) —  

It might be easy to look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala, overseen by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, as less charity event and more big, extravagant popularity contest, a who’s who of fashion and Hollywood.

And it is: Each photo of the gala seems more star-studded than the last and begs the question: Who wasn’t there?

For those of us who browse the photos while drinking coffee at our regular-people kitchen tables or sitting at our regular-people desk jobs, it may be easy to feel inferior: Will I ever get to go to a party, or wear something, or meet people, so glamorous?

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

And yet imagine if you were a celebrity or fashion careerist – or thought you were, anyway – left off Wintour’s guest list. Imagine if it really did mean something that you weren’t there.

Luckily, it doesn’t. That’s because most of us outside of Hollywood, or fashion, don’t view either industry as a genuine point of comparison. If every image of a woman or man far more beautiful and talented and wealthier than we are, or might ever be, made us feel bad about ourselves, no one would buy Us Weekly or watch “Entertainment Tonight” – except many do. No one would stay up all night to see a royal wedding. We wouldn’t buy clothing “designed” by celebrities whose style we emulate if doing so only reminded us of the parties to which we’d never get to wear them. Jessica Simpson would not be a billionaire.

Sure, we can wish we were famous. Or better looking. Or dating Bradley Cooper! But most consumers of entertainment view it as just that – entertainment. And that’s good news.

Unlike some of the more traditional red carpet events – such as awards shows – the Met gala is explicitly about fashion. And being a costume-themed ball, it’s about particularly over-the-top fashion. The gala committee determines a theme, and guests are asked to dress accordingly. The celebrities who attend put a lot of thought and work into it, as if it’s their jobs – which, of course, it is.

So when Sarah Jessica Parker dons a giant headdress, she’s doing it because it’s what’s expected of her. When Rihanna puts on a furry yellow cape that invites comparisons to pizza and SpongeBob and requires three assistants, same thing. They want to stand out, but if you think about it, they also want to fit in.

And that’s comforting, and what makes the Met gala so great. It reminds us “regular women” that we’re not the only ones with insecurities, hang-ups or fashion mistakes up our sleeves.

A few hours after the Twitterverse began chattering that Kim Kardashian’s dress was a copycat of the one Beyoncé wore to the Met ball a few years back, Kardashian took to Twitter to announce, not so inconspicuously, that she had in fact been inspired by a Bob Mackie bodysuit worn by Cher in the ‘70s. It was a move that reeked of baldfaced defensiveness. What do you know? Celebrities feel self-conscious, too. Just like us.

In fact, this year’s Met gala outfits were, as a whole, a particularly empowering bunch. While nudity has been a red carpet staple for years, the way it showed up at the gala reflected a shift toward “real body” acceptance that’s been happening throughout the industry lately.

Some of the evening’s most revealing dresses were worn by some of Hollywood’s curvier women: Beyoncé’s Givenchy dress was less a dress than a series of well-placed embellishments. Jennifer Lopez’s custom-made Donatella Versace was about 80% nude mesh and 20% red sequins. Kardashian’s Roberto Cavalli was described as “shockingly sheer” and “nearly nude.”

Make no mistake: The intention of these dresses was for the headlines they’d generate and the heads they would turn. But when those heads turned, they turned to look not at a stick-thin woman but one who looked more like – if not quite like – the rest of us do. Which, no matter what you may think of the dresses or these women, sent a powerful message – that you can and should flaunt your body, no matter its size. That these women showed the world they’re comfortable not hiding their “flaws” was nothing short of empowering, especially if you consider the event is associated with Vogue, a publication often criticized for its focus on the super-skinny idealized version of the female body.

I won’t lie. In the real world, looks and popularity count for something. Women are judged on their appearance. In certain circles, they’re judged on whom they hang out with, the gatherings they do or don’t attend.

But if we look at the Met gala aftermath, and the press directed at who wore what and who sat with whom and who fought about what, it becomes clear. Their universes may be a little less star-studded, but “average” women certainly don’t have it any harder. In the end, we all see the same stars.

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